Giving Great Vineyards the Respect They Deserve

Few within the Napa Valley wine industry can claim a resume as colorful as that of Tor Kenward. With a biography that reads like a movie screenplay, the vintner himself allows that his has been a fascinating life, the experiences and expertise of which are fully captured in each of his premium TOR wines.

The moniker itself hints that this is someone – and something – a bit different. Named by his bohemian and artistic parents perhaps in homage to poet Robinson Jeffers’ Carmel home ‘Tor House,’ Kenward’s youth and young adulthood were spent in the company of poets, musicians, and actors – unconventional free spirits who would ultimately shape his outlook on life and his pursuit of joie de vivre.

It was 1975 when Kenward first visited the Napa Valley on a buying mission for a small Santa Barbara wine shop. He’d spent a year working in the hospitals of Vietnam and returned to UCSB where, with friends, he formed a jazz club and promoted concerts. Keith Jarrett, Stan Getz, Tom Waits, Chuck Berry and dozens of 70s jazz and rock-and-roll stars crossed his stage. But the star power of the American Riviera would hold no candle to the burgeoning Napa wine scene that he encountered, and within two years, he moved north permanently, finding a position at Beringer – where he would remain for a quarter of a century.

“I became obsessed with wine in my 20’s,” said Kenward. “I fell in love with Napa and its people on that first visit.  There were fewer than 50  wineries in Napa; everyone knew everyone and worked together. It seemed that anything and everything was possible. It was the wild west of winemaking. I really wanted to be part of that.”

And he was. Kenward started at Beringer as a tour guide, and in a few years was promoted to VP winery spokesperson. He was a visionary whose unofficial title was ‘VP of All of the Fun.’ He worked closely with winemaking to shape the first Private Reserves and develop new wines like Nightingale, a pioneering botrytised wine. He also brought to winemaking the concept of barrel fermenting Chardonnay, which the winery quickly adopted.

The move to Napa – and to Beringer – was life-changing, but not nearly as transformative as what was to come. “What truly changed my life was Beringer  sending me to Europe, France in particular,” said Kenward. On that first trip, he traveled to and walked within Europe’s most renowned vineyards, talking and tasting with other winemakers, and kicking the dirt where world-class wines were grown. And he was treated, like all guests, like   a king. “The Old World attitude toward fine wine, food, and hospitality was life- changing and inspiring, and it became my mission to replicate that graciousness at Beringer.”

Tor Wines

And he did. Kenward created several groundbreaking culinary programs at the St. Helena winery, luring internationally renowned chefs as  instructors.  As he helped build the Reserve and single vineyard Cabernet programs, he built relationships – and a fine reputation – within the Valley. He rubbed elbows with and considered as friends Madeleine Kamman, Julia Child, Robert Mondavi, André Tchelistcheff, Warren Winiarski, Ed Sbragia, Maynard Amerine, Robert Parker, and other well-known names who shared his perpetual quest for viticultural and culinary knowledge.

The culmination of that knowledge is now found within his own label. After retirement from Beringer in 2001, Kenward took his expertise and with his wife Susan started TOR. The plan was simple – his wines would come from only the best blocks in great vineyard sites that he knew and revered, such as Beckstoffer  To Kalon, Vine Hill Ranch, Melanson, Tierra Roja, Hyde and Beresini. And the plan succeeded. Kenward, his winemaker Jeff Ames, and Matt Deller MW focus on single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines, cuvées, and Bordeaux varietals of quality and complexity that routinely receive the highest scores from wine critics the world over. TOR varietals are hand-made in very small quantities; each is nurtured to bottle, unfiltered and unfined. The vineyard is what is show- cased, not a heavy winemaker’s hand.

TOR Wine

“Our winemaking is driven by what    I heard and learned making small experimental lots of wine at Beringer. The building blocks were old-world wisdom seasoned with American  ingenuity,”  said Kenward. “Great vineyards deserve respect, and experience has taught me that in winemaking, less is more. People often seem surprised that after three decades of making wine myself and being such an avid student, I still relish learning more. These days, I listen to Jeff and Matt and their peers; I ask questions. I remain curious. The older I get, the more important it is to wake up every day with that curiosity. Being challenged, staying curious is vital to making great wines.”

Said Robert Parker, “Having known Tor for more than 15 years, I know that he is the consummate connoisseur of many things, including music, wine, and food, so it is not surprising he is able to translate his passion and discriminating taste into an impressive portfolio of wines.” // By appointment only.

Tastings take place where they are made – at Wheeler Farms, Daphne and Bart Araujo’s state-of-the-art winemaking facility in the heart of St. Helena.


Article By: Fran Miller