Bernard Portet, “A Winery Without Walls”

It’s not everyday you get to have lunch and taste wine with a Napa Valley icon.  Bernard Portet, founding winemaker at Clos du Val invited a small gathering of journalists to reflect on his 40 years making wine in the Napa Valley.  He officially retired from Clos du Val at the end of 2009, but as so often happens he was going stir crazy and he knew he just had to get back into making wine.

Even sailing can’t keep Bernard away from wine.  He has a 36’ sailboat named Obelix and loves to get out on the water.  He’s also involved with the 34th America’s Cup through the Napa Valley Vintners.  The weather for the upcoming weekend is perfect sailing weather but Bernard says he can’t go.  He’s harvesting grapes instead.

The crush is for Bernard’s new label, Heritance.  The project developed after Bernard bumped into Clos du Val’s former COO, Don Chase who also wanted to get back into wine.  So they hatched a plan where Don would handle the business aspects and Bernard would make the wine.  But the set up is nothing like Clos du Val.  Bernard calls Heritance “a winery without walls.”  

To understand the significance of Heritance, it helps to know Bernard’s background.  A native of the Cognac region in France, Bernard “ was born and raised in the vineyard and the wine business.”  It just so happened that his father was the technical director at one of the first growth chateaux in Bordeaux, Chateau Lafite.  His father taught him that wines should respect and show terroir, with character that reflects the terroir.  “They’ve got to have balance, elegance and complexity,” Bernard says, “but most of all my father told me the greatest wines in the world are the wines with a long finish.”

Bernard’s first job in the wine world came about in 1971 when French vintner John Goelet hired him to find a vineyard anywhere in the world “where I thought we could grow grapes of quality to make a wine of quality.”  After touring vineyards around the world, Bernard settled on Napa Valley, and specifically in the Stag’s Leap district (which at the time did not have the AVA designation.  That would come in 1989).   One reason is because he thought Napa Valley wines had too much alcohol, but he felt cool breezes off of nearby San Pablo Bay would help balance that.

As Bernard says, “the rest is history.”  In 1972 he and John established Clos du Val Winery.  Bernard had just married, but John wanted him to stay in California to buy equipment and oversee happenings at the winery.  He had to make decisions like “what is the diameter pump I chose?  I had never chosen a pump.  What diameter for the hoses?  I had never chosen that.” Big headaches, he jokes.  Bernard told his wife he would be in Napa several more weeks.  Those weeks turned into 40 years.

“My first year making wine for Clos du Val was 1972,” Bernard says.  “It was a challenging year by any means, especially when it’s your first vintage. I had been in the country only five months and I didn’t speak much English.”  He asked his brother Dominique to come to help out.  October rains came just after 80% of his grape crop had been harvested.  But he refused make wine from the 20% left out in the rain.  “I discarded all the grapes.  I said no I don’t want to touch them they are too rotten.”

He also faced other challenges, including his press and pomace pumps breaking down in the middle of crush.  Bernard placed calls to Robert Mondavi and the Trefethens as they had similar set ups.  “They say ok we can lend you our pump but bring it back tomorrow because we need  it tomorrow.  I couldn’t believe that,” Bernard says.  In France they’d say ‘tough luck I need the pump tomorrow and it better be working so I’m keeping it here’.”  Bernard says that one of the best aspects of winemaking in Napa Valley for 40 years is that vintners helped each other out.  “Back then we were all owners.  But now so many wineries are corporately owned.  Employees don’t have the same freedom to exchange information.”

Despite the challenges of that first 1972 vintage, the wine was selected by Steven Spurrier as part of the lineup for the now famous Judgement of Paris in 1976, where California wines were tasted blind with the French wines, and the California wines came out on top.  Bernard says he did not know his wine had been selected.  The California wines went on to best the French wines, with the ’72 Clos du Val coming in 8th.  In a 1986 rematch, the ’72 Clos du Val came out on top.

Fast forward 40 years after that first 1972 vintage, and the name of Bernard’s newest project, Heritance, makes sense.  “If you look at the label,” he says, “you’ll see the numbers 1, 9 and 4.  One is for one family and my family has been in the wine business since 1698, nine because I am the ninth generation of grape growers and four because I’ve made wine on four continents,” which include Europe, North America, South America and Australia.  The name Heritance itself comes from the word inherit which in French is héritage.  Bernard says the name is a tribute to his father and his family.

Bernard doesn’t own a “brick or vineyard” or a pump or press that can break.  He sources from vineyards in Napa and in other grape growing regions.  He crushes at other wineries, where he also ages and blends the wine.  The advantage of a winery without walls, says Bernard, is that he can be more creative and flexible.  He can blend Roussanne with Sauvignon Blanc or make Malbec in Argentina.  “It’s more fun,” he says. “In fact my wife told me ‘why didn’t you start that 10 years ago?‘“

We tasted the Heritance wines of course, and instead of boring you with tasting notes, I can say the wines have Bernard’s signature balance, elegance and approachability, with a long finish for the Cabs.  I especially like the Sauv Blanc blended with Roussanne which is rich but still has zippy acidity.  And that Argentine Malbec?  It’s Bernard’s other new label which he  calls Nandu, and it’s a Malbec and Cabernet blend and very fruit forward.  We also got to taste the ’72 Clos du Val.  What a treat.  It is still vibrant with dried fruits, soft soft tannins and a little bit of barrel spice.  Smooth and delicious, I can only imagine how it tasted 40 years ago.

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