Running For Your Life Through the Napa Grapevines
It began with the red Adidas gym bag stuffed with $800,000 in cash– coupled with the wine deal gone sour.
A tragic story of an overhyped and failed wine venture here in the heart of Napa Valley, the drama ironically led to the emotional and furious court battles between Robert Dahl, who ran a struggling vineyard, and his chief investor, Emad Tawfilis, who had willingly handed over the gym bag to offer the vintner seed capital.
Their dispute, in a region where money flows like, well, wine, climaxed Monday in the style of a Hollywood movie or a pulp fiction thriller, with a wounded Mr. Tawfilis racing frantically through the grapevines as Mr. Dahl, carrying a silencer-equipped .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol and driving a black sport utility vehicle, methodically pursued and then killed him in sight of onlookers and arriving sheriff’s deputies.
Mr. Dahl, 47, a former Minnesotan with a checkered background of delusional disputes and broken deals, later shot himself to death as officers closed in after a chase up a twisting valley road in Yountville, near the Napa-Sonoma border.
The Napa County sheriff’s office said Wednesday that it was still sorting out Monday’s events. But Mr. Tawfilis, who had given Mr. Dahl the $800,000 and more to finance another winery that may have been defunct at the time of the investment, had told his lawyer that day that he was meeting Mr. Dahl to examine documents and talk about settling the lawsuit he had filed to recover his losses.
Days before, a judge appeared to have backed Mr. Dahl into a legal corner, ordering a hearing on an 18-count contempt citation for violating court orders not to move or dispose of corporate assets and lying to the court.
“The settlement conference was nothing more than an ambush to kill Emad,” said Lewis Perdue, the publisher of Wine Industry Insight, who is also a mystery writer and a former police-blotter journalist. He said he had talked to both men and written extensively about their legal dispute.
Mr. Dahl, those who knew him say, came across at first as an ambitious, fast-talking salesman with a wealth of moneymaking ideas and the appearance of financial competence.
When he arrived in California around 2011 from Minnesota, he left behind a group of investors who so liked his pitch for Duraban International, a company he had founded to produce a mold-killing spray, that they bought the firm.
But they later decided that the product “wasn’t what it was purported to be” and sued Mr. Dahl, Steven J. Lodge, a lawyer for the investors, said in a telephone interview from Anoka, Minn.
That was one of two lawsuits Mr. Lodge said he had filed on behalf of unhappy associates of Mr. Dahl’s.
“He was real good at getting into deals,” making his business partners upset, “and then exiting in a ball of fire,” Mr. Lodge said. “I considered him kind of pathological.”
Mr. Dahl and Mr. Tawfilis met sometime after Mr. Dahl, who was married and had three children, moved to a San Francisco suburb around 2011. Mr. Tawfilis, 48, of Los Gatos, worked in the Silicon Valley tech industry, but apparently in finance and accounting rather than software. A soft-spoken, private man, he was unlike the beefy, quick-tempered Mr. Dahl, according to Steve Burch, a winemaker who worked for Mr. Dahl for two and a half years. But the two shared one thing, he said: the dream of having a place in Napa’s glamorous wine industry.
“It’s not about the wine or the work that goes into it,” Mr. Burch said. “It’s about the lifestyle — drinking wine every night and having great dinners.”
According to court papers, Mr. Dahl said he had the business entree that Mr. Tawfilis sought, a Minnesota business called the Patio Wine Company. In 2012 and 2013, according to court documents, Mr. Tawfilis lent Mr. Dahl $1.2 million to finance the venture, taking 97.5 percent of the company’s stock and its assets as collateral. In return, he was to split profits from wine sales that the loan financed.
What he did not know, Mr. Tawfilis claimed in a subsequent lawsuit, was that Mr. Dahl had already dismantled Patio and was siphoning his money into a another winery and a Napa craft beer brewery that was, at one point, said to be losing $100,000 a month.
By early 2012, the court papers state, the two men were at odds over terms of the loan. But Mr. Tawfilis, undeterred, delivered the balance — at least $800,000 — in a bag the next year. Mr. Dahl, elated, distributed a picture of the bag to associates.
Michael Calhoun, the husband of a member of the family trust that owns the land, the wine grapes and the structure for Mr. Dahl’s winery, said Mr. Dahl told Mr. Tawfilis he could get better deals on bulk wine purchases if he paid in cash.
“He wanted cash, and Emad met with him with Emad’s accountant,” Mr. Calhoun said. “He handed Robert $800,000 in cash in a red Adidas bag, and Emad regretted it terribly.”
Mr. Dahl’s winery, Dahl Vineyards, was a small 7-acre leased spread producing 1,500 cases of red and white wine a year. Dahl’s business found itself in regular trouble with county regulators, bringing in busloads of tourists to tastings over officials’ complaints that he lacked permits.
Though the venture was little more than a leased renovated barn, his website waxed ecstatic about “the ideal home for his own wine brand that could reflect his commitment, heritage and his entrepreneurial spirit.”
But early last year, Mr. Dahl had fallen behind in loan payments and Mr. Tawfilis, investigating, discovered that Patio Wine no longer existed. A volley of lawsuits followed, with the sides exchanging charges of fraud, money-laundering and usury, among others.
Mr. Tawfilis, no longer working by that time, “was consumed by this,” his San Francisco lawyer, David Wiseblood, said in an interview. “This was a lot of money for him.”
Mr. Tawfilis was winning the legal war, Mr. Wiseblood and court documents both indicated. Mr. Dahl was uncooperative, dodging court orders and making statements that the judge considered deceptive. But negotiations continued even as the battle raged, and by last week, Mr. Wiseblood stated, the sides had agreed to meet in Napa to discuss a settlement.
That arrangement fell apart on Friday, after Mr. Tawfilis sent representatives to enforce a court order that Mr. Dahl turn over five large metal tanks that were part of the collateral for the loan. The tanks had disappeared, and Mr. Wiseblood canceled the session.
But on Monday, he said, Mr. Tawfilis told him that he had exchanged text messages with Mr. Dahl, and that they had agreed to meet at the vineyard near Solano Lane and Hoffman Avenue to review Dahl’s records.
“My advice was, ‘Don’t go to Dahl Vineyards alone — you canceled the meeting for a good reason,’ ” Mr. Wiseblood said.
But Mr. Tawfilis went anyway.
Mr. Dahl had no documents to examine, however, and at 11:10 a.m. the two men held a brief telephone conference with their lawyers. “There was no screaming, no profanity,” Mr. Wiseblood said. “There was no hint of what was to come.”
Mr. Dahl’s lawyer, Kousha Berokim, said in an interview that he never saw a suggestion of violence in his client. After the 11:10 phone call, he said, he believed that the two parties “were inching toward a number and a settlement.”
“I was hoping for a phone call telling me, ‘We’ve agreed on these terms, draft an agreement so we can sign it,’ ” Mr. Berokim said. “That phone call did not come in.”
Minutes after the telephone conference, Napa County deputies received a 911 cellphone call from Mr. Tawfilis. He had been shot, he said, and was running through the vineyard. Mr. Dahl was in pursuit in his black S.U.V.
As rescuers arrived, Mr. Tawfilis fled onto a street intersection— near busy Hwy 29 running through the heart of the region’s wine country– and collapsed, the deputies said in a statement. Mr. Dahl got out of the vehicle, walked up to him and calmly shot him again in front of witnesses and deputies, then got back in the S.U.V. and fled.
Mr. Calhoun, the relative of the landowners, depicted Mr. Dahl as desperate. “Robert Dahl’s whole life was at stake, and it was do or die, and it wasn’t doing,” he said. “He had a lot of anger toward Emad. It’s irrational because all Emad did was invest in his company.”
With squad cars and a helicopter in pursuit, Mr. Dahl fled and sped up a heavily forested road and crashed through a private gate. Deputies surrounded the area and called in a SWAT team, but there was no need.
The vineyard dispute and subsequent murder, so to speak, had been settled out of court. Mr. Dahl was found dead in his driver’s seat, due to a single self-inflicted gunshot wound.
~Via the NYT, Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, YouTube