Vintners You Should Know
Tor Kenward -- Winemaker in the Candy Factory
Tor Kenward. The Winemaker in the Candy Factory.
The Wine Whisperer
Normally, you don’t just drop everything, run up to Napa Valley, and start making wine. And if you do, you don’t always meet with success. But when the impulse, the urge, whatever you want to call it, does hit, the power can be undeniable. That’s what happened to Tor Kenward, and that’s what compelled him to make top-quality wines.
In his early 20s (he won’t say how many years ago that was) he was a partner in a Southern California jazz club. “I fell in with a cork dork who managed two wine shops,” he recalls. When things got social, Tor would cook dinner, his friend would invite fellow wine lovers and “it was epiphany after epiphany.” Kenward remembers that his friends brought incredible wines to their dinners, and encouraged him to come along to Napa and Sonoma on buying trips for the stores. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I started going up to Napa in the mid-70s,” he says, and moved there permanently in 1977 when he was offered a job at Beringer. “Talk about the best job in the world,” he smiles. “I stayed there 27 years as Vice President of many of their most exciting programs. Kid in a candy factory.”
Spend almost three decades at a winery of Beringer’s caliber, and you soak up the deepest winemaking concepts and aspirations. Helping to shape Beringer’s Reserve wine and culinary programs doesn’t hurt, either.
“Working to make the best possible wine from raw ingredients has always been a love of mine, so all these decades as a vintner have never really seemed like work.” He aimed high from the beginning, deciding that the mass market bargain wines were not what he wanted to make. He retired from Beringer and, like others before him, decided to “do his own thing.”
“When I launched TOR Kenward Family wines, there was never a second thought; all the wines were going to be Reserve quality and focused on single vineyard expression.” The oldest joke in the wine world is about how you make a small fortune in the wine business by starting with a large one. Fortunately, Kenward left Beringer with the resources to realize his “reserve quality” ambition.
“Thankfully, the critics blessed our first wines, and many customers have become long term supporters,” he reflects. His talents, and his good reviews, gave him the ability to secure fruit from the best Cabernet and Chardonnay blocks of land in the world. The name Beckstoffer comes immediately to mind, and fruit from those ethereal vineyards makes up two of his top offerings: the TOR To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet, and the To Kalon Vineyard Red. He also makes distinguished single-vineyard wines from the Tierra Roja and Cimarossa Vineyards, among others.
He feels strongly about his best wines from Napa and Sonoma. “Our Chardonnays are $60. The Cabernet Sauvignons begin at $80 and go to $150. If we don’t like something along the way we don’t bottle it. Our customers get only the best, and I treat them exactly how I would like to be treated if I were on my own mailing list.”
Speaking of mailing lists, most of the Kenward wines go to customers lucky enough to obtain a spot. However, he does set aside enough of his production to get into important wine markets, so more enthusiasts can discover them. “Naples is one of the great fine wine friendly destinations,” he says. “We hope with time to get more wine there.”
Of course, anyone who produces wine in the “reserve” range has to be sensitive to what wine critics think—and what they write in the major magazines, newsletters, and websites. Kenward’s wines have scored consistently in the mid-to-upper 90s range, and some even 95 points and above. He believes that some of his wines could achieve 100 points.
“I think wine ratings can create excitement, and help small wineries such as ours move forward when they don’t have sales, marketing, or PR consultants or employees.” He does believe that the top critics try very hard to be fair and true to their palates, but the real question for the consumer is “which critics like the types of wines I like.” His best advice: find a retail outlet with people who will listen to you intently and introduce you to new and exciting wines that may not get reviewed. “You are your own best wine critic,” he maintains.
The philosophy in Kenward’s winery is simple: Study the little things about each vintage. Learn how to let the personality of each vineyard take center stage. Maximize the potential of the land in every bottle. And most of all, know when to take your hands off, step back from the process, and let nature – and the fruit and the land – do the talking.
Tor wines are available on the winery’s website www.torwines.com.
Chris Thorpe Shines in Carneros
Adastra Aims for the Stars
Dr. Chris Thorpe isn’t the first person to make the Napa pilgrimage in hopes of becoming a winemaker, but he’s joined the ranks of those who have met with success. He and his wife (also a physician) they bought a horse ranch in the early 1990s, and started to pursue The Dream.
Chris Thorpe (L) with winemaker Edwin Richards
“We started from scratch,” says Thorpe about the 33-acre horse ranch they acquired in the Carneros region. It had been a vineyard before Prohibition, but the vines were ripped out and the property was converted to pasture as a result of America’s disastrous Great Experiment. Today, the prized land is once again producing high quality wines.
“Our production is fairly small,” Thorpe notes, as he counts off the varietals he produces under the expert supervision of well-known wine consultant Pam Starr: about 50 cases of Merlot (I sampled the 2009 Proximus Merlot…excellent), Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. The wines are sold directly to the winery’s 600 club members, and others who are fortunate enough to get in on the action.
In our conversation, it became clear that the Thorpes are serious about the quality of their product. “We prune down to one cluster per shoot,” he says. “That gives us a yield of around 2-3 tons per acre.” That’s why they make only about 1,500 cases a year. And why the wines are so good.
For more information, pay a visit to adastrawines.com.
Top Oregon Pinots? Right Here!
The Ponzis -- Making Wine Happen
Considering the fact that the winegrowing regions of the world are major tourist attractions, it seems kind of strange that any area would not want to officially encourage it. Well, you haven’t been to Oregon.
Until people like David Lett and Dick and Nancy Ponzi pioneered the growing of Pinot Noir in the state, the lawmakers in Salem considered agricultural land to be just that, and commercial property to be a whole ‘nother thing. Back in the 1970s the twain never met, zoningwise, and nobody could build a winery or tasting room in their vineyard.
Fortunately, the Ponzis, among a few other courageous souls, lobbied the legislature to revise the laws, and establish strict labeling requirements to protect product quality and consumer confidence. It took a while, but they succeeded.
That was then. Flash forward to the present, when the Willamette Valley (along with the Rogue, Umpqua and other regions) are turning out some of the finest Pinots anywhere, and welcoming hordes of thirsty wine lovers like you and me into their hospitality centers. Thank you, David and Nancy.
As you’ve probably observed, people who run off to make wine come from surprisingly diverse backgrounds. Fortunately, Dick Ponzi had been a mechanical engineer before attempting to make a small fortune in the wine business by starting with a large one. His abilities led him to develop techniques and equipment that have become standard in the overall industry.
Now led by the next generation, the Ponzi Family winery is, like many other friends of the earth, practicing strictly sustainable farming practices, and working to preserve the charm and the products of Willamette Valley. In fact, the estate vineyards are LIVE Certified Sustainable, the world’s highest standard for sustainable viticulture.
About that next generation. Winemaker Luisa Ponzi enjoyed a graduate education that anyone would envy: an apprentice gig in Beaune, followed by another with the famed Vietti vineyards in Piedmont. It’s that Burgundian soul that gives Ponzi’s Pinot Noirs the elegance we all enjoy.
With a college major in Italian and a degree in music, Michael Ponzi isn’t the first person you’d think of when hiring a vineyard manager, but guess what. Studying in France and Italy gave him the foundation he needed to direct the operations of the company, which he does, along with composing, making music, and being a general Renaissance man.
I had the pleasure of meeting Maria Ponzi Fogelstrom several times when I was Wine Director of the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Festival. She’s the adventurous one, having pulled stunts like going backpacking in Borneo and who knows what else. As the well-traveled ambassador for the family’s wines, she charms the socks off of everyone.
The Ponzis have met the challenge of growing Pinot Noir, also know as the “heartbreak grape” in an area where everyone said it couldn’t be done. That would be enough of an accomplishment for most of us, but they persist in expanding their ampellographic horizons (and ours) by cultivating not only Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc, but a bit of Riesling as well, and rare Italian varietals like Arneis and Dolcetto. And let’s not forget their Muscat-based dessert wine, Vino Gelato. (How can you resist something called “ice cream wine?”).
Finding great Pinots for reasonable prices is always a quest, which is why I’m so fond of their Tavola Pinot Noir. They put the fruit right up front, with loads of cherry enhanced by red floral aromas and vanilla. On the palate the tannins are very smooth, and the cherry nose transforms in to dark plum. Lovely, and well under $30 a bottle.
Greg Bjornstad's Hands-Off Winemaking
So my dear friend and wine buddy Lou Bernardi shows up for dinner with his ravishing wife Denise, and he plunks a bottle of Pinot Noir down on the counter.
“Let’s open this one first,” he says. We’ve dined with Lou and Denise often enough to know that more than one bottle will be drained and enjoyed before the night is through.
“Bjornstad Van Der Kamp Vineyard,” I observe. “What’s a Swedish guy doing making wine in Sonoma?”
“He’s not Swedish,” Lou corrected me. “He’s Norwegian. And he knows what he’s doing.” I poured the first glass and tasted it. “He knows what he’s doing,” I observed.
The Pinot was sensational…full and round in the mouth, without that often-typical strawberry note that runs through so many California wines made from this grape. The wine was a nice dark ruby or garnet color, with a nose of blackberry and black plum. As we stood around swirling and sipping (the bottle didn’t last long), I thought there was even a bit of earth and spice. All around a nice effort, we agreed.
“Got any more?” I asked Lou. He didn’t. So the next morning I got on the phone and contacted Greg Bjornstad his own self.
“I didn’t grow up with wine,” he told me. “We never had it in the house.” So I asked him the inevitable question: what was the bottle that did it for you? (We all have one). He told me that when he was working somewhere in the Caribbean a bartender poured him a glass of $5 Bandiera. “It had a tropical flower on the label,” he recalls. Turns out Greg’s initial wine seduction was accomplished by a hidden winery. I tried to find them. No website, just a phone listing in the online White Pages. Number (in Cloverdale, California) “not in service at this time.” So I couldn’t find out what it was that grabbed him by the throat and dragged him into the wine life. But that’s where he wound up.
As a student at UC Davis, Greg was lucky enough (something of an understatement) to earn an internship at Chateau Lafite. “I was the first student of viticulture ever chosen,” he recalls. “All the others had been in the winemaking program, but I was more interested in the growing end of the process.”
Returning to the US with a First Growth Grand Cru credential like that in his pocket, it didn’t take long for Greg to find a slot at Newton, then at Joseph Phelps from 1992 to 1996. Then, like many before him, he struck out on his own. His philosophy: hands off winemaking.
“I want the wine to be less of me, and more of what I imagine the vineyard to be. Of course,” he notes, “every winemaker has to make choices along the way, and that can’t help but color the final product.” He uses indigenous yeasts, no filtration (except when things get really extreme), no fining, ferments in French barrels, and basically lets nature do what nature does when you crush grapes and leave them alone. The result: softer textures and fuller flavors
“As hands off as possible,” Greg says. Judging by what we tasted from one of his bottles, not a bad way to go.
The Herman Story Story
Russell From came to the art of winemaking a bit late…he was 38 in 1997 when he decided to take the plunge. But once he made the move, he really….well, moved.
After a stint at Langhorne Creek in Australia, he spent a few years dragging hoses and doing whatever else at a custom crush facility.
“It was winemaking boot camp,” he recalls. “If it had anything to do with crushing grapes and helping the juice turn into wine, I did it.” It was a four year hitch, and during that time, he worked with about 20 small wineries and several larger ones.
“We crushed 2000 tons a season,” he says. “A lot of work, but I learned the craft and the process from top to bottom. And I started making my own wine at that facility.” He brought out his first vintage of Herman Story in 2001 (“all seven barrels”) and formally started the winery in 2004.
So, what is the story on Herman Story? He was Russell’s grandfather, and there’s some info about him on the back label. According to Russell, Herman wasn’t a winemaker, but was a “rancher, logger, swapper, banker, philanthropist, and teller of tales.” Pretty colorful.
From a marketing standpoint, it seems to me he takes his inspiration from Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non: whimsical names for the wines, avant-garde labels, and new label art for every wine he makes. Not a bad way to go.
But the real interest here is in the wines Russell puts out under his grandfather’s name. He’s not one for the glamour of a fancy tasting room or gift shop on the main drag, even though he does run a small, simple tasting room in downtown Paso Robles. (His winery is between a store that sells welding gas on one side and a tire shop on the other. The whole place backs up to Route 101). But from that modest winery Russell produces about 4,500 cases a year of Grenache and Syrah blends and, oddly enough, full-bodied, round and rich whites made from Rhone varietals.
Every winery has a dog. This is Hank
I asked him about that. Why take a chance on Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, and other types that aren’t all that popular or well-known among American consumers? After all, most of what we know about California whites is all about Chardonnay, and maybe some Sauvignon Blanc.
“I make what I want to make,” he says. Period. And we’re glad he does, because his “Tomboy” white is a stunner. There’s hearty citrus, but not the orange or grapefruit you might expect. No, this is tangerine, and cinnamon, and a bunch of other stuff that makes me wish I had a few more bottles in the cellar.
Herman Story wines are not all that easy to find, but well worth the search. I was walking down the street in Los Olivos about a year ago, and found a wine shop that had some in stock. I bought it all.
Big Time Wines From a Happy Aussie
If you ever get the chance to meet Mollydooker’s Sparky Marquis, be sure to extend your left hand, not your right. According to Sparky, a “mollydooker” in Australian slang is like a southpaw in the States: a left-hander. So Sparky shakes with his left hand. Call it a charming personal quirk or reinforcing of the brand. Whatever.
We’ve known Sparky and Sarah Marquis since meeting them at the Wine Spectator Wine Experience maybe a dozen years ago. And on a recent visit to McLaren Vale, we were able to spend some time with them. (One year at the Wine Experience in New York, Cousin David and I hauled Sparky across the street to a tasting event put on by the Wine Berserkers. He was a surprise guest, and a big hit.)
The great thing about Mollydooker wines is this; they make huge, gobsmacking Aussie Shirazes at just about every price point, so there’s something for everyone. And their wines are consistently rated in the 90+ range by just about every critic, journalist, and blogger who samples them. Including yours truly.
Sparky prepares to do the "Mollydooker Shake"
At the entry level, in the $20+ range, there’s The Boxer, huge and dark in the glass, with layers of black plum and other dark fruit, plus a nice note of chocolate somewhere in the back.
Also in the same range is Two Left Feet, offering surprisingly soft tannins that support deep blackberry flavors. It’s a blend of Shiraz, Merlot, and Cabernet, and some of my sampling buddies get licorice on the midpalate, but that one flavor continues to escape me.
Though Mollydooker is known primarily for whimsically-named big bold reds, Sparky and Sarah’s puckishness extends to whites, as well. No typical Sauv Blanc or Chardonnay for them, though. They make Verdelho, of all things, called The Violinist. It’s what you might call a “happy” wine, with spice, pear, and grapefruit flavors…a summer sipper for sure.
Moving on up in price, through the $50s to the $150s, Sparky gets serious, with Carnival of Love (a personal favorite), Enchanted Path, and the Velvet Glove, a dense, inky monster that always gets 95+ points from even them most hardened critics. There are extracted blackberry flavors, with characteristic licorice and spice, with incredible balance and a soft mouthfeel. Plus, the bottle comes in a nifty purple velvet bag, so it’s a great gift.
Mollydooker made some big noise in the wine world a few years back, when a couple hundred cases of Velvet Glove fell off a fork lift and destroyed themselves. But these days, there’s enough to go around.
From left: Jerry, D'Arrey Osborne (d'Arenberg Wines), Sarah Marquis, Sparky Marquis
Up top, I noted how Sparky shakes hands. Now it’s time to tell you how he shakes his wine. He believes (heretically) that if you give the bottle a good shake before pouring, it softens the wine and makes it more approachable sooner. At lunch one day in McLaren Vale, I watched him do it, and he’s right. Kind of like power decanting.
So when you’re ready for Australian Shirazes and blends that are truly worthy of the name, shake hands with Sparky and Sarah at Mollydooker.