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Tor Kenward | Wining & Dining in Napa Valley with TOR Wines

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Tor Kenward | Wining & Dining in Napa Valley

photography by Greg Gorman, Bob McClenahan and Mark Hartman

Tor Kenward

Mark Hartman

 With decades of experience in Napa Valley, Tor Kenward watched as it blossomed into the bustling wine country and now foodie mecca it is today.

Tor Kenward isn’t your ordinary Napa Valley vintner—he’s taken a nearly 50-year journey through the burgeoning wine industry, from the mid-70s when there were less than 50 wineries in Napa, to the present with more than 400 wineries in the area today.

In his new book, Reflections of a Vintner: Stories and Seasonal Wisdom from a Lifetime in Napa Valley, Kenward shares his experience of watching Napa Valley become a world-class wine destination. He also shares stories with legends like Julia Child, Andy Beckstoffer, Robert Mondavi and his good friend Thomas Keller. It was the ICONIC Keller and Child who worked with Kenward to make Napa Valley a foodie’s dream destination, too.

Tor Kenward Headshot

Greg Gorman

As an ICONIC winemaker today with his own TOR Wines, Kenward has written, taught and lectured on wine most of his adult life. He didn’t come from a family with a background in the wine business either—he pursued his successful career in wine based on his own passion.

“I was going to college at the University of California, took a quarter off to be a backpacker in the Sierras, and I came back to an invitation to go to Vietnam from the government,” Kenward says. “I did Vietnam for a year, and then I came back with a vow that the rest of my life would be really focused on projects that really move the needle for me personally.”

He then started a popular jazz club in Southern California in the late 60s, where Kenward met many prominent people who were really into excellent wine and food.

“I became like many people, very obsessive about it, so I had to read everything that there was and befriended some people who had a couple wine stores in Southern California and they asked me to go up to Northern California to to scope out what was happening in Napa and Sonoma at the time,” he says.

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Tor Kenward at Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard

Mark Hartman

After hiring an immensely popular jazz pianist to play a couple of shows at his club, Tor saved up enough money to head to wine country.

“That allowed me enough money, which was just a few thousand dollars at that time, in my back pocket to go and throw everything in the car and see if anybody will hire me up in the Napa Valley,” Kenward says. “I got a call back from the winery two days later saying we have a job for you. I took the job and I ended up staying there for about 25 years. It was like getting aboard a rocket ship and the world completely changed around me, and certainly my world.”

He was hired at Beringer Vineyards, California’s longest continually operating winery, where he became the vice president after a few years.

“My unofficial title was ‘Vice President in Charge of all the Fun,’ because they sent me to Europe every year to sit down and study winemaking with greats in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Spain and Portugal, and Italy of course, and I got paid for that, which was mind boggling,” Kenward says. “And then I came back and worked with the winemaking team on shaping the private reserve programs and other high end programs for the wineries that we were building and buying at that time.”

“I got a call back from the winery two days later saying we have a job for you. I took the job and I ended up staying there for about 25 years. It was like getting aboard a rocket ship and the world completely changed around me, and certainly my world.”

Melanson Vineyard - Bob McClenahan

Melanson Vineyard - Bob McClenahan

During his time at Beringer, Kenward watched as Napa Valley changed and grew into the bustling wine scene it is today.

“It’s Disneyland for foodies and people that love wine, wine and food,” he says.

There was a revolution in food in the region, evolving into a mecca not only for great wines, but also for excellent food.

“Julia Child became a good friend of mine and I spent a lot of time with her,” he says. “Her love for French cuisine and cooking obviously is legendary, and rightfully so. She, along with a handful of others, started the American Institute of Wine and Food, launched in the early 80s, and she asked me to be on the board.”

Tor Kenward at Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard - Mark Hartman

Tor Kenward at Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard - Mark Hartman

“It was a really interesting board of people that were very influential in the food industry at that time, but you watch that as of the early waves that were crashing on the shore and changing things,” he added.

After gaining valuable experience at Beringer and watching as the wine brand went public and transferred between different ownership, Kenward started his very own winery.

“I could do what I always wanted to do and started my own winery,” Kenward says. “It’s interesting when I look back on it and I feel fortunate that it took me that long to be able to do that financially, because it gave me an education that I could never afford, 25 to 30 years of experience in the wine industry.”

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Melanson Vineyard - Bob McClenahan

Melanson Vineyard - Bob McClenahan

TOR Gift Set

Today, TOR Wines embraces Kenward’s four decades of experience in Napa Valley to understand exactly what makes an excellent wine, with a focus on single-vineyard Cabernet, Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines, cuvées and Bordeaux varietals. To share a taste of TOR Wines, the winery is offering a holiday gift set that includes a copy of Kenward’s book, a bottle of 2019 Tierra Roja and a bottle of 2019 Oakville, retailing for $300, available for purchase through Gary’s Wine & Marketplace.

When a critic rates a wine with 100 points, it means that they thought the wine was absolutely perfect—and TOR Wines Black Magic Napa Valley Red Blend 2018 earned that coveted rating four times, making it a “400 point wine”. This makes it a very rare unicorn in the world of fine wine. TOR wines have earned ten 100 point scores.

In 2021 the team that arranged the original Paris Tasting in 1976, decided to pit French Bordeaux once again against great wines from outside Bordeaux. This tasting was again blind and the judges hand selected on their experience and expertise. When the wines were judged and revealed, the #1 Bordeaux blend red wine was TOR 2016 Beckstoffer To Kalon.

“It was extremely heartwarming, because I had a lot of my peers in the same room, so it was fun to sort of share that moment with a lot of my neighbors and friends and other winemakers,” he says.

If you’re headed to Napa Valley to sample some great wine, Kenward recommends only seeing two in one day and focusing on the smaller, harder to find wines.

“Study the small, independent ones,” he says. “Actually meet the winemakers, meet the owners of these properties, try to understand what their passion was and why they did what they did to get involved.”

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