Saturday, March 4, 2017

Walking the Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard with Andy Beckstoffer and Tor Kenward (Tor Kenward Family Wines)

According to Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle:
Andy Beckstoffer is a legend in California wine ... The grape grower owns what is certainly California's most famous, and probably most expensive, vineyard: To Kalon, in the heart of Napa Valley. To Kalon is a vineyard with an aura. Winemakers speak in hushed tones about the prospect of handling its Cabernet; wines that bear the vineyard's name drown in 100-point scores.
And we were scheduled to visit this vineyard on the Tuesday of PNV week on a tour organized by Tor Kenward -- for the Wine on the Way team -- and led by the selfsame Andy Beckstoffer.

Tor had provided us with directions to the meeting point (shown on the map below) and we all mostly arrived at the same time. It was cold and spitting but we were oblivious to the elements; we were warm with anticipation.

While we awaited Andy's arrival, Tor provided us with his perspective on the vineyard:
Tor Kenward Family Wines has worked with eight different blocks since 2005 and has gravitated to the leaner soils in the western back blocks higher on the bench. We have worked with all the clones except clone 7, and have two blocks of rare Cabernet Franc. Our goal is to keep all the blocks separate and each year simply make the best wines we can from the diversity of the different clones, blocks and varieties present.
The picture below shows some of the more well-known Beckstoffer To Kalon producers and the vineyard blocks from which they source grapes.

Tor Kenward (center) warming up for Andy
And then Andy arrived. He was genial and quick with a smile. He welcomed each of us with a warm handshake and an apology for the weather. He was dressed as though he had just stepped off the farm tractor but the twinkle in his eye signaled that he might be wearing monogrammed underwear beneath the farmer gear.

Andy Beckstoffer on point
After some catching up, we headed off along the path indicated on the first vineyard map in this post and displayed in the picture below.

Heading out to traverse the vineyard

As noted by Esther Mobley, Beckstoffer To Kalon wines receive high scores and demand a premium in the marketplace. But when you speak to the winemakers, the conversation eventually comes around to a discussion of Andy's pricing mechanism for grapes sourced from this vineyard. As described by Alder Yarrow, "His contracts with customers specify three pricing scenarios for the grapes: a fixed price per ton, a fixed price per acre, and a fixed multiplier of the winery's suggested retail price per bottle, with a required minimum bottle price." According to Yarrow, the per acre price is insurance against a winemaker restricting the crop to "unusually" low levels.

That pricing mechanism reflects Andy's feeling about the primacy of this vineyard in the construction of high-quality wines. As he explained it during our walk, when he started out, he had the option of providing the fruit to a single winemaker. But, under that scenario, all of the talk would be about a great winemaker. If, however, he provides fruit to 20 winemakers, and they all make great wines, then the dialogue is about a great vineyard. And that is why he wants to speak to the winemaker prior to providing fruit to a producer. He wants to make an evaluation as to whether that winemaker can truly represent the vineyard.

Back in the 1980s, he continued, the better wines were reserve wines, the product of winemaking. Today the the best wines are expressions of terroir and he has brought every modern approach to viticulture to the vineyard in order to ensure that he is producing absolutely the best grapes. In the current partnership model, the winery is responsible for yields and harvest timing while he is responsible for all other aspects of viticulture. The vineyard is managed sustainably.

Andy mentioned that they will be initiating a replanting of the vineyard, an effort that will unfold over a 10-year period. He will be replacing the current rootstock -- 039-16 -- with a UC-Davis-developed derivative with the nomenclature GRN 1 and GRN 3. The current rootstock is too vigorous and is not as nematode-resistant as he would like. The nematode problem in the vineyard results in production levels of 1.6 tons/acre in some areas versus an average of 3.5 tons/acre overall. The replacement rootstock has lower vigor, higher nematode resistance, and a higher level of Phylloxera resistance.

The replanting plan is complex and will require some pain-sharing among the fruit purchasers. They were recently informed of the plan by mail. Andy's plan is that when a buyer's plot (or portion of a plot) is designated for replanting, his/her neighbor will be asked to share a portion of their fruit with the affected party. The upshot of this plan is that both parties will be subjected to reduced grape totals until that replanted plot becomes productive again (3 - 5 years in Andy's estimation, 5 - 7 years in mine0.

By this time we had spent over an hour discussing the vineyard, pricing philosophy, grower-winemaker relationships, and the replant. It was time to begin heading back and we fell naturally into two groups. Tor and Andy went ahead of us (Tor now had quality time to bend Andy's ear) while we followed at a more measured pace giddily discussing the things that we had heard and learned. This had been a very enlightening visit.

Note: The configuration of the vineyard has been described in a previous post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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