The tale of To Kalon

The Napa Valley has many incredible vineyards, but To Kalon undoubtedly sits at the top of the tree. As the To Kalon Vineyard Company releases their latest vintage, Sophie Thorpe delves into the story of this iconic site – from its 19th century origins to the fight to use its hallowed name
The tale of To Kalon

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To Kalon. For any Californian winemaker, those two words represent the Holy Grail. This vineyard in Oakville, Napa, is undeniably the region’s most famous. Perched at the foot of the Mayacamas, west of Highway 29, this site has been recognised for producing fine wine since the 19th century. Literally translating as the “highest beauty” or “highest good” from Greek, today To Kalon is home to some of Napa’s oldest vines and best Cabernet Sauvignon.

“This is a Grand Cru – a premier property,” Paul Hobbs tells me, a winemaker who has a long history with the site. As a grad student at UC Davis, Hobbs would swipe the second crop from a vineyard on Walnut Drive – what happened to be BV4, Beaulieu Vineyard’s original block of To Kalon. At Mondavi – the largest holder of the hallowed site – he got to walk the rows more legitimately, and used those holdings to build Opus One – the company’s joint venture with Ch. Mouton Rothschild (although the association with the site has generally been played down). Under his own label, he’s been making wine from the Beckstoffer section of the vineyard since 1999 – and his wines, along with those from Schrader, were some of the early bottlings that put the vineyard firmly on the fine wine map, earning high scores – and lots of attention.

Indeed, it was a Paul Hobbs wine that made Tor Kenward believe the vineyard was truly special. André Tchelistcheff had spoken to Kenward about BV4, but it was one of Hobbs’s bottlings that made him realise its potential. He started working with Beckstoffer plots from 2005.

Tor Kenward
Tor Kenward, who has been working with Beckstoffer To Kalon since 2005

“It’s not visually impressive; it doesn’t have that ‘wow factor’,” Kenward tells me. But start digging below the surface, and you realise that you’re in the “tenderloin of Napa”, with old creek beds that run through the site. It’s an alluvial fan that runs down from the Mayacamas, sitting almost on a bench – with very little elevation. But the soils here are varied, with deep, well-drained gravels that make it perfect for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Andy Erickson – a winemaker whose resume includes Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Dalla Valle, Mayacamas and many more – first worked with the site in 2012, on a single-barrel charity lot for an auction at his children’s school. When Constellation (owners of Mondavi and co-owners of Opus One) called him to give him the chance to work with it again in 2016, he didn’t hesitate. That year, he made the first wine for the To Kalon Vineyard Company – a project that is a revival of the brand created by H.W. Crabb (known variously as Henry Walker, Hiram Walker or Hamilton Walker Crabb) in 1886, the vineyard’s godfather.

“Most people know the recent history of the vineyard, and the acclaim of the wines from the past 15-20 years. But the vineyard was known for producing remarkable wines all the way back in the late 19th century. Clearly there is something there,” Erickson says.

But this vineyard is weighed down with controversy – its borders endlessly debated, with producers vying for use of the To Kalon name.

The history of the To Kalon Vineyard

It’s impossible to look at To Kalon today without tracing its origins. H.W. Crabb came west from Ohio during the Gold Rush, spending six months digging in the Sierras before settling in Oakville in 1868, buying 240 acres of land at the corner of Highway 29 and Walnut Drive. He planted a wide range of crops, first making wine in 1872 under the name Hermosa Vineyards (“hermosa” meaning “beautiful” in Spanish).

In 1881, he acquired another 119 acres from Eliza Yount (whose name lives on in Yountville). On land to the west of his plots, owned by John Davis, he planted additional vines – buying the fruit off Davis to feed his increasing production. In 1886, he gave his company a new name: “To Kalon Vineyard Company” – and the legend was born. Crabb reportedly said, “The name To-Kalon… means the highest beauty, or the highest good, but I try to make it mean the boss vineyard.”

To-Kalon Vineyard label
One of the original labels of H.W. Crabb's To Kalon Vineyard Company

To Kalon Vineyard Company rapidly became one of the region’s largest – and most well-respected – wine producers. His wines started winning awards at competitions around the world, and he was the first to start selling wine along the East Coast. He had planted a huge range of grapes – around 400 different varieties, including Malvasia, Riesling, Chasselas, Muscat, Refosco and Cabernet Sauvignon, with the latter in particular thriving.

In 1889, he bought 168 acres on the hillside to the south, close to where Harlan is now based, although it was never planted with vines during Crabb’s lifetime. In 1891, Crabb bought Davis’s 135 acres (from which he’d already been buying the fruit). In total, Crabb had more than 359 acres.

But his success wasn’t to last – phylloxera arrived in the late 19th century, and recession along with it. In 1898, Crabb sold the 135 acres he’d bought just eight years earlier – and died one year later in 1899. The vines were ripped out, replaced by cherry trees under David Perry Doak in 1911, who in turn purchased another 500 acres of vines from John Benson, south of the border of the original To Kalon (across Oakville Grade Road), which is now all owned by Constellation (used for Mondavi or Opus One).

After Crabb’s death, what remained of the To Kalon Vineyard Company was sold to ES Churchill at auction, taken over by his widow Mary Churchill when he died in 1903. Wines continued to be sold under the label until the arrival of Prohibition in 1920. The winery reopened briefly to sell wine in bulk in the 1930s, but the winery building burnt down in 1939. Four years later, Martin Stelling bought most of the property – 337 acres – and replanted. He sold 90 acres to Beaulieu Vineyards (the block that became known as BV4 – and was the plot used by André Tschelistcheff made Georges de Latour Reserve).

In 1944, Stelling bought an additional 1,700 acres – the McGill Ranch, which included the parcels owned by Doak (both Crabb’s 1891 parcel and the 500 acres area south of Oakville Grade Road). He named the entire property Tokalon Vineyards, and in 1945 planted Sauvignon Blanc in I Block – the legendary parcel that is today used for Mondavi’s prized, old-vine To Kalon Fumé Blanc.

Tragedy struck again, however, with Stelling killed in a car crash in 1950. The property was once more divided, sold off in pieces by his widow.

The To Kalon vineyard
The To Kalon vineyard

Rosa Mondavi, along with her sons Robert and Peter, purchased 132 hectares in 1962 for the family winery, Charles Krug. After Robert struck out on his own, he bought 12 acres for himself in 1966 (that remained in the Stelling family) – in the northeast corner of the 1968 Crabb parcel, where the Mondavi winery and visitor centre remains today. He bought a further 230 acres in 1968, and then took the Charles Krug section from the rest of his family in 1978.

The first time the To Kalon name appeared on a Mondavi label – and the first time since the demise of the To Kalon Vineyard Company – was on the 1986 Fumé Blanc Reserve. The I Block – the Sauvignon Blanc vines planted by Stelling in 1945 – were singled out for the first time in 1995, for the vines’ 50th anniversary. The first red – Mondavi’s To Kalon Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – appeared with the 1997 vintage.

The To Kalon Vineyard’s terroir

As already mentioned, To Kalon is largely an alluvial fan that stretches down from the Mayacamas to Highway 29. It is, however, a large piece of land (the exact area depending on where you draw its borders – see below for more on the controversy around this) – and as such the terroir varies considerably.

The soils are richer downslope, closer to the Highway; poorer and better-drained higher up (where many – including Hobbs and Kenward – prefer to be). The gravel composition varies with the subtle slope differences and underground water.

“It’s like any cut of meat – there are better parts than others,” Hobbs says. With over 300 original acres (at least), this is a substantial vineyard (for comparison, Clos Vougeot is 125 acres). “It’s great if you have the name To Kalon, but could be pretty average stuff.”

The Beckstoffer section is numbered and lettered: A to F, from road to mountain, with A1 south of A2. For Hobbs, he likes the blocks closer to the mountains, and those that aren’t shaded by the huge walnut trees that line Walnut Drive (to the south).

Hobbs noted how much warmer Oakville is than Yountville – something he used to notice when driving in the evening home from Oakville to Yountville. The mountains block the sea breezes, meaning that the cooling effect happens, but more slowly. This is partly what makes it such a special place.

Tor Kenward similarly prefers some of the middle blocks in B and C, where there are some of the vineyard’s oldest vines, but with lower vigour, as well as the leaner soils closest to the mountains.

As for the MacDonald or Horton block: “You could argue it’s every bit as good as Andy’s piece,” Kenward says. It, along with the Detert block, was planted in the 1940s – and in fact those two blocks are now home to some of the valley’s oldest vines. Even closer to the mountains, the gravel content is even higher, and the fruit is picked up to a month earlier than elsewhere in To Kalon. Although until now most of that fruit has been sold to Constellation, there will be opportunity for others to work with it as that contract comes to an end.

Andy Erickson
Andy Erickson amongst the vines in Napa

The Beckstoffer plots of To Kalon

Andy Beckstoffer bought Beaulieu Vineyards’ block, BV4, in 1993. He’d just lost a prized site – Liparita, on Howell Mountain – when the 89 acres of BV4 came up. He’d worked the site for years and leapt at the opportunity to buy it. “It’s a mystery to me why they sold it,” Paul Hobbs told me, although word on the grapevine was that they needed to liquidate funds – indeed, it was around the same time that Mondavi went public for similar reasons. Phylloxera was once more raging through the region thanks to the widely used, non-resistant AXR rootstock.

The BV4 block was in bad shape when Beckstoffer took it over and he had to replant the entire site. Paul Hobbs was one of the first to use fruit from Beckstoffer’s plots, starting to work with him from 1995/96. “Andy didn’t really realise he had a Grand Cru property,” Hobbs says. Hobbs was given free rein to pick his plots, opting for four or five plots on the western side, furthest from Highway 29. The vineyard produced its first fruit in 1997; 1998 was a difficult year; but in 1999 Hobbs was able to produce his first To Kalon bottling (although it couldn’t say so on the label). “I was loathe to tell people how young it was – but the quality was so good,” Hobbs says, still starry eyed thinking about it. “It was only four years old, but producing stunning wines.”

Most fruit is sold on its weight, by the ton, but Andy Beckstoffer created a different model – one that is intricately tied to the vineyard’s name and reputation – and arguably has increased its reputation. Producers who use his fruit pay him 175 times the bottle price per ton, with a ceiling at $50,000/ton; tying the value of the fruit to the value of the final wine.

“For producers like me in those days, when I didn’t have the land or ability to buy land, Andy was a saviour of sorts,” Hobbs tells me. “Because I had access to one of the top vineyards in all of Napa. I had to pay – but at least I had access.”

To Kalon map
Maps of the To Kalon vineyard. Left: the "original" plots of To Kalon, with dates when bought by H.W. Crabb, and the Stelling extension. Right: the vineyard today, with who owns which section

The To Kalon controversy: how big is it? And is it a brand or a place?

Mondavi trademarked the name “To Kalon” in 1988, and “To Kalon Vineyard” in 1994. This gave them the right to use the name on any wine from anywhere – even beyond California – and meant that no one else could use the name, even if they had plots in what was considered the original To Kalon vineyard.

The first Beckstoffer bottlings only mentioned the name on the back label; but in 2000, Schrader decided to put it on the front label. The now famous lawsuit commenced.

“They shouldn’t have been able to trademark it,” Hobbs tells me. “Anyone from the original To Kalon estate should have the right to the trademark as well.”

In 2002, Mondavi sued Schrader for using the name on their Beckstoffer bottling. Countersuing ensued, from both Schrader and Beckstoffer (the latter arguing that Mondavi was misleading clients by using the name for wines made with fruit from beyond the vineyard’s original borders). A settlement – the details of which remain a mystery – was made in 2003, but wines made from the Beckstoffer section can now bear the name “Beckstoffer To Kalon”.

Constellation bought Mondavi in 2004, and then Schrader in 2017. Reportedly attempts were made to trademark “To Kalon Wine Company”, “To Kalon Vineyard Company” and “Rooted in To Kalon” – something, unsurprisingly, that Beckstoffer objected to. The legal battle continues today, with a fight over the naming of To Kalon Creek, and The Vineyard House – owned by Jeremy Nickel, which sits on the 1889 hillside section – arguing for the use of the name as well.

The borders of the vineyard are a constant source of debate – and given the history above, you can see why.

Andy Beckstoffer considers the original To Kalon to be only the parcels bought by Crabb in 1868 and 1881. The 1889 parcel was never planted by Crabb, so most aren’t inclined to include it as “original To Kalon”. The Detert and MacDonald plots, however, aren’t acknowledged by Beckstoffer, but were planted – and, albeit more briefly than other plots, owned by Crabb. Then there’s the “Stelling extension”, the southern section added after Crabb’s death under Martin Stelling, that Mondavi considers part of the original vineyard, but some others do not.

Given the sums fruit – and wine – bearing the To Kalon name command, it’s unsurprising that its usage is so disputed.

Paul Hobbs
Paul Hobbs fell in love with the To Kalon vineyard when he first worked with the fruit at Mondavi in the 1970s

To Kalon: what does the wine taste like?

So what makes the wine so special? Why do winemakers fight for the fruit, and consumers for the bottles they produce?

Despite the sheer variety of the site, Tor Kenward is adamant that there’s a continuity, with a profile that that site gives Cabernet. He describes it as “wall-to-wall carpeting”, a plushness to the mid-palate, a softness, that means the Cabernet isn’t hard-edged.

“There’s something about the ground there,” Andy Erickson agrees. For him, To Kalon has a distinct tannin texture – not as rugged as hillside sites, but richer, with a generosity in the wines. “They are dark, aromatic, but very broad and polished,” he says. “I think the vineyard brings forward many of the complexities of Cabernet Sauvignon, but delivers it in a very approachable and elegant package.”

“It’s very identifiable,” Paul Hobbs says. “It’s a structural and textural thing mostly. It’s a freshness to this sort of tannin. It has grip, but it has this uplifting character.” He explains it like a skipping stone – you think you’ve got it, then another wave comes, the wine shifting on the palate. For him, one of the most distinctive things is that Cabernet sings alone here – much better than blended with other varietals. “It didn’t need the help of its brothers,” he says. “It’s a wine that’s at peace with itself… It doesn’t shock you, except in its beauty.”

Who owns what today in To Kalon?

Robert Mondavi: From the original 12 acres, Mondavi now owns 328 acres of To Kalon, including the Stelling extension. Has the rights to use the To Kalon name.

Opus One: The 35-acre Q Block was sold to the joint venture by Mondavi in 1981, with K block acquired in 2008. Although under Constellation’s ownership they could likely use the To Kalon name, Opus One doesn’t trade on this. (To Kalon Vineyard Company uses fruit from Constellation’s holdings, both Opus One and Mondavi plots.)

UC Davis: a research block that was key in developing phylloxera-resistant rootstock Beckstoffer: 89 acres, with fruit sold to a range of producers (currently 23), including Paul Hobbs, Tor Kenward and Schrader. Producers can use the name “Beckstoffer To Kalon” on their labels.

MacDonald (sometimes referenced as Horton): Graeme and Alex MacDonald are the current generation, owning 21 acres of the 1891 parcel. When their great-grandparents bought the site in 1954 (along with the Detert plot – see below – from Caroline Stelling, Martin Stelling’s widow) it was planted with cherry trees. Advised by Robert Mondavi, the MacDonalds planted vines. From 1966, they sold grapes to Mondavi – holding some back for personal use from 2004, with the first MacDonald commercial release in 2010 (just 92 cases). Although historically 75% of production here has been sold to Mondavi, I’m led to believe that the contract is coming to a close and won’t be renewed. The MacDonalds can’t use the To Kalon name on their wines currently.

Detert: Today owned by Tom Garrett, a cousin of the MacDonalds. This 25-acre plot was bought in 1954, along with the MacDonald parcel – divided between the buyers’ children giving the two plots today. There’s more Cabernet Franc in this section. Most of the fruit is sold to Mondavi (with the contract, as for MacDonald, coming to an end soon), and Detert can’t use the To Kalon name on their wines.

The Vineyard House: Many dispute whether or not this is original To Kalon; it’s on the hillside area purchased (but not planted) by Crabb in 1891. This plot is owned by Jeremy Justin Nickel, who is the son of the late Far Niente proprietor Gil Nickel. It’s thought to have first been planted with vines in 1980. They can’t use the To Kalon name on their wines, but have taken court action over the issue.

Wineries with To Kalon bottlings

NB Not all of these will bear the To Kalon name on the label Mondavi Winery, Opus One, To Kalon Vineyard Company, MacDonald, Detert, Alpha Omega, Amici, Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate, AXR, Bacio Divino, B Cellars, Boich Family, Bounty Hunter, Cain Concept, Carter cellars, Ch Boswell, Jacquelynn, Kitchak, Cliff Lede, Morlet, Realm Cellars, Tor Kenward, Paul Hobbs, Schrader Cellars

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Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe
Sophie Thorpe joined FINE+RARE in 2020. An MW student, she’s been short-listed for the Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer Award twice, featured on and won the 2021 Guild of Food Writers Drinks Writing Award.