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.