There’s lucky and then there’s damned lucky. Tor Kenward has basically had his dream job since the age of 29.
Hang out with Kenward for a little while and you might begin to observe some of the effects of doing what you love and making a decent living at it for most of your life. For starters, he moves through life and conversation like a man twenty years his junior, with a spring in his step and an animated twinkle in his eye, incredibly comfortable in his own skin.
This year he’s 72 and recently finished his 44th harvest in Napa Valley, and his 19th as the owner of his own small wine label TOR Wines.
Yes, his receding hairline has gone gray and white, but his ever-present goatee remains neatly trimmed beneath his trademark round spectacles, giving him the air of your favorite college professor. You know, the one you could sit in a bar with and talk about philosophy until the wee hours of the morning?
Kenward seems like he’s constantly brimming with energy and has an earnestness that is both disarming and infectious. He’s interested in things, and easily draws others into conversation in a way that gets them interested too, no matter what the subject.
Kenward grew up a child of the 50s, with bohemian parents. His father, Allan Kenward, was a writer, his mother, a painter.
“Dad had one famous hit play that went from Pasadena to Broadway and eventually became a movie, but then nothing even remotely as successful ever again,’ says Kenward. “He wrote screenplays and plays his whole life, which is what took us to Southern California when I was a kid.”
Kenward spent most of his school years in California, except for a stint in Taos, after his father was “kicked out” of Hollywood for a time over a perceived slight by a studio head. After high school, Kenward did what a lot of kids graduating high school in 1966 did whether they wanted to or not: he went to Vietnam.
Kenward returned to Santa Barbara to go to college where he “read a book a day as rehab, which changed my life,” and resolved to do only what he wanted to do. So while taking classes he also worked two jobs more for pleasure than income.
With some friends he decided to start a jazz club, which became relatively successful, at least in terms of hosting names that most would now recognize: musicians Tom Waits and Bonny Raitt, and the comedians Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin among many others.
But it was his other part-time job, working in a liquor store, that would come to change the course of his life. Kenward started drinking wine and quickly fell in with a crowd of serious wine drinkers.
“I had a friend who was always opening up the greats—fantastic Champagne and Bordeaux mostly—and I just went down a rabbit hole that I’ve never come out of,” says Kenward. “I frankly just went nuts. I read everything I could find—Broadbent, Waugh, Finnegan, I couldn’t get enough.”
The owner of the liquor store encouraged Kenward’s new passion, to the point of suggesting he head up to Napa to check out “the scene” up there. Having a relatively new girlfriend at Stanford, Kenward took little convincing to head north, which he did with some regularity after that.
“It was great,” recalls Kenward. “We’d camp at Bothe [Bothe-Napa Valley State Park] and we’d roll out of our tent in the morning, and just go around and visit wineries. I just went ‘Wow, this is too cool.'”
Hooked by the wine bug, and having finished his studies, on one of his trips north, Kenward responded to two help-wanted advertisements in Napa, one of which was as a tour guide for Beringer Vineyards in St. Helena.
“My wine knowledge was really good at the time,” says Kenward. “I had read things. Studied it. And this was 1977 and most people didn’t know a thing about wine in those days.”
Beringer called him back after his interview a few days later and offered him the job.
“And I said, ‘what the hell, I’m doing this.'”
Three years later, Kenward was a Vice President at Beringer, with a title that colleagues at the time joked should simply be “Vice President In Charge of Fun.”
Kenward’s 27-year tenure at Beringer certainly sounds deserving of that title. Suggesting that he was the “resident wine geek,” Kenward flew all over the world exploring the great wine regions of Europe and bringing back ideas to try out as Napa transitioned from a sleepy agricultural valley to the Wine Country destination we know today. One of Kenward’s early achievements includes pioneering food and wine pairing programs that featured (and discovered) some of the best chefs working in America at the time, including Julia Child, who Kenward eventually became friends with.
Kenward, like many of Napa’s old guard, was the right guy, in the right place, at the right time.
“When I started there were maybe 50 wineries in Napa,” says Kenward. “And everyone knew everyone. Bob Mondavi, Andre Tschelitchieff, they always had open-door policies.”
Kenward got to know many of Napa’s greatest vineyard sites during his tenure at Beringer, both professionally and personally. As if his job wasn’t great enough already, starting in the Nineties, Kenward was encouraged to start making his own wines using small quantities of grapes from some of Beringer’s best vineyard sites. For free.
These initial efforts were little more than home winemaking projects, but starting in 2001, Kenward got more serious, sourcing (and paying for) grapes from other vineyards he knew and loved in Napa, and eventually bringing on Thomas Rivers Brown and Jeff Ames to serve as winemakers for his growing project. Brown eventually stepped away, leaving Ames and Kenward to collaborate for the past 15 years on building a portfolio of single-vineyard Cabernets that has few equals in the world of Napa luxury wine.
I had a chance earlier in the summer to sit down and taste through a selection of vintages, starting with one of his 1990s wines from the famed State Lane Vineyard, now owned by Kapcsàndy Vineyards, and progressing through to barrel samples from the 2019 vintage.
The wines are quintessentially and unapologetically Napa in both conception and execution. Bold, ripe, and layered with polished, juicy fruit supported by lush, supple tannins, and very well-integrated oak. They hit on every note that most people look for when they’re shopping for $200 Cabernet Sauvignon.
Not only do they hit every one of those notes, they do so with a remarkable consistency of expression. Part of that, no doubt, comes from having a single winemaker for the entire history of the brand, and very consistent vineyard sources as well. But there’s also a confidence expressed in these wines, a self-assuredness that is quite admirable, not to mention delicious.
I’m particularly impressed by the tactile qualities of tannin that Ames is able to achieve with these wines.
“Jeff deserves an amazing amount of credit when it comes to tannin management,” says Kenward. “After tasting a lot of California wines both old and young, I have a strong feeling about how easy it is to cross over into aggressive tannins, where as the wines age, the fruit falls out first and all you’re left with are these tannins that don’t go away.”
“Our philosophy,” Kenward continues, “Is to have a wine where you definitely have tannins, but they’re integrated, and you also perceive the fruit through those tannins. I’ve found those are the wines that both age well and are pleasant in youth. Frankly, these are the wines that Napa should be making, They age well and the fruit stays there for a ling time. Despite the Bordeaux bullshit that somms have been bombarded with for years, Napa wines made like this can even outlive Bordeaux.”
Personally, I found myself gravitating to the younger wines in this tasting, and was particularly impressed with the as-yet-unreleased 2018 vintage and the still-aging 2019 vintage. It’s a little unfair to say, given their youth and their future of many months more in barrel and then in bottle, but the 2019s had a vibrancy that was electrifying.
Consumers have both of those vintages to look forward to being released in the coming year or two, but after that, Tor’s customers will have to take a pause for a year. Kenward, who recently evacuated to a relative’s house in Marin in the wake of the Glass fire, has suggested in an e-mail to his customers that other than some Chardonnay and a little of early picked Cabernet from the Tierra Roja Vineyard, he won’t be making any 2020 wines.
“The vintage is not a vintage for us,” wrote Kenward, a frank admission that is likely to be among the first of many to come in Napa.
2014 TOR Wines “Hyde Vineyard” Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa, California
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of pineapple and buttery popcorn. In the mouth, rich lemon curd and pineapple flavors have a nice intensity with just enough acidity to keep them lively. Clean and well balanced with very well integrated wood, which has a presence but hangs in the background. While this is on the riper side, I wouldn’t have guessed at the 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $80. click to buy.
2018 TOR Wines “Hyde Vineyard – Cuvee Susan” Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa, California
A cloudy greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of cold cream, lemon curd, and apples. In the mouth, lemon curd and a touch of green apple mix with some dried mango and tropical fruit cocktail. Rich, but with well-integrated oak. Good acidity. A slight bit of heat on the finish from the 14.6% alcohol. 125 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $80. click to buy.
2018 TOR Wines “Durell Vineyard – Cuvee Mimi” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Light greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon curd and a touch of wet stones. In the mouth, rich lemon curd and cold cream flavors have a hint of vanilla and white flowers to them as the move with satin smoothness across the palate. Nicely balanced, clean finish. 14.7% alcohol. 125 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $80. click to buy.
2018 TOR Wines “Beresini Vineyard – Cuvee Torchiana” Chardonnay, Carneros, Napa, California
Light to medium yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and white flowers. In the mouth, rich lemon curd and cold cream flavors have a silky intensity to them, with excellent acidity and remarkable balance, given the ripe, 14.7% alcohol. Excellent. 125 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $80.
1990 Kenward “State Lane Cuvee” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium to dark ruby in color, this wine smells of cigar box, leather, and dried cherries. In the mouth, dried cherries, leather, and tobacco have a soft powdery tannic texture and enough acidity to keep the fruit, though fading, still juicy. Notes of dried cherry and dried flowers linger in the finish with some cedar to back them up. Home winemaking, alcohol level uncertain, but probably high 13s. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2001 TOR Wines “West Block” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
A cloudy dark ruby in the glass, this wine smells of black olives and dried black cherries. In the mouth, olive notes mix with dried black cherry and licorice. The tannins are a gauzy pillow now for the fruit that leans towards the savory side. Licorice and cherry in the finish. 14.2% alcohol. 325 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2005 TOR Wines “Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa, California
A shiny dark ruby in color, this wine smells of pencil shavings, cigar box, and dried black cherries. In the mouth, black cherry fruit (both fresh and dried) mixes with a touch of black olive and herbs. Decent acidity. Notes of roasted fig linger in the finish. Velvety tannins are faint now. 15.2% alcohol. 350 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $225.
2009 TOR Kenward “Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard – To Kalon Clone #337” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of roasted figs, dried black cherries, and a hint of truffles. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, dried herbs, and roasted figs flavors have a faint meatiness to them and mouthwatering acidity. Definitely on the ripe, rich, side, but there’s lots to love here, with well-integrated oak. 15% alcohol. 225 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $225.
2010 TOR Wines “Tierra Roja Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa, California
A cloudy, very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black olives, black cherry, and a touch of green herbs. In the mouth, extremely juicy flavors of black cherry, roasted fig, and bing cherry burst on the palate with exceptional acidity. There is some alcoholic heat in the finish, but this is a very tasty wine, that leaves a touch of charred steak umami note in the finish with a hint of salinity. 14.7% alcohol. 275 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $155. click to buy.
2013 TOR Wines “Melanson Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis with floral overtones. In the mouth, rich black cherry and cassis flavors are nestled in a vest of fleecy tannins that stiffen a bit as the wine finishes with notes of cola and licorice. Excellent acidity and a hint of peppermint patty on the finish. 14.8% alcohol. 200 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $225. click to buy.
2014 TOR Wines Proprietary Red, Oakville, Napa, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dusty black cherry and tobacco. In the mouth, powdery but muscular tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and cola nut. Touches of licorice root and cedar round out the flavor profile, which has an airy, somewhat high-toned quality. The tannins are slightly drying and there’s a faint bit of heat in the finish. Not as well-knit together a wine. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. 14.6% alcohol. 350 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $225. click to buy.
2016 TOR Wines “Tierra Roja Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and a touch of black olive. In the mouth, intense black cherry and bing cherry fruit is juicy with fantastic acidity and shot through with a touch of lavender and forest floor. Suede-like tannins grip the fruit and gain muscle as the wine finishes. Balanced and very well integrated. 14.8% alcohol. 400 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $155. click to buy.
2017 TOR Wines “Vine Hill Ranch” Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, Napa, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of pencil shavings and black cherry fruit. In the mouth, intense black cherry fruit is rich and layered as it sits in a deep velvety cushion of tannins. Opulent and dense, this is the kind of wine that serious Napa wine lovers swoon over. It’s a bit rich for my taste but it’s damn good. 15.2% alcohol. 200 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $225. click to buy.
2018 TOR Wines “Black Magic – Barrel Sample” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Inky dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of cedar, black cherry, and tobacco. In the mouth, wonderfully juicy black cherry and licorice root flavors are held in a muscular fist of tannins that are fine-grained and supple. Fantastic acidity and wonderful balance. This is an impressive wine with a long life ahead of itself. Score: around 9.5. Planned release price: $350
2018 TOR Wines “Beckstoffer To Kalon – Barrel Sample” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of black cherry and licorice. In the mouth, voluminous mouth-coating tannins billow around a core of black cherry, tobacco, licorice, and a touch of cocoa powder. Excellent acidity keeps the fruit bright, but can’t keep this wine from feeling dense and rich. A bit too much for my taste, but most hardcore Napa fans will love it. A faint bit of alcoholic heat in the finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Planned release price: $225.
2019 TOR Wines “Vine Hill Ranch – Barrel Sample” Proprietary Red, Napa Valley, California
Very dark garnet in color, this barrel sample smells of cassis and black cherry with floral overtones. In the mouth, grapey flavors of black cherry and cassis are grasped in a fist of fine-grained but muscular tannins. Rich and juicy with excellent acidity, this wine has a density and power that suggests a long life ahead of it. Very well-integrated oak leaves a hint of pencil shavings in the finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Planned release price: $275
2019 TOR Wines “Dr. Crane Vineyard – Barrel Sample” Cabernet Sauvignon, St. Helena, Napa, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this barrel sample smells of perky black cherry and cola with a hint of candied grape. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, cassis and cola flavors nestle into a fleecy blanket of tannins. Notes of violets and black cherry linger in the finish. Rich and juicy and bold, with excellent acidity and nice balance. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Planned release price: $225.