Bernard Portet is an iconic California winemaker who began working in Napa Valley when there were only a handful of wineries. In France, at an early age, he learned the ins and outs of tasting and making wine from his father, who was a regisseur at the prestigious Bordeaux powerhouse Château Lafite.
Portet was born in Cognac in the same house where his father was born. He was raised in Bordeaux where the family owned vineyard property since the late 1600s. This ninth generation French vintner studied viticulture and enology in Toulouse and Montpellier and quickly began exploring wine around the world: here in the United States, as well as Australia, Morocco, South Africa and South America. He landed in Napa Valley and in 1971 cofounded Clos du Val, where he remained for over three and a half decades. From there, he pioneered several Napa Valley regions and developed Stag’s Leap.
Following Clos du Val, Portet had a chance meeting with former Clos du Val colleague Don Chase and they started Polaris Wines. Portet lives in Napa Valley with his wife. I interviewed him to find out more about his signature assemblage style, holiday wine picks and future trends in winemaking.
Bay Area Bites: You are a champion of blending wine in the assemblage style. How does that work?
Portet: I did learn early in life that assemblage was the best way to make the best wine possible, with balance, elegance, and complexity. I have never searched for the most intense varietal character wine but more for a wine that goes well with food and complements food. The best way to achieve this objective is through blending not only different lots of the same variety but from combining different terroirs and also lots of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit-Verdot, etc… That way I can use the firm structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon, the roundness of the Merlot and the elegance and perfume of the Cabernet Franc and the fresh fruit of the Petit-Verdot.
Bay Area Bites: What grape varietals are you excited about?
Portet: Growing up in the Medoc region of Bordeaux, my favorite variety is Cabernet Sauvignon. But I use all others mentioned above.
Bay Area Bites: How do you feel about high alcohol in wine?
Portet: Too high alcohol levels is detrimental to the better enjoyment of wine and food. However, a wine that is well balanced and shows good fresh fruit might be enjoyable even at 14.5%. Those high alcohol wines do win most blind tastings and medals but their explosive character does not impress me. Especially since many of these wines may be persistent but most of the times have a short finish. I do find them very tiring and have a hard time finishing my glass.
Bay Area Bites: You have decades of winemaking experience. Where is Napa Valley winemaking headed?
Portet: The future is as diverse as the winemakers in Napa Valley. The powerful wines are most in fashion but many winemakers seek the expression of the various terroirs to achieve wines with less power and more elegance. I think there will be more diversity.
Bay Area Bites: You’ve also made wine throughout the world. Where is winemaking headed in Europe, South America and Australia?
Portet: All over the world wines are more user-friendly and more powerful than they were years ago. Moreover, winemaking technology has greatly improved and future winemakers travel and experience winemaking in foreign countries. This may lead to an “international” taste. However, as in Napa Valley, young winemakers are very intent on showing the unicity of their terroir and of their style. I believe the future of winemaking all over the world is very exciting and will express more diversity than today.
Bay Area Bites: What advice do you have for consumers when it comes to gifting wine and entertaining with an eye for value for the holidays?
Portet: I do suggest simplicity. Buy what you like, not necessarily the highest rated wine and do not hesitate to offer something else than the typical Chardonnay or a Cabernet Sauvignon. Offer and serve what you enjoy and keep in mind that most wines will always taste good when shared in good company. I like to have some Champagne but there are quite a few excellent sparkling wines. The highest price is not necessarily the best wine for you and your friends.
Bay Area Bites: What are your favorite bottles and why?
Portet: I do not have a favorite bottle but I tend to prefer Bordeaux type wines and especially Medoc wines from the Pauillac, St. Estephe and St. Julien communes. I like to seek out wines from all over the world including Napa Valley. I like the value of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec and dry Torrontes of Argentina, Albariño and other wines from Northwest Spain.
Bay Area Bites: Are there any undiscovered regions that you are excited about exploring?
Portet: I am sure there are plenty of undiscovered regions that may produce quality wines but I am not traveling as much as earlier in my life. However, just think of China and how fast it is developing westward.
I look forward to tasting more wines from Rio Negro, Argentina. With the warming up of the planet, regions that are too cool now to grow grapes, for example in the Pyrenees, France, will have the opportunity soon.
Bay Area Bites: What are your favorite food and wine pairings?
- Oysters on the Half Shell with a lower alcohol dry Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet or Gewürztraminer (dry). Shucking oysters with my brother while sipping wine, and then eating them with his family is one of my favorite traditions. It also reminds me of our famous Reveillons (Christmas Eve late dinner) that our extended family with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins enjoyed after Midnight Mass.
- Grilled and Rare Steak Frites with our Heritance Cabernet or a good Bordeaux is a dish that reminds me of the many meals spent with my parents, years ago.
- Confit de Canard with a rich Bordeaux red was a favorite dish prepared by my mother for special occasions.
I enjoy every type of food and realize that all those dishes I enjoyed most are all linked to great meals and moments with my family. Thank you for helping me to realize it!