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Portet's Winery without Walls

“I don’t own anything,” Bernard Portet says proudly.  “I have a winery without walls.”

Virtual winemaking – producing a wine brand without owning vineyards or a winery – is not unusual in the Napa Valley, but most people who do it are beginners who are either cautious or who can’t afford to buy land and capital equipment, or both. Then they plunge headlong into the money pit.  But Portet is finding virtual is perhaps even a better model for someone who has run an estate all his life and wants to, in what passes for retirement, make wine without the hassle.

So Portet is back almost before we knew he was gone.

For most of its winemaking history, Napa wineries were located in the middle of the valley or on its west side.  But during the 1970s, the Stags Leap area in the southeast became the valley’s hottest new neighborhood.  Think about it – in 1972 alone, Portet opened Clos de Val with the financing of the Goelet family, Warren Winiarski founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and Carl Doumani established Stags’ Leap Winery. Steltzner came along in 1977, Pine Ridge in 1978 and Shafer and S. Anderson in 1979.

Most of these wineries are now in different hands, as owners sold to larger companies and winemakers retired.  Portet left Clos du Val in 2009, although he continued to produce Ñandú, an Argentine brand he founded in 2004.  “My son, Olivier, had an importing company,” Portet explains, “and I was making wine for him.  He changed jobs, but I kept making it.”

“I retired from Clos du Val at the end of 2009, but during the harvest of 2010, I again got the urge to make wine,” he says.  “So I started checking out people who did custom crushes, and I talked with some ex-colleagues at Clos du Val who wanted to go along with me.  I have good relations here with people who grow grapes. I know the vineyards and the climates. My father taught me to be a strong believer in terroir.”

It was just a few months later, in February 2011, that Portet launched his new virtuoso virtual wine brand – Heritance – making a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Sauvignon Blanc.

Portet was born in Cognac, his father was technical director at Château Lafite and the French were the first to advance the idea of terroir – the importance of where grapes are grow – which eventually was embraced worldwide and advanced even further by the sometimes-clichéd concept that “wine is made in the vineyard.”  If that concept is correct, then Portet has arrived at the brilliant solution of growing or buying the best grapes and ditching the winery altogether!

Portet has never been a proponent of big reds, although some of his Clos du Val Cabs were quite assertive, and he is still of the low-alcohol philosophy.  “I want to make wines that are approachable when they are opened,” he says, “wines that have balance, complexity and a long finish.”  A tasting of the 2010 Ñandú Malbec ($17), the 2008 Heritance Cab ($28) and the 2010 Heritance Sauv Blanc ($18) show a consistency of style with mellow fruit and a smooth finish, although all three seem a little light at the mid-palate.  The Cab is especially enjoyable – very approachable with dark cherry flavors at the beginning and chocolate and chalkiness in the finish.  For the prices, all are very good values.

This year marks Portet’s 40th as a Napa winemaker.  “I came here in 1972, planning to stay a couple of weeks,” he said, “and I never went home to France.  The terroir and the climate were just too good.”

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