Updated September 9: Dave Powell declined comment on his leaving Torbreck before this story was published. On Sept. 9, he issued a statement, which is quoted at the bottom.
Dave Powell has parted company with Australia's Torbreck Vintners, the celebrated Barossa Valley winery he founded in 1994. The winery’s owner, Pete Kight, who also owns Quivira Vineyards and Winery in California’s Dry Creek Valley, did not renew Powell’s employment agreement, and Powell left the winery in August.
Kight told Wine Spectator he offered Powell a contract renewal that would have kept him representing the winery in marketing activities, but it was refused. “Dave’s original vision was genius,” he said. “I see this as an opportunity for Torbreck to separate itself from the individual and stand on its own.”
Reached in Australia, Powell had no comment.
Kight said he made the decision after discussions with winery staff. “It’s a classic example of a business that has outgrown its original founder,” said Kight, who knows a bit about that dynamic. He founded electronic financial services firm CheckFree in 1981 and sold it in 2007.
Powell started Torbreck after working at the venerable Barossa Valley winery Rockford in the early 1990s. He named it after a logging forest where he had labored in Scotland, and set about finding unique sources for Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Viognier grapes. In the 19 years he was involved in the winery, he assembled an astonishing roster of growers in the Barossa, often helping growers to resurrect some of the oldest vineyards in the world. His top bottling, RunRig, blends old-vine Shiraz with a bit of Viognier and consistently earns outstanding to classic ratings, and many of the other wines usually score above 90 points.
Powell lost financial control of the winery in 2003, selling a majority stake to Jack Cowin, the man behind Australian fast-food outlet Hungry Jack's. Kight bought 100 percent of Torbreck, including Powell’s minority stake, in 2008. The price then was $20.5 million, according to two people familiar with the deal.
While Powell has remained the visible face of the winery, Kight said that Craig Isbel has been in charge of the cellar since 2006 and plans to stay on. Powell hired him in 2006, two years before Kight arrived, leaving Powell to travel and build the brand, primarily in Asia. “Knowing Dave’s skill as a salesman, but his volatility as a manager, I would never have acquired Torbreck if the winemaking and vineyard management had depended upon Dave,” Kight said. “Dave is a great judge of winemaking talent and, to his credit, he has been supportive of Craig leading the winemaking and vineyard management."
Although Kight said he wished Powell well, the founder's departure is a wrenching change, since he had positioned himself so firmly as the face of the brand. Kight wants the winery to focus on getting the highest quality out of existing vineyards, not to expand its production. “We want to keep making incremental improvements in some of the best wines in the world,” he said.
A media release sent out by Powell on September 9 said, “I was offered a deal five years ago when I had my back to the wall financially, which my lawyer told me not to sign. In extremis and under the illusion of goodwill I signed it anyway and that one stupid mistake has cost me my life’s work.”
He took issue with any suggestion that he has not been responsible for winemaking since 2006. “I’ve been in the Barossa alongside the troops every single harvest since I founded Torbreck in 1994, and I take full personal responsibility for the quality of every wine with a Torbreck label on it.”
He added that he plans a new venture in the Barossa with his son, Callum, who, he said, is currently studying winemaking in France with Rhône vigneron Jean-Louis Chave. “They can take the company I built but they can’t take my passion,” he said. “Torbreck’s just a label now. The future holds better things.”