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A Crack in the Napa Valley Façade

Could the bloody scene a few months back at Dahl Vineyards speak to a new future of American winemaking?

Emad Tawfilis entered the gate of Dahl Vineyards and parked in the shade. It was a warm spring morning in March, and the air had a rich, earthy smell. He could see why people fell for the place. The vineyard sat back a few hundred yards from Highway 29, the iconic strip of blacktop that runs through the Napa Valley, at the foot of the Mayacamas range. Had circumstances been different, Tawfilis would have come here on weekends from his home in the Bay Area to walk among the trellised vines and watch the pickers in the hazy morning light. He could have made great wine here. Could have, should have. It was hard not to think what might have been.

Tawfilis had met Robert Dahl, who leased the vineyard and owned the winery, a barnlike building of dark wood that stood near a strand of oak trees, in 2011. In almost every way, the two men were opposites: An accountant at Cisco, Tawfilis was a loner—his only companion a black Lab he brought with him everywhere, even to court—and was slight of build, with a strong jawline and thick, dark hair that he usually wore swept back. He spoke softly and never swore. And yet, beneath that exterior lay a ferocity of will that had come to surprise Dahl. As a cross-country runner in high school, Tawfilis pushed himself so hard he’d collapse once he crossed the finish line, so exhausted his teammates would have to carry him off the course. Simply put, he wouldn’t quit. And that spelled trouble with a man like Robert Dahl. 

Dahl, meanwhile, stood about 6′1″, with broad, sloping shoulders and a build others described as “lumpy,” but he cast such an intimidating presence that people remembered him as much taller. He was loud and profane. He liked to ride Harleys, preferred hanging out with construction workers and cops and, even though he was 47, wasn’t above wrestling with his friends in the snow. 

Both, it turned out, were archetypal Napa figures playing out roles that had come to define the valley. Like Cesare Mondavi, the patriarch of the family that put Napa on the map, Dahl arrived with little more than ambition and hunger. In Napa he would reinvent himself, just like the Mondavis had. Tawfilis represented a more common character: the burnt-out millionaire who liked the bohemian ideal of a vineyard, of not just making money as a second act but living in a place where the air was redolent of pine and dust and where even very rich men drove around in pick-up trucks and helped during the crushing of the grapes. That dream in mind, he’d invested $1.2 million in the Patio Wine Company, Dahl’s umbrella firm. 

The barrel room at Dahl Vineyards in Yountville, California, in August 2014

The barrel room at Dahl Vineyards in Yountville, California, in August 2014

Now, though, Dahl was in debt, and not just to Tawfilis but also to a number of investors, many of whom had filed lawsuits against him. On top of that, the county had ordered him to stop offering tours and tastings, effectively putting Dahl Vineyards out of business. Tawfilis still had faith he could recoup at least some of his money, which, at least from his end, was the purpose of the meeting. 

Tawfilis’ attorney, David Wiseblood, had advised him not to go. He didn’t think Dahl capable of violence, but the man was unpredictable. His recent court filings had veered toward the bombastic and unhinged, and suggested a man unraveling. If they were going to meet, they should meet in a public place, Wiseblood suggested, such as Wiseblood’s office in downtown San Francisco. But Dahl had insisted on meeting at the winery. The financial documents related to their settlement were all there. Eager to reach a resolution, Tawfilis had agreed and now sat across from Dahl at a long oak table that had previously been used for tastings.

The meeting began at 11 a.m. with a conference call involving both men’s attorneys, one located in San Francisco and the other in Beverly Hills. When they couldn’t reach an agreement, Dahl’s attorney suggested he and his client talk offline. Twenty minutes later, Dahl pulled out a .22 caliber pistol equipped with a silencer and shot Tawfilis in the chest.

At 11:49 a.m., Tawfilis called 911. 

“Help me!” he cried out. “He shot me!” He was standing outside the winery, his own blood pooling at his feet. 

Dahl raced to his black SUV, pistol in hand. 

“Did he shoot you?” the dispatcher asked.

“He shot me in the chest,” Tawfilis gasped. “He’s coming after me in his truck!”

Tawfilis stumbled down the sloping hill of the winery and into the trellised rows of the vineyard, his feet sinking in the soft soil, which had just been disked by a tractor. He could hear Dahl behind him, gunning the engine. In terror, Tawfilis ran as Dahl pointed his gun at him, his other hand on the wheel, a plume of dust rising behind him. “He’s trying to kill me!” he cried out to the dispatcher. 

He ran south, toward another vineyard, as Dahl continued to fire at him, eventually hitting him again in the chest. As he collapsed on Hoffman Lane, abutting Highway 29, he could see police cruisers approaching, their sirens blaring. Dahl drove up to where Tawfilis had fallen and jammed his SUV into park. Standing over him, Dahl shot Tawfilis once more in the head as police closed in, and then ran back to his SUV and took off, heading for the hills that led to Sonoma.

As Tawfilis lay dying, Dahl led police on a chase up a winding mountain pass known as Oakville Grade. A helicopter circled overhead. Suddenly, he lurched off onto a private road, crashing into a farm gate. He then put the pistol to his own head and pulled the trigger.

The scene at the winery in the hours after Dahl shot and killed Tawfilis and then himself

The scene at the winery in the hours after Dahl shot and killed Tawfilis and then himself

The Napa Valley is only five miles wide, constricted by two low-lying Pacific ranges that stretch along the coast, and runs for 30 miles along wild canyons and oaky knolls until it hits the marshland of the San Pablo Bay. Because of the way the cool ocean air moves over the vines, the dry summer months of nearly uninterrupted sunlight and a rich soil enriched by volcanic ash, it’s one of the best spots in the world for growing the grapes used for the most expensive wines: cabernet, chardonnay, pinot noir. 

Napa was once nothing more than farmland, the sort of place where growers and vintners got together at the end of a
dirt road on a Saturday night for a square dance, but today it’s a highly stratified society, largely invisible to the tourists who drive up Highway 29 on weekends to take the trolley from one tasting to another. As locals will tell you, Napa essentially consists of two worlds: up valley and down valley. Up valley is arguably where the most iconic wines in Napa come from: Opus One, Stags’ Leap and the $2,500-a-bottle Screaming Eagle. Up valley is where Oprah and new-wave Chinese industrialists, or bao fa hu (literally translated: explosively rich), go for the annual Auction Napa Valley, sitting under white tents and spending as much as $500,000 for six magnums of the hottest new cult cabernet. 

NEXT: “In the south part of Napa it’s not about the prestige, it’s about making a lot of money.”

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