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Napa’s Tor Kenward on Bottle Shock, Parker points & perfection

Napa’s Tor Kenward on Bottle Shock, Parker points & perfection

Industry icon Tor Kenward has been making wine in Napa since the early days when the valley was filled with just cowboys, dreamers and a handful of vines. After 27 years working for Beringer, learning from some of the biggest names in wine and setting up TOR Wines, Kenward has opened up in his memoir Reflections of a Vintner. Victor Smart met him in Quo Vadis where he tasted the latest vintages of Tor’s boutique brand of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends and gassed about the effects of Parker, Bottle Shock and much more.

Victor Smart
4th August 2022by Victor Smart
posted in Tasting: Wine ,

“No wine can ever be perfect. Nor can a golf shot, a meal, a moment in time, a piece of art – but we can believe in the concept and strive for perfection fearlessly. That makes us human.”

“We were all dreamers and cowboys, swinging for the fences – fearless.” Photo © TOR Instagram/ Mark Hartman

It’s rare that one wants to hurry down a glass of Pol Roger NV Champagne but today it seems a distraction. We are at the Quo Vadis restaurant in Soho to meet Napa Valley industry icon Tor Kenward, savour a few of his wines and hear about his new memoir, Reflections of a Vintner.

TOR Wines is one of the high-end, predominantly family-owned wine producers that sits in the Pol Roger Portfolio, hence the welcoming glass of fizz before the main event. Kenward’s wines typically earn strings of superlatives from reviewers and some earn Parker ratings of 100 points. We are in for a treat.

Kenward is spare and wiry with an animated, purposeful demeanour. He pitched up in Napa Valley in 1975 where he spent nearly three successful decades at Beringer before deciding that he would quit the corporate world but not the wine business. He created TOR Wines with his wife Susan in 2001. There’s now talk of a TV miniseries about his career – Kenward is understandable coy about who will be cast to play him.

But he’s happy to answer some questions from The Buyer, starting with background on his family. “Bohemians. Dad a writer with a play that went to Broadway and a Hollywood movie. Mom an actress of the stage – not movies – and an excellent painter. Musicians, writers, actors, and thinkers rolled in and out of our home in my youth.”

Bottle Shock did bring a lot of people into the narrative.”

How did he first get into wine? “I was introduced to the Old World greats during a period when I started a jazz club. Never looked back. Had to learn everything available at that time, then took the plunge becoming a vintner. These were the early days of Napa Valley. We were all dreamers and cowboys, swinging for the fences – fearless. Great time to be caught in that big wave.”

And the Judgment of Paris, the epic event in 1976 when Californian wines worsted France’s best – was that as seismic as it is often made out to be? “Not initially – but with time – HUGE,” Kenward says.

“Then came the movie Bottle Shock [about the Judgment of Paris]. I don’t think that it managed to capture what it was like in the early days. But it did bring a lot of people into the narrative. For that we owe the movie a lot. Napa came from being blue collar farmers, to world class winemakers and international investors – 0-60 mph in less than 50 years.”

Each TOR wine is handmade and made in ludicrously small quantities. I’ve been tasting some other pretty pricey Napa wines recently. Can these really outdo them?

Press lunch with Tor Kenward and the Pol Roger Portfolio team

At Quo Vadis our first course is asparagus with a small bowl of vinaigrette, unctuous and not at all sweet. This is paired with our first TOR offering, the 2018 Hyde Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay. The bottle labels give a hint of what is to come, contriving somehow to be both timeless and contemporary.

Apart from one small plot, Kenward does not grow his own grapes. In the case of this Hyde Vineyard, the fruit is produced in tiny amounts by Larry Hyde whom Kenward describes as one of the best growers in the world – Kenward queued 14 years to get his hands on some of the grapes.

At first what hits you about this Chardonnay is not even the array of flavours but the extraordinary multidimensional complexity and length and, above all, the utter, utter precision. There’s also remarkable viscosity. For me, this is an epiphany. It’s a wowzer moment, a revelation. Not something that’s simply good but something that moves on to a different level. It makes most wines look ordinary.

We move of to the main course of roast leg of lamb, greens and potato dauphinoise and Herb Lamb Vineyard 2015 Cabinet Sauvignon. This plot is north-facing and cool even in a warm year like this vintage. First taste of this red has the same effect as the Chardonnay – it is simply unfeasibly good. What’s remarkable is the balance and the tension coexist. It’s like serenely walking a tightrope above a ravine, terrifying and sublime at the same time.

The final Cabinet Sauvignons –a Melanson 2016, Oakville Tierra Roja 2014 and Oakville Hillside 2016 – maintain this giddy standard even if they don’t actually surpass it.

A foreword to Reflections of a Vintner is written by Robert Parker, now retired but fêted and loathed in equal measure as creator of the 100-point wine rating system. So what’s Kenward’s take on reducing tastes to numerals?

“Most people don’t allocate the time in their week around wine and its study. It gives them Cliff Notes to make quick decisions. It’s not a perfect system – but it’s a system. Everything truly worthwhile demands a larger devotion of time.”

“No wine can ever be perfect. Nor can a golf shot, a meal, a moment in time, a piece of art – but we can believe in the concept and strive for perfection fearlessly. That makes us human.”

Like many winemakers at the pinnacle of their trade, Kenward is meticulous. Making world-class wines is about countless subtle and painstaking interventions and to perfect the transformation from humble grape to world-class wine you need a certain humility. Even the title of his book, Reflections of a Vintner, seems deliberately understated.

Asked what pitfalls Napa in its pomp might face, Kenward comments: “Complacency and arrogance. Together they are a cocktail for decline. I’ve seen it in other growing areas.”

And how would this undisputed wine legend like to be remembered? “A good honest man who loved wine and all the friends it brought to his table”, he says.

“Reflections of a Vintner” by Tor Kenward, published by Cameron + Company, £18.99.

The TOR wines are imported, sold and distributed in the UK by Pol Roger Portfolio, which is a supplier partner of The Buyer. To discover more about them click here.