CLOSER LOOK: Inside the lawsuit that brought down a local winery

Published: Friday, March 01, 2019 @ 4:50 PM
Updated: Tuesday, April 23, 2019 @ 9:00 AM

Kennedy Vineyard and Big Rack Brewing will not reopen after co-founder’s civil suit, co-owners say.

***UPDATE (April 22, 2019)***

The lawsuit that Kennedy Vineyard co-founder John Kennedy described earlier this month as “a deciding factor in the decision to close” the Darke County winery and brewery was filed by another co-founder who is seeking financial damages and a court order to dissolve the winery’s parent corporation.

Shelley M. Robinson of Arcanum filed the lawsuit Aug. 1, 2018 in Darke County Common Pleas Court, and the case is still pending before Darke County Common Pleas Judge Jonathan P. Hein.

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In the most recent filing in the case, Judge Hein ruled that the Kennedys had not complied with rules of civil procedure regarding producing documents necessary for the case to move forward, and told the Kennedys that subsequent failures to comply “may lead to sanctions” that could include monetary fines or incarceration.

The Kennedys’ private home was heavily damaged by fire on March 1, and at that time, John Kennedy said the winery and brewery would be forced to close temporarily. Then about a month later, in early April, John and Louisa Kennedy announced on the Kennedy Vineyard Facebook page that the winery and affiliated Big Rack Brewery would shut down for good, and that the lawsuit filed by Robinson was the deciding factor in the decision to close. 

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“We closed temporarily due to our recent house fire on the property,” the winery’s owners wrote. “We lost everything and although we knew recovery would come slowly, the nature of the lawsuit filed by Shelley Kaufman Robinson has caused us to remain closed.”

“We thank all of you for the past seven years. We have enjoyed getting to know all of you and sharing in some amazing times! John and I and our family have grown close to the community and feel our lives have been made better though the winery and the people we have met. Thank you so much for allowing us to be a part of your lives and sharing the experiences of the winery.”

>> PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Kennedy Vineyard opens in Darke County (June 2013) 

Kennedy told this news outlet in a phone interview in early April that, “We are going to have to disband everything because of the lawsuit,” which he said will also block the sale of any remaining stock of wines, beers and ciders.

Kennedy Vineyard opened in 2013, and added Big Rack Brewery in June 2017.

Shelley Robinson says in her lawsuit that she and her ex-husband, Scott C. Robinson of Troy, who was also named as a defendant, and the Kennedys agreed to start the winery together, each owning 25 percent of Kennedy Vineyard LLC, the limited-liability corporation formed to operate the business. She also says in the lawsuit that she contributed more than $15,000 in cash to the LLC. 

In 2015, the founders “had a disagreement,” the lawsuit says, and there was an attempt to negotiate the sale of the Robinsons’ portion of the business, but the co-founders “were unable to come to final terms, and the sale never took place.” 

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The Robinsons’ marriage was dissolved in April 2016, and a judge divided the spouses’ financial interests in the winery and property equally. In February 2018, Shelley Robinson, through an attorney, sent a letter to John Kennedy requesting financial records so she could “do an accounting and valuation for subsequent liquidation of her interests” in the business and property. Kennedy “expressly rejected” the request, the lawsuit says.

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In the lawsuit, Shelly Robinson seeks:

  • A court order to either partition the New Madison property connected to Kennedy Vineyard LLC or order it sold if it cannot be partitioned;
  • Judgment in an amount exceeding $25,000 against John Kennedy for violating the terms of the ownership agreement, and for another $25,000 for improperly exercising control of Robinson’s assets; and 
  • A court order for dissolving Kennedy Vineyard LLC.

A settlement conference has been set for this Friday, April 26, according to online Darke County court records, and a trial has been scheduled for May 16.   

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***ORIGINAL STORY (March 1, 2019)***

The owner of the Kennedy Vineyard in Darke County said the fire that damaged the family home, located on the property where the business is located, left a family dog dead and will force the business to close for a time.

John Kennedy said he was at work when his daughter said she discovered smoke in the house and alerted Mom, Louisa Kennedy, who called him.

He said flames were coming from the front of the home on state Route 722 by the time he arrived.

The family dog perished in the fire, he said.

New Madison Fire Chief Scoob Cook said the Darke County Sheriff’s Office is investigating, but he doesn’t believe the fire was suspicious.

“I believe it’s going to be a total loss,” he said, noting the entire downstairs was fully involved in flames when his crews arrived. Fire went into the second story and through the attic.

This is the Darke County home of the owners of the Kennedy Vineyard, in New Madison. Fire destroyed it Friday afternoon, March 1, 2019. (Jim Noelker/Staff)

Mrs. Kennedy and the Kennedy daughter escaped unhurt; Chief Cook said one dog, and perhaps a second, perished.

He said it’s too early to estimate the dollar loss to the structure and contents.

As many as 75 firefighters from 12 departments responded to the fire, which was upgraded to a two-alarm blaze, Cook said. Those crews included Hollansburg, Gettysburg, Arcanum, Eldorado and a ladder truck from Greenville.

Crews were dispatched about 4 p.m. to the 3900 block of state Route 722. The road was shut down for a time because of the fire and all the equipment that responded.

Crews will be on the property for a time this evening, putting out hot spots, the chief said.

Kennedy Vineyard is described in literature as a 10-acre winery in southern Darke County. There was no damage to the business part of the property.

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