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Robert Dahl, Napa vintner in slaying, left trail of disputes, broken deals

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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.

Napa Point Winery, LLC, with Dahl as the managing member, contracted to purchase the 2013 and 2014 harvest from the adjacent vineyard, according to an attorney representing the property owner.

Neighbors said they were amazed at how quickly Dahl renovated the barn on the site into a winery with a tasting room and opened for business.

The venture, together with Napa Point Winery, which Dahl operated out of the California Shiners bottling plant, produced 2,500 cases a year, according to Burch.

Burch said Dahl had admitted to him he was losing $100,000 a month from the brewery and pub, which shut its doors near the Napa airport last May.

“In the same breath he would say he was widely successful,” Burch said. “He was very good at painting a different reality.”

Dahl maintained a contentious relationship with Napa County officials over the operation of his brewery and two wineries. The businesses were the target of at least three code enforcement actions and a lawsuit filed by county attorneys, records show.

Dahl had difficulty following Napa County’s planning guidelines, according to a former business associate who asked not to be identified out of respect for Dahl’s family.

“Often when people first come to Napa County they are not used to having the county process these permits and that can be highly frustrating for them,” said the former business associate.

Nevertheless, Dahl appeared to have found a way out of at least one county dispute when later in 2013 he was identified as a potential tenant to occupy the historic Borreo building in downtown Napa, which was being sought by a group of investors under the name West Pueblo Partners, LLC.

“When we started looking at the Borreo building, we thought it would be a fabulous place for a brewpub,” said Michael Holcomb, a partner in the investment group.

He said Dahl first recognized the Borreo as a potential business location and that early on Dahl expressed interest in joining the investment group to purchase the two-story building, which is owned by the city of Napa. The $1.9 million deal is in escrow.

But Holcomb said the partners started to cool on the idea of being involved with Dahl for two reasons. One was that Charles Phan, the chef/owner of the renowned Slanted Door restaurant, has expressed interest in opening a second restaurant at the Third Street and Soscol Avenue site, a deal Holcomb said has yet to be finalized.

The second reason, Holcomb said, was concerns about Dahl’s ongoing feud with the county and Dahl’s growing reputation for being temperamental and difficult to deal with.

“There was too much of a cloud surrounding him,” Holcomb said. “I don’t know who was right, but it was not something we wanted to involve with our group.”

At some point Dahl met Tawfilis, who loaned him $1.2 million for another one of Dahl’s companies, Patio Wine Group, said Tawfilis’ lawyer, David Wiseblood.

But Tawfilis discovered the company had been dissolved about a month earlier and sued for the return of his investment, Wiseblood said.

This month, a Napa County judge issued an 18-count contempt order against Dahl and ordered him to turn over equipment, including wine storage tanks, the attorney said.

The two men reached agreement about a settlement amount but a meeting planned for Monday at Wiseblood’s San Francisco office was canceled when Dahl did not return the tanks, he said.
Dahl and Tawfilis got together anyway at Dahl’s Yountville vineyard and talked to their lawyers on speaker phone.

Burch, who said he was familiar with the negotiations, said Tawfilis was pushing hard to get Dahl to pay up.

During the conversation, Dahl announced he wanted to pay a different amount, Wiseblood said.

That’s when Dahl’s lawyer, Kousha Berokim, interrupted the call and asked to speak privately offline with Dahl, Wiseblood said.

He was going to resume the call in five minutes, he said, but never got back on the line.

Sometime after hanging up with Berokim, Dahl apparently pulled out a handgun on Tawfilis. The shooting started inside the building, according to the Napa County Sheriff’s Office. Tawfilis fled into the vineyards but was shot dead just south of the winery.

“It’s hard to imagine how one goes to a meeting that one has requested with a loaded weapon,” Wiseblood said. “One can’t help but wonder if it was a crime of passion or premeditated. Maybe we won’t know. Maybe we will.”

Dahl’s attorney, Berokim, confirmed the men were in dispute about how much Dahl would pay. He said they had a “conceptual agreement” and were “shockingly close” on the amount.

“I don’t know what took place after we hung up,” Berokim said. “Something must have happened. I don’t know what that was.”

News Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Robert Dahl’s purchase agreement for grapes on the vineyard adjacent to the Solano Avenue building he leased for Dahl Vineyards. This story has been updated to correct the information.

This story has been updated to include new information about Robert Dahl’s 1989 conviction for theft.

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