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Vintner Tor Kenward reflects on Napa’s early days.
TOR KENWARD, A WELL-KNOWN California vintner with a radiant gaze and sharp, deep-set angular features, knows where Napa Valley’s early trailblazers (and villains) are buried. Though many have passed away, several are still kicking, and a host of them make an appearance in the septuagenarian’s new memoir, “Reflections of a Vintner,” published in 2022 by Cameron + Company. Kenward, who has a penchant for drinking rare, older wines — he describes the most memorable as “palate etching” — holds a deep respect for Mother Nature and boasts a comprehensive knowledge of Napa Valley’s evolution in wine and food; he is the type of wine-country statesman that most people only ever read about.
Not long ago, I spent an afternoon with Kenward at his winemaking facility, Wheeler Farms. A week later, I visited him at his home in St. Helena. We talked over a meal during both visits and drank his wine — TOR. In his book, he quotes Hemingway, Euripides, and John Keats, among others, and in person, he talks a lot about luck and how essential it is to any career. Whether you call it luck or fate, strong, invisible forces lulled him to Napa Valley, where he met his future wife, Susan Costner, a James Beard Award–winning cookbook author. It is here he found a lifelong friend in Julia Child, frequently visiting with her, even days before her passing. And it is here he found a home at Beringer Vineyards, where he championed the rise of Napa as a culinary destination. “Reflections of a Vintner” is Tor’s homage to the early influencers of Napa Valley — a happy, revelrous bunch who wined and dined their way through the 1980s and ’90s. These days, happiness for Tor is a glass of wine while listening to Coltrane, allowing for a little ignorance of the news before an early bedtime.
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Allan Tor Kenward was born on April 8, 1948, at the Griffith Park Maternity Home in Los Angeles, California, to “bohemian parents” who passed away in their 90s. He attended day care at a Pueblo Indian reservation while living in Taos, New Mexico. In the mid-1950s, he moved with his family to Beverly Glen, a hippie community nestled into a canyon amid the Santa Monica Mountains east of Bel-Air. His mother, Frances Torchiana Kenward, was a painter and stage actress, and his father, Allan Richard Kenward, was a playwright who had one big Broadway success with a play called “Cry Havoc” that was made into a film. Later, he managed to sell a screenplay to Jerry Lewis and did script doctoring for Elvis Presley. Kenward recalls “all kinds of musicians, artists, and writers” hanging around the house. Dad feared flying, so summers were spent outdoors camping all over the Western United States. “It was not a privileged life,” he explains. “We were not rich people, but it was really rich in the artistic side.” When a fire and then a flood ruined part of their house, the family moved in with actor Jimmy Cagney for a time, and by 1964 they had relocated to Santa Barbara, where his dad opened an independent bookstore called The Ark — which is where Tor worked after coming home from Vietnam.
He’d been drafted after taking a semester off of college to backpack in the Sierra, and ended up working in evacuation field hospitals in Saigon, Vung Tau, and the Can Tho Province. In late 1969, after a mandatory year of service, he returned home. “For the first six months, I didn’t do anything but go to my father’s bookstore,” he recalls, “and he allowed me to take any book off the shelf, and it changed my life. It got my mind opened up. I think that’s the greatest gift other than life that my dad gave me.”
During this time, Tor met Don Guillette, the owner of a Grog N Groc, a local wineshop tucked behind a gas station. So long as Tor cooked, Guillette opened the wines — mind-bending Burgundy Grand Cru and Bordeaux First Growth bottles. And in the same shopping complex as The Ark, there was the best record shop in Santa Barbara. Tor and some of the guys who hung around it decided to start a jazz series on the upper floors of a nearby beachfront hotel. With leftover GI funds, he fronted the money to book acts: Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, Keith Jarrett, Chuck Berry, and comedians Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin. I asked if he had made any money back then. “No,” he told me, “I was just getting by.” And not infrequently, he was visiting a girlfriend in Napa Valley and buying wine for Guillette and his jazz club partners. He was falling in love — not with the girl — with the open space and beauty of Napa. The idea of working in the wine industry was “like a siren song,” he says, “pushing every single button.”
The Napa Valley that lulled Tor Kenward from nightclub life was not the same as it is today, with its fine restaurants and hotels. In 1977, there were no stoplights and no way of knowing that Napa was on the eve of an explosive celebration of American wine and food.
It held a kind of indescribable magic for Tor. He applied for winemaking and tour guide jobs, dropping off his résumé at “the romantic, castle-like Beringer Rhine House,” as he describes it in his book, and added simply: “They called. I took the job. Lasted a long time.” In fact, there are 22 years of groundbreaking events and culinary achievements crammed into those three short, declarative, Hemingway-esque sentences.
At Beringer, Tor was responsible for finding creative ways to market and sell its fine wines. It was the early 1980s, and the results of the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris wine tasting, made famous by Time reporter and author George M. Taber — in which California red and white wines beat out legendary French wines in a blind tasting — had not yet generated the wave of tourism expected. And Nestlé, which had owned Beringer since 1971, was eager to turn more of a profit. The old Napa mentality that Tor had discovered in his first few years working at Beringer — that visitors should be gone by sundown — was about to undergo a seismic shift, and Tor would become a leading flag-bearer of the movement.
As Tor recounts in his book, the convergence of two significant factors — the rise of celebrity chefs and the realization that Europe was beating us at the hospitality game — helped ignite a culinary revolution that would eventually transform sleepy Napa Valley into a bustling food and wine mecca. In 1980, Beringer sent Tor to France to soak up new ideas for marketing wine in the U.S. In a rented Peugeot 405, with Hugh Johnson’s “The World Atlas of Wine” in his lap, he maneuvered through weeks of appointments in Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Mosel Valley, and Rheingau in Germany, happily overwhelmed at each stop by lavish dinners, impeccable food and wine, and winemaker tastings in cellars that had served as bunkers in the World Wars. He was mesmerized by it all. Tor vowed to bring the same level of haute hospitality to Napa Valley.
Back at Beringer, he created the Beringer Culinary Series, which provided cooking scholarships with a food and wine pairing competition baked in — the winner would cook at Beringer for two weeks. Later, Tor would introduce the School for American Chefs, and when Le Cordon Bleu–trained chef, cookbook author, and restaurateur Madeleine Kamman found out, she demanded to send her new student — Gary Danko. Kamman, “arguably the best culinary teacher of her period,” as Tor describes her, would teach at Beringer, where Tor was piling on programs to foster a new generation of hospitality-driven professionals in Napa, who would divine restaurants and events reminiscent of those Tor experienced in Europe — welcoming guests to stay, to wine and dine, to soak in the setting sun, rather than bolt from it.
The culinary scions of the day took note of Tor’s efforts, like Julia Child, who invited him to join the founding board of the American Institute of Wine & Food (AIWF), a nonprofit organization and public charity led by Child, Robert Mondavi, and Richard “Dick” Graff of Chalone fame.
Though the AIWF was created in 1981, Tor asserts that a dinner event called “An American Celebration,” which took place on May 4, 1983, at the Stanford Court hotel in San Francisco, marks “the birthday of the culinary revolution” in America. It was intended to draw attention to the AIWF — which it did, effectively cementing its future. It was a Who’s Who event with over 400 attendees. Tor’s wife, Susan, remembered, “It celebrated American cuisine, shining a light on American regionality like the convergence of French and Cajun cuisine in New Orleans, or in the South where Southern and North African culture melded its food with fine dining. It ignited the excitement and the possibilities of things to come.” For a decade afterward, Tor served on the AIWF board, helping aid its efforts in raising funds, chairing wine auctions, and expanding culinary education to local chapters around the U.S.
Later, in the early aughts, Julia convinced Tor to join the board of Copia, an overly ambitious $55 million center that would serve as Napa Valley’s own “tribute to wine, food, and the arts,” led by Robert and Margrit Mondavi. But Copia shuttered in 2008, just seven years after opening, because it was “ahead of its time,” says Tor, too focused on fine art and too far off the beaten path to draw a crowd — downtown Napa was not the food and shopping destination it is today. Julia Child, Robert Mondavi, and Dick Graff wouldn’t have to see Copia fail — they had all passed away. Tor, meanwhile, was riding a new wave into his second act — this time, as a vintner.
Making great wine is about putting in the time, and for 20 years, while rising through the ranks at Beringer, Tor Kenward made homemade wines from his own experimental vineyard planted in his front yard. The wines, whimsically labeled “Chateau de la Tor” (a riff on the famous Bordeaux First Growth, Château Latour), were purely for personal consumption. But they served as a precursor to the label that would bear his name — one that has become a collectible.
In 1996, when Tor was a vice president and winery spokesman, Nestlé had sold Beringer to Bill Price’s venture capital firm Texas Pacific Group and Silverado Partners for $350 million. In 1997, the investment firms took Beringer Wine Estates public and made good on their initial investment with a very successful IPO. And two years later, TPG sold to Australia’s Foster Brewing Group for roughly $1.2 billion. Sitting at Tor’s dining room table, I asked if he had been fortunate to own a good set of stock options. “That’s how I started this without any private capital,” he said, motioning to a bottle of TOR wine. “When I came up here, I was living in a sleeping bag.”
In 1977, there were no stoplights and no way of knowing that Napa was on the eve of an explosive celebration of American wine and food.
The first TOR wine was produced in 2001 by Thomas Rivers Brown at Outpost in the tiny Howell Mountain town of Angwin, California. Today, his wine is made in St. Helena at Wheeler Farms by Jeff Ames, who worked for Brown, helping to produce the first vintage; he has been the winemaker ever since the second release. Jeff Ames, who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and Mobile, Alabama, is a fast-talking, matter-of-fact, salt-of-the-earth guy. Tor calls him the most honest person in wine country.
Together, they produce powerful, full-throttle, rich and textured single-vineyard cabernet sauvignons from Napa’s best sites like Vine Hill Ranch, Beckstoffer Dr. Crane, and Beckstoffer To Kalon that run $175–$300 per bottle; they also make crystalline, rich, and pure single-vineyard chardonnays from Hyde and Beresini vineyards that run up to $85 per bottle. And there are blends too, like Black Magic, a $450 cabernet co-fermented with petit verdot, blended with cabernet franc.
Tor loves to showcase his wines in salon-style settings, at long tables, in ways that likely remind him of the salons at Belle and Barney Rhodes’ house — early underground instigators of Napa’s culinary epic whose untold story Tor teases throughout his book, when magnificent wines would appear from their private cellar. Those were magical days. He’d get a phone call from Barney in the morning: “Belle’s found a sturgeon in Sacramento, a fisherman contacted us, and we're driving over there to pick up the roe. You and Susan want to come over and make caviar?” There are scores of memories like this that could fill another book, Tor assures me.
In Tor’s more than four decades in the biz, he’s seen the rise of the wine critic as the powerbroker of price — and, some would argue, style. “You’re always looking for validation, a secondary endorsement to help market your wines,” says Tor. When Robert Parker, a lawyer from Maryland, launched a subscription-based wine publication called the Wine Advocate, he cemented the 100-point rating system as the holy grail that winemakers across the globe would begin chasing for validation — at any cost.
Tor and Jeff have earned numerous 100-point scores for their wines from Parker and his publication, and from other critics. But these accolades come at a significant cost. The Beckstoffer grapes they purchase that have minted 100-point scores can cost as much as $52,500 per ton — and they don’t buy just one ton. Some years, Tor writes a $1 million check to Andy Beckstoffer. At those costs, it’s not solely about good scores; earning a 100-point score for some marks the end of a journey. For Tor Kenward and Jeff Ames, it marks another turn in the cycle of a vintner’s life.
Everything comes in cycles, whether we believe it or not. Naturally occurring events like fires, floods — and less obvious ones like cultural events — eventually resurface during a new generation. And in October of 2021, it happened for wine country. TOR’s 2016 Beckstoffer To Kalon wine was named the number one cabernet sauvignon in a major blind tasting called the Judgment of Napa, a momentous event hosted by Angela Duerr, modeled after the famous 1976 Paris tasting. Patricia Gastaud-Gallagher, who organized the Paris tasting with the late Steven Spurrier, was an honored guest. Gallagher, Kenward, and Duerr agree that significant events like the Judgment of Napa are necessary to continue building excitement for wine, because they offer the kind of experiential validation that younger generations seem to crave, even over 100-point scores. “When you taste blind against the most iconic wines in any modern history of wine, and you include a room of experienced judges, it’s like all three races of the Triple Crown at once, and you get to see the greatest horses in life. And there’s always a Seabiscuit, and that’s pure fun; it levels the playing field.”
Tor Kenward is among the last of a generation of vintners tied to Napa’s meteoric rise as a world-class wine and food destination, but he’s not hovering on the sidelines; he’s leveling the field his way, one tasting at a time. And while his memoir shines a light on two sides of Napa — before and after its culinary awakening — it left me in a trance about a Napa I will never fully know. “Winemaking, after all, in Napa was not the means to the good life, not before the 1970s,” recalls Tor. “It was a remote place where one could get a job, and winemaking was very much a way to make a good living, have your Beefeater, steak and baked potatoes, and do alright.” By all accounts — and his own — along with a bit of black magic, Tor, a bohemian from Los Angeles, a music lover turned wine lover, has had his steak and potatoes and is now on to dessert. He has done alright in Napa Valley.
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Jonathan Cristaldi is an established wine writer with more than a decade of professional experience. His articles on wine, spirits, and beer appear in both local and national print and digital platforms, including Decanter, Food & Wine, Departures, the SOMM Journal, Tasting Panel Magazine, Los Angeles Magazine, Thrillist, and Time Out Los Angeles. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Amanda, and daughter, Penelope. When Cristaldi isn’t visiting vineyards in the Bay Area, he’s on the hunt for a great McIntosh apple.
Mark Hartman is a photographer and director based in New York City.
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