Robert Dahl, Napa vintner in slaying, left trail of disputes, broken deals
Robert Dahl arrived in Northern California four years ago with dreams of building a multimillion-dollar beer and wine enterprise.
But the former Minnesota resident with a penchant for deal-making also brought with him undisclosed legal baggage, including a past conviction for theft, a track record of investor disputes and a personality that provoked conflict.
His disagreements mounted as he opened several Napa companies, including Dahl Vineyards, a small wine producer off Highway 29 near Yountville. It was there Monday that he shot to death a financial backer in a dispute over a $1.2 million loan. Chased by deputies, he fled 10 miles in his SUV to a private property near the Sonoma County line, where he turned the gun on himself.
“He rubbed people the wrong way,” winemaker Steve Burch, who worked as a consultant for Dahl for more than two years, said Tuesday. “He always thought he was the smartest guy in the room and he had the ego to match.”
People familiar with Dahl, 47, said his legal dispute with the man he killed, Emad Tawfilis of Los Gatos-based Lexington Street Investments, was one of many from his past in Minnesota and his few years spent in Wine Country.
He tangled with partners and equipment suppliers, county planning officials and celebrity promoters. Licensing deals with the rapper E-40 and TV personality Adam Carolla fell apart, leaving other wineries to take over the products, Burch said.
One such dispute provided startup money for Dahl’s move from Minnesota to Napa Valley and his entry into the wine business
More than 10 years ago, Dahl founded a Minnesota company that made an anti-microbial product called Duraban, used to fight mold in construction projects.
“He said it was going to make him a millionaire,” Minneapolis-area attorney Steven Lodge, who represented one of Dahl’s previous investors, said Tuesday. “And he started living that way. He convinced people to invest a ton of money.”
Investors bought the company but refused to pay when they “figured out his fabulous formula wasn’t anything,” Lodge said.
Dahl settled for an undisclosed sum and moved to California with the cash, Lodge said.
“He used that money to start that wine business,” Lodge said. “That was his seed money.”
Long before that, Dahl racked up a criminal record in Minnesota. He pleaded guilty in 1989 to theft by swindle of more than $2,500, said Chuck Laszewski, spokesman for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. In 1991, he pleaded guilty to theft of more than $2,500 and served a 90-day jail sentence, Laszewski said. A 15-month prison term was stayed. Laszewski could not provide other details because the case was so old.
Other public records show bankruptcy proceedings, evictions and collection cases.
Burch said Dahl was good a salesman, but knew little about winemaking or brewing and constantly believed that rules didn’t apply to him, much to the consternation of Napa County officials.
“His M.O. was to evade and escape service,” said Burch, who said he parted with Dahl in May and is still owed $14,000 in commissions.
Lodge described him as a smart guy who “never figured out how to put that intelligence to productive use.”
“There wasn’t much he could do that didn’t involve doing a number on somebody,” Lodge said.
After arriving in California in 2011, Dahl and a friend from Minnesota, Phil Lutgen, founded California Shiners, a custom bottling facility in a business park south of Napa.
Dominic Foppoli, a Windsor town councilman, said Tuesday he used California Shiners to bottle his wine after he met Dahl at a trade show. Foppoli described Dahl as “very, very driven” to succeed with his business ventures in Wine Country.
“He and Phil were extremely hardworking,” Foppoli said. “They had a Midwestern attitude of starting work early and working late.”
In 2012, Foppoli and the two men purchased Christopher Creek Winery in Healdsburg. But Foppoli said it became apparent that he and Dahl shared different visions for the Limerick Lane operation. He said he wanted to keep it small and family run, but that Dahl wanted to make it a larger commercial venture, like something in Napa.
That led to negotiations to buy Dahl and Lutgen out. The group met on several occasions, including informally at the winery and at the Napa bottling facility. In February 2013, they agreed to terms without involving litigation.
Using proceeds from the Christopher Creek deal, Dahl and a partner opened Napa Point Brewing in November 2013 in a different business park south of Napa, and also leased the barn structure along Solano Avenue south of Yountville as the home of Dahl Vineyards.