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Friday Fishwrap
The Wisdom of Bernard Portet

By Charles Olken

A small band of writers sat down for lunch with Bernard Portet the other day. Three hours later, we came away with a notebook full of observations that begged for wider distribution.

Bernard Portet first came to California in 1968 from Bordeaux where his father managed Chateau Lafite. He soon was put in charge of creating a winery in the Stags Leap District called Clos Du Val. His very first vintages, in the early 1970s earned favorable reputations for both the winery and for himself. When he retired from Clos Du Val in 2009, he quickly found himself doing what so many other winemakers do. He started his own brand called Heritance. Its first wines are just being released, and not surprisingly, they look to Bordeaux for inspiration and will include both Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

But today’s entry is not about wine. It is about the thoughts of a man whose forty years and more in the California wine business has made him one its most respected personnages. Herewith, without any further comment from me, is “The Wisdom of Bernard Portet”.

• I have made wine on four continents, and I love the opportunity to make wine all over the world, but my heart is here in California now.

• If you asked me if there was anything I might have changed in my career, it would have been to spend more time in Bordeaux. But I was one of the earliest people in the growing California wine scene, and that was especially true in the Stags Leap District where it was all wheat fields and very few grapes when we got here.

• I like the cooperative spirit that I found in the Napa Valley from the moment I arrived. In our first vintage, we had a couple of equipment breakdowns right in the middle of harvest. We were able to borrow pumps and other equipment to keep on going. I don’t think it would have been that easy to solve a breakdown on a Friday afternoon in Bordeaux.

• I grew up in Europe, and perhaps that is why I like a somewhat lighter wine and why I have always made somewhat lighter wines. But there is no right or wrong in matters of taste, and I don’t see why some people try to say that their way is the right way. There is no “right way”.

• With our new Heritance venture, my son, who is our sales manager, is pushing me to make a fuller-bodied, rounder wine than has been my style. Maybe we will, but it will still be a wine with vitality and a light step.

• The biggest change I have seen in the Napa Valley and maybe throughout California is that it is harder now to start a family winery, especially in the most intensely farmed areas. That was definitely not the case when I first came here.

• When I came here, one of the first things I noticed that was that California wines tended to have a little higher alcohol than French wines made from similar grapes. It was not long before it was clear to me that the mix of soils and climate meant that it was necessary to pick grapes a little riper than I was used to in order to achieve balanced wines.


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Bernard Portet
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:10/5/2012 8:32:26 PM


- His last comment suggests that he now thinks he should have been picking grapes riper than he was. Is that your takeaway assessment? If so, what's it mean for the future style of his wines?

- Oh, oh. It looks like the next generation is going in the direction of other next-generation winemakers: More oak, more alcohol, more ripeness. Any sign yet that newer vintages are more full-bodied and rounder? If so, how has that impacted vitality and the light step?

- I'm curious about who it is to say there is only one right way to make wine. It's an accusation leveled often, but where are the names and the examples?


by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/6/2012 12:28:17 AM


All good questions.

As regards the last comment, his meaning was that he had to pick at slightly higher levels here in CA than he did in France because the grapes were hot physiologically ripe enough for his taste.

As regards, your second paragraph, it was a comment by his son that the Heritance wines would sell more quickly if they were a little fuller and deeper than the Portet style. I saw nothing in the latest wines to suggest that any change has occurred.

As regards your final interrogatory, have a look at Blake Gray's review of the new Asimov book. Have a look at the Bonne comment that the CA style of Chardonnay is silly. Mr. Portet, whose personal style is towards the lighter end of the spectrum was clear to say that he disagreed with the notions he has seen in print in osme quarters that there is a correct style. And have a look at my blog entitled WINE OPINIONS: Ecoumenical or Parochial.

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