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Q & A: Bernard Portet
By Tina Caputo
Nov 22, 2011
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Although he was born in France, Bernard Portet is what you might call a Napa Valley legend.  He arrived in the Napa Valley as a young man in his late 20s, charged with creating a Bordeaux-style winery from the ground up.  That winery was Clos du Val. 

A ninth-generation winemaker, Bernard was born in the Cognac region of France and grew up in the Bordeaux area, where his father was the technical director at Château Lafite.  To add to the knowledge his father passed on in the vineyards and cellar, Bernard studied winemaking at Toulouse and Montpellier before he was hired to establish Clos du Val in 1972.  His first vintage of Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon was included in the now-famous “Judgment of Paris” tasting, in which California proved that its wines could compete on the world stage. 

After spending more than 35 years making wine at Clos du Val, Bernard is embarking on a new winemaking adventure.  Earlier this year, he launched his own Napa Valley brand under the name Heritance.  His first releases include the 2010 Heritance Sauvignon Blanc and the 2008 Heritance Cabernet Sauvignon.  Production is tiny at just 5,000 cases total. 

The Heritance label bears three numbers -- 1, 9 and 4 -- that neatly sum up Bernard’s winemaking experience:  1 family, 9 generations, 4 continents (he’s made wine in Europe, South America, Australia and North America).  Heritance is part of a new global wine venture called Polaris Wines, co-founded with industry vet Don Chase, which also includes an excellent Argentine Malbec called Nandu.

I met Bernard for lunch in Napa Valley to talk about the region’s early days, the evolution of winemaking in California and his new wine venture. 

Wine Review Online (WRO): Given your family background, was it a foregone conclusion that you’d become a winemaker?

Bernard Portet (BP): No.  My interest when I was young was farming and vineyards.  But when I started working in the Bordeaux area I developed a keenness for tasting with my father. 

WRO: Was he your mentor?

BP: My father always wanted to teach me.  But the thing is, my father never talked too much, so you had to ask him questions.  He would take me through the cellars and he would take the wines -- in those days in Bordeaux they were aging wines about three years, so you had the first-year cellar, the second-year cellar and the third-year cellar -- and he would explain to me the evolution.  Before harvest time, he would take me to see the parcels of vineyards and measure the sugar and taste the berries.  All those things gave me a global concept of what’s behind winemaking and what’s behind a wine. 

WRO: What was it like starting Clos du Val at such a young age?

BP: If I’m selected as the future manager of a chateau in Bordeaux, there’s already a vineyard manager who’s been there 25 years, and before that, his father was there, so he knows all of the parcels intimately.  Then there’s also a cellar master -- in those days the cellar master was the head honcho, calling the shots.  So I came here, and there was no cellar master.  I had to learn from scratch how to manage a winery -- and with very little background in management.  The thing is, I wasn’t even scared.  Right now if you told me I had to do that I’d run in the other direction.  It’s a good thing I didn’t know that I didn’t know anything. 

WRO: What was the Napa Valley wine scene like when you first arrived in 1971?

BP: I think we were winery number 28 -- 10 wineries behind Robert Mondavi.  I was coming from France, where people tend to keep things close to their vests -- everything was a big secret.  I went to some of the wine technical meetings, and you had Robert Mondavi, Chuck Carpy, Peter Mondavi -- and all those people were meeting once a month and exchanging all types of technical information.  Robert Mondavi was going to France on a regular basis and picking up all types of notes, and everybody was exchanging ideas.  And I was listening to that and I couldn’t believe it!  But, you know what? This spirit of cooperation by the various players of the day is what has made the success of the Napa Valley. 

I remember in 1974, there were two things that broke down during harvest:  The must pump and the press.  So, I called Mondavi and I called Trefethen, both had the same pumps I had, and both of them were willing to lend me their pumps at a time that was critical.  Can you imagine the generosity?  That spirit of cooperation is something that has driven me throughout my life in Napa Valley.  Living here has made me a very different person than I would have been if I had stayed in France -- and, I think, a much better one. 

WRO: How is Napa Valley different today?

BP: Things have evolved now and it’s a bit more corporate.  Competition is so stiff now that you don’t feel like sharing every single thing.  Plus, if you’re an employee you cannot really disclose too many things.  The environment has changed, but there’s still a spirit of cooperation that pervades. 

WRO: Many people say that the style of wines in Napa Valley is different today -- riper and with more alcohol -- than in the `70s.  Why is that?  

BP: The 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet, which was a very big success in a very lousy year, was 12.8% alcohol.  And if you drink it today, it’s still beautiful.  Let’s say that today I had a wine with the same Brix level as a wine in 1972 -- it would end up being more alcoholic today.  It seems to me that the yeasts -- this isn’t a scientific thing, it’s a feeling that I have -- are more efficient now.  Also, many winemakers now have a different approach to winemaking than we had in those days.  Through the influence of some particular publications, it is clear that the wine at 15% alcohol is going to show better in a blind tasting than a wine that’s 13.5.  Since many winemakers are really seeking those high numbers in some of those publications, they go for more power.  Use any excuse you want -- “We don’t want any of those green tannins” -- it doesn’t matter.  The more powerful wines tend to gain more points than the less powerful wines.  I don’t say the other guys are wrong, because they are bloody successful, but it’s a different approach.  Another factor is that the climate -- except for the last two years -- is getting warmer. 

WRO: How would you describe your winemaking style/philosophy?

BP: Here’s one thing I learned from my father.  When he first came to California his immediate reaction was that the wines were too forward.  And he’d say, “Remember that the hallmark of the quality of the wine is not how voluptuous it shows at the beginning, but how long the finish is.”  So that’s been my train of thought from day one, and I keep making wine along those lines.  Every little step that I take in the winemaking -- be it the winemaking itself, the assemblage or the aging, every step I take is with that in the back of my head. 

I’m also extremely big on terroir.  If I make a Napa Valley wine, it has to have Napa Valley characteristics and Napa Valley typicity.  For me, I want that integrity of the terroir and varietal. 

WRO: Are you taking the same approach with the Heritance wines that you took at Clos du Val?

BP: The philosophy is exactly the same.  You cannot take the stripes off a zebra.  But two things are changing:  First, we are not an estate winery.  Therefore, we have an opportunity to broaden the scope of our selection of grapes, so we have more flexibility.  Second, my objective in this is to make a wine that you enjoy drinking today and for the next five years.  I still want to make my wines balanced, but a bit more approachable at an earlier stage.

WRO: Are you still focused on blending?

BP: I was born and raised in Bordeaux, where all of the wines are assemblage.  Having been born and raised over there, I have a liking for the Graves style of wine.  Therefore, in the Sauvignon Blanc we’re trying to make, we are not trying to make the most intense wine -- we’re trying to make the best wine possible and the most complex wine possible. 

There are two ways of achieving this: One is by blending various lots of one varietal from different terroirs, where the accent is still on the varietal.  The other way is the assemblage.  For example, Sauvignon Blanc tends to be a fairly lean wine, and I don’t like them too acidic.  I don’t like wines that are too alcoholic, because I want my wines to complement food.  So I use that Sauvignon Blanc as the underlying structure, and the Semillon is going to bring the volume and the fatness.  By “assembling” two varietals, you get much more complexity.

WRO: Since Thanksgiving is right around the corner, I have to ask: What will you be serving for dinner at the Portet house?

BP: We’ll have turkey, so we’ll drink Cabernet and Merlot.  The Heritance Cabernet Sauvignon would go very well with the dark meat of the turkey or the stuffing, if it’s not too heavy.  For whites, I would choose a Chardonnay -- but not a heavily oaked one.  But before going to a white, I would go to a Pinot Noir.  If I were to choose a Pinot Noir for my turkey, that would be the Clos du Val -- I’m still a big fan of their wines, and I really like my relationship with their new winemaker, John Clews.  For the white I would choose the HDV Chardonnay -- it’s top notch.