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Tor Kenward: ‘Napa much more like Burgundy than Bordeaux’

Despite the region’s focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, “Napa is much more like Burgundy than Bordeaux,” according to Tor Kenward, the founder of Tor Wines, during an exclusive interview with db last week.

Having come to London following his decision to appoint Pol Roger Portfolio as his exclusive distributor in the UK from the start of this year, Kenward gave his expert view of the famous Californian wine region after almost 45 years as a Napa Valley vintner.

Although he found Tor Wines in 2001, which focuses on minimum intervention single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Bordeaux varieties bottled in small quantities, he spent 27 years working with Beringer Vineyards, finishing as vice president at Napa’s oldest continuously operating winery.

Leaving Beringer as it was bought in 2000 by Australia’s Foster’s Brewing Group, he said that because he was “a senior executive” at the time of the acquisition, it gave him enough money to pursue a long-held dream to create his own winery “and keep it completely in the family”.

“There are no silent partners, the board of directors is the mirror in the morning,” he said.

Looking back to the early days of Napa, having joined Beringer in 1977, he said that Napa’s wine industry was small and chaotic. “There were just a handful of us riding that early wave into the shore, and we were like cowboys, making things up as we went along,” he recorded.

By way of example he said that the best selling wine at Beringer in the 70s and 80s “was a cream Sherry because there was a cake recipe at the winery… it was a different planet,” he recorded.

In contrast, today he said, “Napa today is completely different, it has gone from 50 wineries to 450, and there are 600 brands, and Napa is very small.”

It’s for this reason that Kenword believes Napa is “much more like Burgundy than Bordeaux… it is made up of little growers, little blocks, and what we are finding out, like Burgundy, is that even within one vineyard there are ok blocks and great blocks… so how do you get into the great blocks and secure them for the next generation or two?” he commented.

For Tor, who has built his business on making wines from specific and highly-sought after plots across Napa, including the most famous sites – such as Te Kolan for Cabernet Sauvignon or The Hyde Vineyard for Chardonnay – securing the grapes he desires has required “having respect and relationships with the growers.”

He continues, “Right now the wine business in California is lot about relationships, they are very important; it is not so much about coming in as a wealthy Silicon Valley billionaire – you can’t get into great blocks with all money in the world – the only way is through relationships and respect.”

Acknowledging that this is true in Burgundy, he says it’s also the case for the best sites in Champagne, which he describes “as a growers world too”.

Although Kenward said that cash won’t necessarily buy your way into the top sites, he is quick to add his gratitude for the massive influx of monies into Napa.

“There has been a huge investment in Napa in the last 20 years, with billions of dollars, and the creation of multimillion dollar wineries, and all this goes into winemaking and research, so there has been a huge investment in quality… I worked from the bottom to the top with no money, but I think it is the crazy money that has helped us a lot… taking a large fortune and making a small one out of it; god bless the people who’ve done that,” he said.

While Kenward has managed to secure grapes from the grower-owners of some brilliant blocks in Napa, he does admit that the cost of the bunches is extremely high.

“The most expensive in Napa is a vineyard called Te Kolan, and I have 8 blocks of 83 acres, so I’m working with 10-15% under contract, and in the contract, there are three triggers – you can charge by the ton, by the acre, or by a bottle price formula, which is 1.75 x the retail price,” he begins.

Kenward uses the bottle price formula, and this means he pays “about $44,000 per ton” for Te Kolan Cabernet, around 5 times the average price across Napa, which he says is around $8-9000.

“I close my eyes every year when I write that cheque,” he says.

Overall grapes prices in Napa are “going down slightly, recently” he adds, “because we’ve had two large harvests, and it seems that for everyday Cabernet there is a bit of an oversupply. I haven’t seen this for at least a decade, and it’s just a little bit of oversupply. But, [leading Napa grower] Andy Beckstoffer is not going to cut me a deal because the valley average is down a bit, so the top blocks are just as hard as last year or the 10 years before – sourcing from the rarified areas is harder than it has ever been.”

But would he buy land to secure a grape supply?

“Right now I don’t own a single vineyard, but I would like to, and I have taken a run at a few. If I bought something it would have to be at quality level I’m working with, and those sites are just not available,” he says.

As for the cost, it would be “over $1m per acre for the kind of property I’m talking about; maybe you can get something for $800,000, but for the quality I want it is $1m.”

Considering Kenward’s wines are highly sought after in the US, and 65% of his production is sold directly from the winery to consumers, why is he bothering with the UK?

On this topic, like others, he is clear in his outlook. “If you are going to build a wine business it is essential to have distribution in areas that are internationally respected for fine wine; it is critical,” he begins.

He adds, “London has for centuries been a centre for fine wine, and although I’m only taking about a limited amount, it [being in the UK] introduces my wine to new audience every day. That is worth a lot to me, and it keeps a brand fresh to have new eyes and new palates. If I become insular and rely on the DTC business then the chances of getting in trouble are pretty great.”

Concluding he says, “That is a view shaped by the number of years I’ve been in the wine business: you should be in London, you should be in New York, and you should be in important metropolitan areas with an appreciation for fine wine. And there is a lot of competition.

“It is very exciting for us to be with Pol Roger, who are purely family-operated, and only invest in partners that are family owned, with a Champagne business in fine restaurants and retail shops… we are just starting the journey, and we are exited.”

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