“Wine gets better with age. The older I get, the more I like it.”
Reflections of a Vintner: Stories and Seasonal Wisdom from a Lifetime in Napa Valley is winemaker Tor Kenward’s story of Napa Valley’s transformation from humble farmland to the nation’s food and wine capital. Those of you familiar with my writing know that I love reading about successful people in varied careers, such as athletes, coaches or business leaders, looking for the similarities to investing success. That’s not why I read Reflections of a Vintner.
Wine has become one of my favorite hobbies, so whenever I have business in San Francisco, I try to extend the trip to spend a couple days in Napa. On one of those trips I had the pleasure of tasting TOR wines with its founder Tor and his wife Susan. The wine was great, but what made the visit so memorable were Tor’s engaging stories about a career in the Napa wine industry. When I saw he’d put those stories into a book, I had to read it—and I wasn’t thinking about investing.
Tor moved to Napa in 1976 and worked for Beringer Wines until his 2001 “retirement” when he began making wine under his own label. The Napa he arrived to was home to just a couple dozen wineries. Today, it has more than 800. The restaurant scene was diners; today, it is Michelin stars. The Valley was visited by a small number of wine lovers; today, tourism is its major industry. That’s an amazing amount of change, and Tor was there for all of it.
I was immersed in the fascinating stories about the life of a Napa winemaker when I read, “The learning curve in the making of fine wine is forever. This should give us humility when we make mistakes. Because we will. Hubris can be deadly if you are a winery owner and are taking a calculated gamble…” “We learn about wine, winemaking, wine growing through experience, through our mistakes and success. We have one classroom each year to learn our lessons. There will never be enough classes for us to know all of it. That is the exciting and challenging part of what most winemakers face. It is what makes our learning curve, forever.” And it hit me. If you substitute the word “investing” for the word “wine,” the message is just as accurate and just as poignant.
Tor tells the story of the 2014 Napa earthquake that violently threw and broke many of the barrels that housed his 2013 vintage. That natural disaster cost him 20% of his 2013 production, yet he felt fortunate compared to others in the Valley who suffered much worse. But the trauma the wine suffered led Tor to again taste all his surviving barrels, and he isolated the very best from the others and bottled those separately. “It was a black moment for us at TOR,” and, thus, his ultra premium Black Magic wine was born. I’ve had the privilege of trying the 2014 Black Magic and it is one of the best wines I’ve tasted. Tor humbly says that, “Luck in any career shouldn’t be overrated. It might even be essential.” True, but as in investing, “luck” is often the result of looking for opportunity when others aren’t.
A consistent theme throughout the book is Tor’s humility, and the realization there is always more to learn. He often references the wine know-it-alls who have learned enough to speak the language, but are oblivious to how much they don’t know. “Once again, it is usually someone who is six to ten years into being a wine professional, who purportedly knows everything. Before and after that narrow window, most of us are learning, broadening our frame of reference and opinions.” I laughed reading that because it reminded me of some uber confident MBAs I’ve interviewed. The candidates proudly tout their personal investing track record and generously offer to share their secrets with us after we hire them. Nothing ends an interview faster!
We’ve previously written about how important humility is to Oakmark’s success. I’ve referenced those cringe-worthy interviews and our Chairman Tony Coniaris has written that investment success requires intellectual humility. Our Director of U.S. Research Alex Fitch says, “When we hire analysts, humility is one of the most important things we interview for.” A good investor knows there is always more to learn, and because our job requires making decisions despite uncertainty, we will often be wrong. Only by remaining open to that possibility can we hope to identify our mistakes before they become fatal. It appears that humility is just as valuable for great winemakers!
If you love Napa Valley, open a favorite bottle, kick back and escape from the current stock market by reminiscing with Tor. Rest assured that we are scouring the carnage looking for this bear market’s Black Magic.
Kenward, Tor. Reflections of a Vintner: Stories and Seasonal Wisdom from a Lifetime in Napa Valley. New York, Harry N. Abrams, 2022.
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