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Tor Kenward reflects on a career in Napa

Marking the release of his new book, celebrated Napa Valley winemaker Tor Kenward discussed how the region has changed, the merits of oak fermentation, and which actor he wants to play him in a possible screen adaptation.

“I’m drinking my Chardonnays about five years or older these days. It’s just where my palate is right now”, Kenward shares. By contrast, the turnaround on his book, Reflections of a Vintner, was somewhat quicker.

It was at the beginning of the pandemic that the project began to take shape as a form of isolation escapism: “The walls started to get tight on all of us, so I started to mentally time travel and share stories from my career on my website.” It was only a matter of time before a literary agent got in touch, and a year later the first proof was ready.

The resultant book takes the reader on a month-by-month journey through the trials and tribulations a Napa winemaker faces throughout the calendar year. There are lessons on the history, the geography and the people of the region. There are also recollections of those Kenward has worked with on that 45 year odyssey, including the inimitable Julia Child, herself a California native.

In a career as long and accomplished as Kenward’s, missteps would seem inevitable. When ruminating on errors of judgement during his 27 years at Beringer Vineyards, he jokes about one particular decision: “I convinced them that we should make a special glass for Beaujolais Nouveau [made from Napa Gamay] with Riedel. I was hoping it would persuade critics to like this horrible product!” It was not a success.

While the book charts Kenward’s journey, he suggests that it was more his attempt to tell “the story of Napa Valley over the last 50 years.” A great deal has changed in the intervening decades. Stephen Brook, also in attendance, remarked that on his first trip to California in 1977 he had noticed that “there wasn’t much around!” Today, “Napa’s pretty much planted now”, according to Kenward.

He notes that winemaking has come on leaps and bounds, especially praising André Tchelistcheff. However, he says: “[winemakers] started to go backwards and make wine in a more ancient way”, with barrel fermentation being a particular example due to how it “integrates the phenolics in a more natural way”.

The debate over whether stainless steel or barrel fermentation is preferable is unlikely to be resolved soon (Kenward argues that stainless steel fermentation followed by barrel ageing puts “all the bad parts of the barrel” into the wine). Despite these arguments, the bond between winemakers is strong, especially through adverse circumstances.

“The fires in 2017 and 2020 – that’s when I saw the community I remember from the 1970s and ’80s come together again. Everyone was taken care of. I watched the Valley become extremely cohesive, in a way which was really reassuring.”

As for his view of winemakers, having been one for half a century, “My favourite wine makers are real cork dorks, they’re experimenting all over the place…A lot of people in wine do tend to be very obsessive!” That obsession is still burning in Kenward, and his Tor Wines label has been going strong since 2001, and part of the Pol Roger portfolio since 2020.

Just as Child has been the subject of a recent HBO drama, Kenward’s story has attracted the attention of Hollywood. “My wife has already decided who is going to play her!”, he quips. As for who could play the role of Kenward: “I want to see someone young and handsome…what about Tobey Maguire?”

Last year, db spoke with Kenward about the potential of Californian Chardonnay.

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