Torbreck, which ranks high on anyone's list of modern Australian wine producers, made headlines late last year when Dave Powell, who founded Torbreck in 1994, was summarily fired. Owner Pete Kight, the American entrepreneur who started CheckFree and also owns Quivira winery in Sonoma County, refused to renew Powell's contract.
A crossfire of accusations got ugly, lighting up the Australian press for several weeks. Powell has since been served with court papers invoking a non-compete clause in his contract. He cannot make any wine on his own in 2014, the vintage just wrapping up. The lawsuit goes to trial April 28 in Adelaide.
Whatever the outcome, Powell is well and truly out of Torbreck. The reaction in some quarters has been incredulity. With his larger-than-life charisma, Powell had positioned himself as the heart and soul of the winery. Thus, Torbreck without Powell strikes many of those who have followed the winery since its first releases in 1997 as comparable to Gaja without Angelo or Antinori without Piero. They suspect that it will go the way of Mondavi without Robert, no longer the trailblazing winery it was.
Kight disagrees, and a range of wines I tasted at the winery last week suggests he might be right. The Shiraz-centered wines, from the entry-level Woodcutter's Shiraz 2012 to The Struie 2012 (a blend of Eden and Barossa Valley grapes), The Factor 2010 (from old vines) and Descendent 2010 (a coferment with Viognier) all were true to their styles and brilliant in flavor profiles.
RunRig 2010, the vintage soon to be released of the winery's signature wine, brimmed with layer upon layer of dark blue fruit, glints of red fruit, trailing wisps of cherry, floral and sandalwood on the complex, focused finish. It's a wine of great intensity but not weighty. It's juicy.
Powell championed The Laird, a single-vineyard Shiraz, as his top wine, and charged $700 a bottle for it. I've never been a fan, though. What would be the upcoming vintage, 2009, will not be sold. It developed high volatile acidity while aging, another point of contention between Powell and Kight as to whose fault it was.
Kight is happy with Craig Isbel, the longtime onsite winemaker, not only to make the wines but to be the public face of the winery. Isbel may not have Powell's larger-than-life charisma, but he can speak engagingly about the wines. On that visit to the winery, he sounded like the quotable veteran winemaker he is, saying, "I like to think of 2012 as a dirt-driven vintage, unaffected by weather so you get the true expression of place." And, "I'm aiming to get the wines to show more purity and natural energy than they have in the past."
Torbreck's future lies in its four estate vineyards, totaling 150 acres, and long-term contracts with growers, said Kight. Most of them are in Barossa's western slopes, which make powerful wines with more finesse than warmer parts of the valley. These are the vineyards that make RunRig and the other icon bottlings. As successful as the wines have been, Kight said, "We have woefully under-managed our vineyards. The infrastructure in some of them just wasn't working. We're trying to improve that."
Kight believes the wines have a big enough personality on their own to replace Powell's charisma. "There are global brands that started with big personalities but grew into entities in which the product was the personality," he pointed out. "We just have to deliver on the wines."
Powell, of course, has been associated with every vintage up to 2013. He was responsible for the 2012s and the icon-level 2010s I tasted. It was Isbel's hands on the wines, however. He was the chef at the stoves while the celebrity chef was traveling the world selling the image.
I met Powell for breakfast later that week at what has become his regular haunt, the Table Café in Lyndoch. At the opposite end of the Barossa Valley from his previous digs, he lives rent-free at a friend's guest cottage. "I've been doing some work on his farm," he said, chain smoking. "It's been good for my health. I've lost about 20 kilos."
He misses winemaking, but he doesn't miss "waking up in the morning and first thing worrying about the interest coverage ratio," he said. "I hadn't realized Torbreck had become a corporate business." He is relieved to no longer have to answer to a board of directors and an owner who had lost patience with him.
He admitted to serious mistakes and misjudgments, but was reluctant to fight the legal battle until, he said, someone who was "a better friend than I thought he was" gave him money to hire lawyers. "A two-year divorce case completely destroyed my life," he said. "I didn't want to go through that again."
Economic fallout from the divorce led him to sell the winery to keep it going, retaining an option to buy it back. But five years later, the majority partner sold the winery to Kight. He is hoping a judge will agree that he signed his contracts with Kight under duress and allow him to "get back to work" within a couple of years. But he did not look hopeful as I waved goodbye to head to my next appointment in Barossa.