Sitting around talking about N.W.A., Sam Cooke, gospel music and jazz—not to mention the occasional scene-stealing appearances of their dog Bella—that’s what you get when in the company of the Kenwards in their Napa Valley home. We are drinking some of America’s finest wines, those of Tor Kenward, and it dawns on us . . . is it crazy to suggest that Tor might be the Dr. Dre of wine producers . . . like, Straight Outta Napa?

 

Tor_StevenFreeman-portraitThe first thing we do, even before a cork is corkscrewed, is watch a video on the iPad. It’s a rough cut of a video short that Tor’s son Cooper, a filmmaker, has directed. Even more striking than the visuals—which includes stunning extreme close-up, deep focus and wide-angle shots of fruit, vines, terroir, equipment, labor and all other things related to winemaking—is the voiceover narration of the protagonist of the video, Tor. It’s a voice that has acquired a little roughness around the edges that speaks of the 40 years he’s been in the industry producing wine. It’s a voice of wisdom and experience; it’s a voice that says I’ve seen it all but am still excited every morning to discover something new. These are the words he speaks as the video plays:

Making wine is not only magical, it challenges you in every way . . . it’s a huge leap of faith . . . you take a piece of land, you nurture it, you make the best guess you can . . . and you really don’t know whether that site is truly magical or can produce great wine . . . until 8 to 10 years have passed. They’re living things . . . and they’re changing, as we change . . . The wines I’m making right now, I’m assuming a good number of them are going to outlive me . . . I’ve been doing this close to 40 years now and I’d like to think that I’ve learned something every time I’ve gone into that classroom. It gives us pause . . . it gives us reflection . . . it extends a meal, extends time together . . . Water separates the continents, wine brings them together.

— Tor Kenward

Tor, you see, is equal parts mystic, scientist, artist, music aficionado, lover of fine food, businessman and student of nature. As we taste through the Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons that he makes with winemaker Jeff Ames, there’s a strong voice that comes through in each glass—each wine is distinct, powerful in character, rich with vibrancy . . . a largesse of personality. There are no weak wines; insipidness and reticence are a sin in the house of Tor. For the first time ever in a horizontal tasting, we rate two Cabernets 100 points: the magnificent Melanson and the massively complex Tierra Roja, from a 2013 vintage in Napa that has to rank as one of the greatest in history for the region. This is indisputable: Tor knows a great vineyard. He works with some of the best grapes on the planet. That’s what a great producer does—combination of instinct and knowledge to be able to recognize the best, and then the talent to bring out the best from the best. That’s why George Martin was considered the fifth Beatle. That’s why Dre is the man behind N.W.A. and Eminem. And that’s what makes Tor Kenward straight outta Napa. Quick Look Tor Cabernet

ALL THAT JAZZ

Tor doesn’t make a ton of wine. Total production in 2001 was 1,000 cases. Today that’s grown to 5,000 cases, and that’s the ceiling. Says Tor: “It’s never driven by money or an extraordinary business plan. If I get really good vineyards, I add them on. I’ve got a ceiling around 5,000 cases. If I start making a lot more, I need to have the vineyards first, and I would consider it. But that’s not really the business plan, it’s just sort of keep fine-tuning about 5,000 cases.” That means focusing on a limited number of wines and bringing out the characteristics of a particular vineyard to its fullest expression. According to Tor, he and Jeff Ames are always blending, always trying. This is what he has to say about the process of working through potential blends:

TOR KENWARD (TK): To me, that’s the most enjoyable part of the whole business. The challenge of when the heat’s on, there’s pressure. You’re trying to work out the timing. All of those stressful things have become part of the enjoyment for me. It used to bother the hell out of me—I wanted to get everything perfect, perfect, perfect. And now it’s—you still want to do the same thing, but you realize you’re not totally in charge.

Tor could very well be speaking about the process of making jazz music. When Charlie Parker and Miles Davis got together it was always an experiment—the structure was there in a composition, but everything around it was improvisation and working through the blend. You could say their version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” turned out to be a perfect expression of bebop, but, in the end, the music is a happy accident, with no musician being totally in charge. Tor first got the wine bug running a jazz club in the Santa Barbara area with a bunch of his friends. In his 20s, Tor had returned from the war in Vietnam, finished school and started the club, bringing in talent that was traveling from L.A. and San Francisco.

Quick Look Tor ChardonnayTK: Some of those guys were really into food. And I loved to cook. A few of them were really into wine. This was in the mid-70s. I would cook and they would bring these incredible wines. One guy had the greatest wines on the planet—he knew what they were, he would talk about them forever and introduced me to everything. From all the First Growths, German Rieslings, Sauternes, Champagne, Burgundies—it pretty much ran the gamut of what you could get at that time in the States.

That initial spark turned into business. Tor would eventually find himself going north to wine country and bringing back wines for the club.

TK: At the time, my girlfriend was at Stanford and I would come up and see her and do wine country. I would come up for a couple of days up here—this is around 1975-76 . . . There was the Paris Tasting of ‘76 and I’m falling more and more in love with the whole area. The jazz club was fun, I had a wonderful time, and I loved working with musicians and getting to know them. I just wanted something else, I knew I had to go. I literally threw everything in the back of my car, drove up here. My first job I applied for was at Beringer.

It’s no accident: there’s a jazzy energy to some of the wines Tor makes, especially the first-ever Reserve Chardonnay “Cuvee Susan” (named after his wife) in vintage 2014. There’s a lot going on in Tor wines—they’re fascinating now right out of the bottle, but like great jazz the beauty of expression fully comes upon repeated listenings, or tastings, rather. No one can possibly comprehend “A Love Supreme” with one listen. Likewise, there’s no way you’re going to “get” the Tierra Roja or Cimarossa Cabernets with one glass. Tor wines are wines you want to experience in progressive stages of development, over the course of 10-15 years, for full enjoyment. There’s too much complexity, there are too many layers to discover. It’s all that jazz. 


CLICK HERE to see our full reviews of TOR wines

Tor_To-Kalon-sunset

The revered To Kalon Vineyard in Oakville at sunset (L). Climbing on signs at the vineyard is strictly prohibited to the general public – only renowned Napa wine producers allowed!

THE LABEL

“Are there any regrets you have?” we ask of Tor. “I would have regretted it if I didn’t start this label when I did.” he replies. 

Tor takes us through a brief history of Napa Valley, through his eyes as he lived it. He reminds us that there were more wineries in Napa by the year 1890 than there were in the first part of the 20th century. What happened in-between? A nasty bug called Phylloxera that killed crops en masse and the Great Depression. It took until about 1975 for the Valley to make a comeback. Beringer winery, where Tor cut his teeth in the business, was a part of that early resurgence. 

TK: The two big titans that used to go at each other were [Charles] Krug and, believe it or not, To Kalon. To Kalon was really a winery, where the vineyard is now. Beringer was part of that early history of Napa Valley. The older brother ran the mansion, the younger brother was the winemaker. The Beringers were very well known. At Beringer I feel I was given an opportunity that people pay a lot of money for. They gave me all the real fun parts of the job, which was helping winemaking and defining what the reserve programs would be, and what we needed to do to gain a little more notoriety in the upper end of the business.

Among many things Tor did at Beringer was participating in a small group of people who helped winemaker Ed Sbragia decide on the first Private Reserve Cabernet. That wine became part of Napa Valley lore. Tor also initiated the Nightingale program, a high-end dessert wine program that’s still around to this day. In those days, the winery was basically makeshift. For example, in order to entertain VIPs for lunch, they had a shack, where sandwiches of baloney and processed cheese was served. They had a very off-color name for this cuisine which we cannot disclose because, after all, we are a respectable publication. So, part of Tor’s charge was to up the level of this VIP cuisine just a bit. 

TK: I loved food and the way it worked with wine, so I had pretty much an open checkbook on changing how we entertained. It came down in the end to what we call The Hudson House, which is a formal entertainment area. I brought out Gary Danko from the east coast, who was our chef for seven years. We started a restaurant at Souverain, which is now Coppola’s facility.

Tor-in-Paris

Tor in Paris.

The transformative experience of the time, which eventually led Tor to create his own label, was the opportunity to make small amounts of Chardonnay at Beringer and the traveling opportunities that came with the job. 

TK: Since 1980, until the time I left, they let me make two barrels in a small, little winery that I built next to my office every year. They’d pay for the whole thing. And wherever I wanted to go in Europe, to talk to winemakers in Europe, they’d always say, ‘we’ll make it happen’ . . . In those days everybody shared. If Mondavi had better connections in a location, that’s the way it happened. I remember Chandon set up a place I went to in 1981. It was the first time I’d ever been to France in my life. I landed in De Gaulle and I started crying. I got in the car, spent the night in Paris, got up the next day, went up to Moet, and they put me up for two nights at the chateau on the hill and entertained me the whole time. And they ran me through the whole gauntlet—I was so in awe. I just came back with my mind blown.

Tor completely retired from Beringer in 2001 to start his own label while still on the company’s payroll as a consultant. At present, Tor looks back on those formative Napa Valley years with fondness. 

TK:  It was just a magical time, those early years. Everybody in the Valley knew everybody. Everybody worked together. I was a front person for Beringer in a lot of ways, so I was on a lot of committees—with Bob Mondavi, Jack Cakebread, the Davies family, the people who were instrumental in so many ways in changing the Valley. We all were friends. Still are.

Tor-and-Mondavi-toasting

Napa luminaries having a toast. From L to R: Ann Colgin of Colgin Cellars, Tor Kenward, Walter Klenz of Beringer, Julia Child, Robert Mondavi.

THE CORKSCREWER REPORT (TCR): How did you get to the point of being able to create your own label and winery?

TK: You know, if I’d come up here with lots of money or some large inheritance I probably would have started out with my own gig. Thank goodness I didn’t. I would have never had the education that Beringer gave me.

TCR: You’ve been around a long time. What’s one thing that people would be surprised about you?

TK: That I’m still alive. [laughter all around] . . . You know, a lot of people that have put in this much time in the wine business, they’re past the really active part of their lives in the wine business. That I’m putting in 40-plus-hour workweeks doing what I do—who else do I have to do this stuff? Most of my contemporaries have been much smarter than I am, hiring small armies of people to build and sustain their brands. I think that would surprise some people, that I put in as many hours as I do, wearing as many hats as I do.

We are surprised—flabbergasted, really—to find out such a DIY (Do It Yourself) esthetic is behind the operations of such a stalwart brand. We were told earlier in the interview, as we recall, that a very famous pro golfer just bought $33,000 worth of Tor’s wine. Tor is a guy who got invited by the Yorks, who own the San Francisco 49ers, to join them in their suite for the Super Bowl. 

TK: The thing about the operation is, we don’t have a huge staff. And my wife wanders in and out as she wants to. We have a huge sales team—Nurit [Robitschek, who is also present at our interview] in California, and me in the rest of the world. Got a huge marketing department, which is me and Nurit. And my son, who did the [winery’s new] video—he’s the new marketing guy. For 15 years we haven’t hired outside consultants or sales people. Janet manages the office, makes sure all consumer-direct get what they want, and makes sure I don’t forget things. That’s it. We’re really doing this on word of mouth, scores and reputation.

Nurit jumps in with a perspective as Tor’s sole broker: “I’ll share with you from my point of view of taking Tor’s wines out into the market. People are so surprised that there’s one person behind Tor Kenward.” 

One man, the driving force behind his own label, surrounding himself with only a small crew of talented people he loves and trusts. If this isn’t gangsta, we don’t know what is.

OF SAM COOKE, COLTRANE AND THINGS

Bella_Tor_2016

It’s Bella’s world. Tor’s just livin’ in it.

“How’s your golf game?” we ask. “Handicap’s a respectable 14,” says Tor. We’re done drinking through all the Chards and Cabs, we’re appropriately blown away, and we’re basically sitting around and shooting the shit at this point—with Tor, his wife Susan, and cocker spaniel Bella. What is revealed by the time we’re out the door is a side of Tor most people likely don’t get to see. For us, it completes the picture as to just why Tor’s wines are so terrifically distinctive and bursting with personality. Tor’s personal stamp is in each wine. Every bottle carries a touch of humanity. 

TCR: What’s the background of the name Tor?

TK: Mom was a painter, Dad was a playwright, very bohemian parents. There was a play called High Tor by Sherwood Anderson that he liked. The Tor in High Tor is Celtic. It means high rock or rocks.

TCR: If you had to name a wine or two that changed your life, what was that wine?

TK: I remember the first 10 years it was Burgundy and Champagne. The older I get—it must be about I’m getting old—it’s not so much about finding the greatest little piece of southern Rhone or some place in the South West of France that no one’s really heard of before, or some interesting little vineyard on some island in Italy. It’s less those things that used to excite me as a young man, and really much more Napa Valley Cabernet and high-end Chardonnay—things I’m working with now . . . I still get very moody and go down [to my cellar] and grab a Condrieu . . . actually what I’m buying a lot of are those old-vine Roussanne-Marsanne that Chapoutier does. If you really want to talk great white wines, those are really pushing my buttons right now.

TCR: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given in the wine industry?

TK: I’m at the point where I seem to be giving it a lot. [laughter in the room] It takes me back. Something somebody said early on that really resonated. I can think of one thing: There was a discussion among André Tchelistcheff, Bob Mondavi, Louis Martini, Myron Nightingale, myself and others about what makes wine age. Everyone was talking technical. André said: ‘It is not all that. It is . . . the flesh!’ He was such a wonderful teacher. I pondered that, and went back and asked him what he meant. And he says, you know, the greatest wines that I’ve made—there was a ’46 Pinot Noir that he made and those great Cabs like the Georges de Latour Private Reserve—they were always in vintages where there was a lot of flesh. Not over-ripeness but good ripeness. It wasn’t the green or the tannic wines, it was the wines that had real flesh—they had substance to them . . . I always remember that from André. I hope that’s served me well.

TCR: Is he the winemaker who has influenced you the most?

Jeff-Tor-2014

TOR winemaker Jeff Ames with Tor.

TK: I think André was one of the better teachers, for all of us early on. I would have to say it’s not really one winemaker. Whenever there’s something I’m really excited about, I end up talking to those winemakers. So I’ve probably talked to every winemaker that I respect at one time or another, and we’ve had good discussions. I would say it’s a lot of winemakers, including Jeff [Tor’s winemaker].

TCR: Let’s talk wine prices. You’re definitely high-end, but they’re not hyper-expensive.

TK: You know, I get that a lot. People are always trying to talk me into raising my prices. It’s amazing how often I get, ‘Everybody around you is so expensive!’

TCR: If you were to put yourself up against the Screaming Eagles and the Harlans, how do your wines stack up?

TK: I can tell you straight on. We’ll beat the pants off a lot of them. And we’ll certainly hold our own with every single one of them. I feel very strongly about that.

TCR: So, that begs the question: why don’t you raise your prices?

TK: I’m an old-timer in the wine business, and I think you can raise prices, but you can never lower prices . . . I hear a lot of people saying why aren’t my wines more expensive, because we get the scores, they’re small-production wines—if I started selling ALL my wines at $300-plus a bottle, I would need an army of people to go out and hold hands, to do private dinner parties, to manipulate supply and demand to make that work. I’m not good at manipulation.

Kenward-Family

The Kenward family.

TCR: Where do you see your brand five years from now?

TK: Hopefully still on this table. I think a huge amount of the outside world really doesn’t know much about us. We’ve had much success with consumer-direct business. And the restaurants that we’ve been in still have our wines. The French Laundry was my biggest customer for the first, probably, four years. We’ve made a lot, a lot of friends over the years. I’m really kind of comfortable where we are right now. What would really make Susan and I a lot happier, is bring more family into it . . . our son’s a filmmaker, that’s his day job. But he’s going to work with Michel Rolland in Bordeaux. He came to us for that. If Cooper came on, got involved with winemaking, worked under Jeff—that would be huge. We have a son-in-law who’s very gifted and if he did some of the stuff that I would love to get off my plate, well . . . I’m really happy with the vineyard sourcing that we’ve got right now. I might take on another block in To Kalon. I’ve given up blocks—I had 8 but have 5 right now. I’ll always be looking for something magical that comes along . . . After 15 years now, we make pretty damn good wine. It would be nice if maybe a few more people knew about us. It’d be nice to get my family in. I look at where we started and where we are right now, I’m relatively happy.

TCR: What a great thing to be able to say.

TK: It is. It’s taken a lot of hard work. Jeff [Ames] is doing a fabulous job. We have similar palates, it’s kind of scary sometimes. We don’t get into fights on blends. I actually wish we fought each other a little bit more, get a little bit more tension into our tastings . . . Jeff and I feel like the 2014 vintage is an equal to 2013. I’ve heard him say that he might like it more. I’m not going that far just yet. The ‘13s have structure. They’re not obvious wines. They’re not over-fleshy wines. Yet, they’re completely delineated as far as flavors, they have multiple layers to them, a lot of stuff going on. The ‘12s to me were more obvious. The 2014s are intellectually more challenging. Time will tell, but I think they will outlive the ‘12s.

TCR: We know what you mean. We taste a lot of the wines from ‘12 out there, and we hope to find something else beneath the surface but only find the same thing. Okay, so we only ask this of the great ones. What’s your favorite movie, book or music?

TK; Oh, you get to be my age and they start blurring together . . . 100 Years of Solitude is a great novel. I loved The Secret in Their Eyes [Argentine film, 2009 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film]. We saw Brooklyn and thought that was really good filmmaking. You’re not going to believe this, but the most recent thing I saw was Straight Outta Compton.

SUSAN KENWARD (SK): OMG, do we look like we like gangsta rap? The movie is amazing.

TK: Really good film.

SK: Which one was the guy that got $620 million from Apple . . . ?

TCR: Dr. Dre.

TK: As far as music . . . anything Coltrane, I liked Stan Getz a lot; big fan of Ry Cooder; I do love Cannonball Adderley; Oscar Peterson, just absolutely stunning; Ella’s stuff; Nina Simone. My music tastes are all over the place. I love Italian opera. And, of course, rock n’ roll. Captain Beefheart—that’s fun stuff, it’s so way out there. We loved Mumford & Sons before they were Mumford & Sons to the world. We never get tired of Sam Cooke—in fact, a really good station on Pandora is the Sam Cooke station because they play a lot of R&B and early stuff on there. Have you heard his gospel stuff?

Tor is referring to Sam Cooke’s early career with the Soul Stirrers, one of the seminal gospel groups. The evening has drawn to a close, and we make a final note of a word that is often used to describe Sam Cooke’s amazingly soulful and smooth singing voice, arguably the greatest ever in soul music—that word is “mellifluous.” It’s a descriptor we’ve used to describe several of Tor’s wines, and we let him know this. Tor beams a smile of a man who just might be truly happy to be where he is, to have come this far and to still be doing what he loves best—taking that magical leap of faith called making wine. He says, “To be compared to Sam Cooke, that definitely makes me happy.”


See Related Article:

TOR | Wine Reviews: 2013 and 2014 Vintages

In This Series: