TOR Kenward Family Wines was founded in 2001 by Tor Kenward and his wife Susan. Tor first came to the Napa Valley in 1975 as a wine buyer for several retail shops including one in Santa Barbara. Hooked by the valley and the wine business, his first job in the Napa Valley was as a tour guide at Beringer. Ultimately he spent 27 years at Beringer Winery later as an executive at the winery before “retiring” and creating the FOR Kenward Family Wines label. Over the years he befriended some of the iconic winemakers in the valley including André Tchelistcheff, Robert Mondavi and Myron & Alice Nightingale and others integral to the world of food and wine including Julia Child.
During his time at Beringer he had access to some of Beringer’s best vineyards and he would make a barrel of wine each year (for friends and family, never produced commercially). Upon leaving Beringer, he was not yet ready to ‘retire’. One should keep in mind there is always a select group of former winery employees and executives who never really retire from the wine business.
We originally tasted some of Tor’s earlier vintages many years ago at a tasting in Pasadena and then followed up with Tor where we met at his house just north of St. Helena.
The focus for TOR Wines is on single vineyard premium Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from some of Napa’s best vineyards for these particular varietals. Throughout his decades in the wine industry Tor has learned where a number of the valley’s most premium vineyards are located and through his contacts at Beringer he was able to gain access to some of these properties. Despite not owning vineyards for the TOR wines Tor is personally extremely involved in the actual farming decisions including canopy management, fruit loads, pruning, harvest decisions and other integral vineyard management decisions.
Over the years TOR has sourced Chardonnay from acclaimed Carneros vineyard sites such as Durell, Hyde and Hudson. The 2004 TOR Kenward Family Wines Wente Clone Chardonnay was sourced from the Durell Vineyard; this site is located in a slightly warmer area than typical for the Carneros region due to its more northerly location. The Wente clone is known for its small berries and concentrated flavors. This wine typically is fermented using only natural yeasts and sometimes can have a very long and slow fermentation period lasting up to 7 months. This particular Chardonnay shows a beautiful golden hue in the glass; it is surprisingly floral on the nose with a deep rich honeysuckle aromas along with hints of peanut brittle on the palate. It is an extremely popular restaurant wine and is available by the bottle at the French Laundry in Yountville.
The Tor Napa Valley Torchiana Chardonnay, Beresini Vineyard Carneros 2016 is faded sunflower petal yellow in the glass. Aromatically bright and beautiful with a diversity of aromas – shows tropical notes including honeysuckle, citrus blossom, lemon zest, notes of honey, dried straw and baking spices. Rounded texture, but not creamy or buttery the palate features layers of flavor. Well concentrated with a clean long lasting finish – including flavors of lemon curd and a secondary subtle spice that kicks in far along on the finish. One can taste the varietal character in this wine.
The vineyard site is three hand-farmed acres managed by its namesake, Steve Beresini who has been growing grapes on his property since 1988 and growing grapes in the Napa Valley since 1970. The Chardonnay cuttings originally came from Hyde Vineyards (also in Carneros). If you haven’t tried a Chardonnay you yet enjoy – it is worth the extra effort to seek out this wine. Very Burgundian in style.
We also tried two of their Cabernet Sauvignons, each one noticeably different from the other. One is the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Cimarrossa Vineyard at about 2100 feet on Howell Mountain. This is a big wine but is certainly drinkable now; it exhibits the minerality and earthiness one often finds from Howell Mountain terroir – with structured tannins lasting for some time on the finish.
Their 2005 To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon is their first vintage from this famous vineyard. To Kalon vineyard is very historical and produces some of the highest quality fruit in Oakville – with Constellation owning the majority of the vineyard – the rest split between Andy Beckstoffer (who sources blocks to premium producers), UC Davis maintains an educational and experimental nearly 20 acre block and historically two families’ the Deterts and MacDonalds farm smaller blocks.
The 2005 TOR To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon shows plenty of fruit on the bouquet yet complemented nicely with secondary aromas including with notes of cedar and a sweetness of mocha. It reveals a generous mouth feel yet is refined and elegant with a palate that is also all about the fruit. Flavors of black cherry and black licorice seductively coat the insides of the palate – yet these concentrated fruit flavors are balanced by good acidity and tannin structure.
TOR has a second label called ROCK which are wines solely made from varietals grown in the Rhone Valley in France. The name of this label is tribute to the huge amounts of rocks found in certain vineyards in the Rhone Valley as well as found in the nearby vineyards that Tor sources fruit from. These wines are mainly Syrah and Grenache.
TOR comes from a family of artists – his father was an accomplished writer and his mother an actress and a painter. His parents artistic proclivities rubbed off on Tor – while living in Santa Barbara he began a Jazz Club and promoted concerts for musicians such as Tom Waits and Chuck Berry. Tor also has the gift to create engaging prose and has always been a friend of wine writers and wine journalists. For many years, TOR wines supported fellowships for the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers – still held annually at Meadowood Napa Valley hotel and spa in St. Helena.
For a number of years TOR did not have a space where they could host tastings – rather focused on select distribution and appearances at a number of premium wine events including the Taste of Howell Mountain, held each year, usually in mid June. We’ve attended this event several times and tasting some of TOR’s wines is always one of the highlights.
Today one can taste their wines at two locations – sometimes at The Wine Vault at Ma(i)sonry in Yountville, a chic tasting space located in a historical stone building and at Wheeler Farms, located on Zinfandel Lane just south of St. Helena.
Visits to Wheeler Farms are limited and are for serious wine enthusiasts and collectors. With a number of premium brands using this winery for both production and hospitality purposes, they offer a Portfolio Tasting featuring some of the wines from those producing on site. With a diversity of both producers and types of wines available, these tastings can be customized based on preference. Tastings often provide access to personalized visits with the winemakers or the owners behind the brands.
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