Saturday, October 27, 2012

Bernard Portet

I started my wine career back in 1976 when I was a student and living in Berkeley, California and, of course, in need of a job.  So I stocked shelves in a liquor store and took note of the boutiquey looking California wines that lined the shelves, thinking they must surely be the best wines available.  Something called "Fred's Friends" was the most expensive wine on the shelves (I wonder why that one didn't work.) and J. Lohr was the only label I recall from that time that is still around today.

When I moved to Atlanta in 1981 I took a job at Ansley Wine & Cheese in Ansley Park which, unknown to me, was where the fine wine business in Atlanta had begun.  Jim Sanders, "the father of the fine wine business in Atlanta", had opened that Ansley Park shop ten years earlier and had actually created the market for fine French wines in Atlanta back in the sixties.  He had long since sold the Ansley store and moved to Paces Ferry where I worked for him for a couple of years in the early eighties.  Jim, always more of a curmudgeon than a cuddly teddy bear, had somehow accrued the "who's who" customer list of Atlanta and according to 1960's lore, Jim  had once even brought together Lester Maddox and Martin Luther King for a wine tasting in his office!

I say all of this as preamble to my introduction of Bernard Portet into the discussion.  Portet, along with John Goelet, founded Clos du Val Winery in the Stag's Leap District of Napa Valley in 1970.  Portet was born in Cognac, France and raised in Bordeaux in a family of winemakers going back nine generations to 1668 Cognac.  Portet's father was the technical director of the first growth, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, where the young Portet no doubt learned plenty before his formal winemaking training at Toulouse and Montpellier.  With this kind of a background, Portet set off to America where he and Mr. Goelet partnered to create Clos du Val.

Clos du Val marketed several wines like most early California wineries but their claim to fame was always Cabernet.  In 1976 at the elite "Judgment of Paris" tasting (blogs 6/25/12-7/5/12), the 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet finished eighth out of ten California Cabernets and French Bordeaux tasted.  Ten years later when the tasting was reprised, the 1972 Clos du Val was first.  Twenty years later in 1996, it finished fifth, a testiment to the longevity (and superiority) of Napa Cabernet.  The 1972 Clos du Val Cabernet, by the way, was its very first vintage!

So why this blog now?  Clos du Val has always been my favorite California Cabernet, so French in style I may have been able to slip it past Jim Sanders in a blind tasting.  For the French it is always about terroir, the environs of the vineyard that impart "place" as a dimensional attribute of the wine.  Now terroir takes on new meaning for Portet who retired from Clos du Val in 2009.  Portet is now introducing his new "winery without walls", (ed. note below) which is what we have been talking about all year long here at the blog.  When Portet joyfully proclaims, "I don't own anything!", he is authoritatively "owning" his contracts with the right growers in the right Cabernet terroir along with his contract with the right winemaking facilities to turn out his new label, Heritance Cabernet (and Sauvignon Blanc).  I can hardly wait to taste this one.

Editor's note:  A clos is a walled-in vineyard.  Clos du Val = walled-in vineyard in the valley?

Now we are into my busy season and the blogs are going to be coming fewer and farther between but we will try to continue writing between wine and cheese sales and gift basket orders.  We are tasting as usual on every Friday but nothing is set in stone for November second yet.  We also continue to feature St. Supery Napa wines through the end of the year.

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