It is the perfect scenario for a Hollywood movie. A dream come true for a man who settled in the Napa Valley to produce world-class cabernet sauvignon and watched his first vintage become a part of history, the kind of history that changes things forever.
Clos du Val began in 1972 when John and Henrietta Goelet, after years of searching, purchased a parcel in the what is today the Stags Leap District and set about making great cabernet sauvignon. Working with French trained winemaker Bernard Portet, the winery’s inaugural release, the 1972 Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon, was a part of the California contingency of wines that outscored the French wines in the venerable 1976 Judgement of Paris blind tasting. The same vintage then also became the overall winner in a 1986 rematch.
If your first vintage helps to change the wine world and catapult California to the forefront, what’s next? Well, Bernard Portet stayed at Clos Du Val for another four decades, continued to produce top Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and both became icons in the industry.
Still owned by the Goelet family who reside on the East Coast, Clos du Val has, for over 45 years, succeeded through high-end consistency, stability among their staff and a focus on relationships, both with the customer and the surrounding community. They are also not willing to sit on their laurels.
In 2014, with new winemaker Ted Henry at the helm, Clos Du Val made the decision to dramatically reduce production, from 90,000 to 35,000 cases annually, and focus solely on making wines from their estate vineyards in the Stags Leap District, Yountville and the Carneros.
The 126-acre Hirondelle Vineyard, that surrounds their Stags Leap property, is the main source for cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petite verdot and malbec, all native to the Bordeaux region. The State Lane and Riverbend Vineyards add more fine cabernet sauvignon clones, cabernet franc with sauvignon blanc and viognier.
Under Henry’s tenure, Clos Du Val is returning to where they started, to the principles on which they were founded. He realizes that they can’t be everything to everyone and that the experience starts with people first, then the wine.
With the change in focus came the construction of a spacious, retro-modern tasting facility with indoor and outdoor spaces overlooking the Hirondelle Vineyard, furnishing comfortable enhancements to the experience. Designer Erin Martin used the outside of old barrel staves as paneling and the inside of the staves for the ceiling to create history in the architecture. Glass walls open to the West and bring in the outdoors with elegant patio furniture and water features. To the East, there is another glass door that opens to the barrel room and production facility.
We sat in a cozy nook with Ted Henry and members of the staff to taste some current releases that began with classic aromas of spice and red fruit in the 2016 Estate Pinot Noir, Gran Val Vineyard, Carneros, Napa Valley ($65). Aged in 100% new French and Hungarian oak, the cherry and red fruit flavors were concentrated and lingering.
The next three wines were all sourced from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard beginning with the lush 2015 Estate Merlot, Hirondelle Vineyard, Stags Leap District ($65). There were complex, earthy aromas of baked fruit and spice with integrated berry and fruit flavors and hints of espresso on the finish.
Cabernet franc, with tremendous heritage, is one of the most overlooked reds varietals in California. The mineral and menthol hints on the nose of the 2015 Estate Cabernet Franc, Hirondelle Vineyard, Stags Leap District ($100) foreshadowed the full-bodied herbal flavors and elegant velvet finish.
The 2015 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Hirondelle Vineyard ($120) with merlot and cabernet franc added and the 2014 Three Graces Cabernet Sauvignon ($175), named for a sculpture that modeled the label design, were both exceptional wines that exemplify the grandeur and history of the Napa Valley.
As a special treat, we opened a 1996 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the library and found it to be surprisingly pristine and fruit-forward, an acknowledgement of how well Clos du Val wines age.
The rich legend of the 1972 vintage will be preserved in perpetuity as the contemporary Clos Du Val winery continues to create great wines, ambiance and memories for a new generation.
Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a guest columnist.Food and Wine