Not from Roennfeldt road, as you may have heard by now. It’s a
pretty sad story and one I want you to hear directly from me. Rumours
are already flying out there and I want to set the record straight.
It’s a bit of an essay but bear with me, we have seven years of
history to cover here. Here goes…
Seven years ago, on a Friday night in Atlanta, Georgia, I met US
businessman Pete Kight and his wife Terry who had come to meet me as
fans of Torbreck wines. Discovering that they were heading to Oz that
coming Christmas with their two children, I invited them over for a BBQ
if they made it to the Barossa.
Come December the Kights did indeed make it to the Valley and joined
my then wife and I with my two boys for a great summers night. Over an
old bottle of RunRig the conversation turned to business and I was
telling Pete how I had to somehow raise the money to buy out my then
fellow shareholder Jack Cowin.
Pete surprised me by offering to help, and although I needed a
substantial amount of money, he said if it stacked up he would love to
help me get my business back for my boys and me – I’d told him I’d
always seen Torbreck as a legacy for my sons.
I could not believe my luck, I’d had no idea he was a billionaire.
At the time I also remember thinking of the old saying that if it seems
too good to be true it usually is, however I had my back to the wall so
we proceeded with the deal.
That mistake cost me everything.
My lawyer advised me not to sign the deal that was presented to me,
as there was a clause that would see me lose Torbreck if ever enforced.
I told Pete my lawyer told me not to sign as it stood and needed to be
amended. He responded by saying his lawyers were being over zealous and
not to worry, we needed to get it done and could sort it out later. That
he was only doing the deal to help me get Tobreck back for my family.
Fast forward five years and the time has come as per the contracts
for me to provide Pete an exit from the business. I was given six months
to execute the buyout. And this is where the problem in the contract
came into play – if I could not complete the deal in time my option
would expire and he would own Torbreck. Despite my many protestations
during the five years, that problem clause never was amended. One could
take the view that that was intentional…
The deadline was the 27th of July this year and I was close to
getting one of many suitors to sign up. At this stage I believed I only
needed another couple of months to get the deal done – time I believed
in good faith that I had. I’d also spent $250,000 and become deeper in
debt to Pete trying to get the deal done, and was financially very
vulnerable. There may have been significance in that.
So imagine my surprise when working in Sydney, I was told Pete was at
Torbreck. I was summoned home to attend a meeting with him and Torbreck
Chairman Colin Ryan.
When Pete invested in Torbreck I had taken on several million dollars
of the debt personally, including the 1.14 million Colin had made out of
the original deal with Jack Cowin. In my naivety I did not understand
the significance of this. I was about to find out.
I walked in, sat down with Pete and Colin. No pleasantries were
exchanged before Pete told me that my time was up, his shares in
Torbreck were no longer for sale, and the company now belonged to him.
I was told that I was no longer employed by Torbreck directly, but
could have my own company working for Torbreck as a consultant roaming
the world selling wine on commission, and that that commission would be
directed back to Torbreck to resolve the debt I had taken on in signing
the deal. If I didn’t take the ‘job’ on offer, my debt would be
called in and I’d be bankrupt.
I asked about my equity in Torbreck and was told that, as per the
deal I’d signed, my equity was gone. I turned to Colin, who I’ve
said publicly was like a father to me, and asked, ‘What about all the
times we spoke about changing that clause?’ He just shrugged. I have
to say that was one of the greatest betrayals of my life.
20 years of my life, all the backbreaking work of the early days
bringing those beautiful old vineyards back to life. All the heart and
soul poured into my wines, each with their own special character and
story. Two decades of literal sweat, blood and tears, gone. The
inheritance I’d built from nothing for my sons, and the staff who’d
become like family. Gone. Just like that.
I’ve seen the article in Wine Spectator Pete claiming that I
haven’t been responsible for hands-on winemaking since 2006. That’s
just complete bullshit. 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. Turns out, that was going to be a problem for me too.
You see, everyone in that meeting knew there was a serious problem
with the next vintage of The Laird – the 2009. Whilst I was away doing
the job of selling wine, something happened in the particular barrel
store where the wine is kept. For the first time in five years the
volatile acidity in the wine had gone through the roof and left
unchecked. I took responsibility for it and we tried to remedy it, but
it couldn’t be done. I believe the ’09 wine is unsaleable at the
high price we command for it.
I’ve always maintained that I have no problems selling wines for
high prices and that my benchmark is would I purchase the wine myself.
In this case the answer was no. Pretty easy to offer me a job selling
wine on commission when The Laird is unsaleable, and The Laird is the
difference between Torbreck being profitable or not.
To conclude the meeting I was ordered to take a month’s leave and
think about the new role I was to play. I was also told not to come on
company property other than my house, or talk to the other members of
staff, who’d been told not to talk to me. Neither man shook my hand as
I left the room.
The next day my company credit cards were revoked and the following
day my company email was blocked. I found out all the other employees
were told that Pete had bought me out of the company, in the presence of
Colin and the company CFO David Adams. I was astounded that even though
they both knew the truth, they remained silent.
I felt like I was cornered so I packed up my belongings from the
house I had called home for 14 years and moved to a friends’ vacant
house on the banks of the Para River which they are letting me have rent
free. I had to leave my company car and another mate lent me a vehicle.
You certainly find out who your friends are at times like these.
Then I removed all my stuff from the office and Cellar Door. I have
been accused by the new management of pilfering my own property,
including the painting you see on all the Torbreck labels which was
painted by my own mother.
I’ve always tried immensely hard to be good to my team, and many of
them have become dear personal friends. In the Wine Spectator article
this week, it was stated that my management style was ‘volatile’.
I’m particularly hurt by that because I treat my team like family,
always have. I hope the new bosses can say the same. Pete’s company
took over our sales in the US some time ago. I still keenly remember
writing a sizeable cheque from my own pocket for one of our salespeople
who’d been let go a week before Christmas, after seven years, with no
severance pay. Bankrupt as I am likely to be, I won’t be able to do
that this time around if anything should happen to my Torbreck people
and it breaks my heart to think of it.
The day after I lost everything I received a letter from Colin. It
contained my “resignation” which I was expected to sign. As per my
employment contract, signing that letter would have left me with no
severance pay and completely penniless. That battle is ongoing, but
luckily one of Australia’s top employment lawyers is a big fan of my
wines and is helping out free of charge. I’m incredibly grateful to
him and the many friends who’ve rallied round me at this dark time.
The hardest thing in all of this mess has been telling my two sons
their inheritance is gone. My eldest, Callum, is in France at the moment
working for my great friends Erin and Jean Louis Chave. He expressed
maturity beyond his 19 years by telling me, “Fuck that rich bastard,
don’t worry Dad, when I get home we will start something up
So it has been great ride, if turbulent at times. Many of you will be
thinking what an idiot to trust someone that much. I agree! I have been
accused of playing the victim, of being dishonest, of being reckless
with company money. If I’m a victim it’s of my own stupidity in
signing that deal in the first place and I’m the first to admit it.
The rest though, I strenuously deny. Money can buy a lot of silence but
in the end the truth will always out.
As I sit here looking out over the river in the Valley I love so
much, I’m determined that this will not be the last you have heard
from me. Give me a few years and my son and I will have many great wines
for you to enjoy, from some very surprising vineyard sources.
Thank you sincerely for all for your support over the years. I am
grateful first and foremost for the friends around the world I’ve made
as I built Torbreck from nothing. They can take the company I built but
they can’t take my passion. Torbreck’s just a label now – the
future holds better things.