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Clos du Val Wines - "Anything Goes" in Napa
By Katie Kreifels

America has, since its beginnings, put out its welcome mat for other cultures' people, traditions, and values, and America is now a wonderful soup mixture of people from all ethnicities, races, and religions. Different places throughout the country have become hosts and home to the culture of other countries and peoples: New Orleans with its French Quarter, New England with its British-American history, the bilingual and bicultural Southwest, and New York City - America's most international city.

California has become the land of opportunity for Americans and foreigners alike, from the Gold Rush to the Silver Screen. But California is also home to Napa Valley, a region unlike any other in America; a region where the cultures of France and Italy have been combined with America's farming heritage to create a world class wine region.

Driving through the Napa Valley, you feel transported to another time and place. Entering the Stag's Leap appellation, you may as well be entering the French countryside, with vineyards lining the narrow roads and wineries rising in the distance. At harvest time, in the fall, workers are out in the vineyards harvesting, and a week later, the faint but delicious smell of fermenting grapes seeps out into the roads. In short, Napa Valley is just as much "wine country" as anywhere is Europe.

Its no wonder that when two Frenchmen with Bordeaux connections, John Goelet and Bernard Portet, embarked on a worldwide search to find a vineyard and winery plot capable of producing world class French-style wines, they chose the Napa Valley. True to their wish, their Napa Valley "chateaux," Clos du Val, has earned international recognition for its wines, which are distinctly French in character, composition, and style.

Clos du Val is truly a Franco-American winery, combining French winemaking styles with the American tradition of merging cultures. This quality is demonstrated in the fact that they not only make world-class wines from Bordeaux, but they make fabulous Burgundy wines as well. In France, no vintner would combine these two wine types, because they prefer to narrow their focus on one set of grape varietals and one type of terrior. In America, however, "anything goes," and Clos du Val, which owns land in both Stag's Leap and Carneros, has managed to master and match the best of both Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Only a winemaking team like Clos du Val's could pull of such a blending of cultures and wine styles: their broadly international team of winemakers hails from France, America, Rhodesia, and Iran. So it's no wonder Clos du Val works so well here in America, the world's synergistic patchwork quilt.

Interview with John Clews, Director of Vineyard and Winery Operations for Clos du Val
By Katie Kreifels

KK: How did Clos Du Val begin?
JC: Well, the founder is an American, John Goelet. In the late 60s, he decided that he wanted to build a winery somewhere in the world outside of France that could produce wines that were similar to the world-class wines of Bordeaux. He also had Bordeaux connections. So John discovered Bernard Portet, who had recently finished his studies in Bordeaux, and asked him to scout out vineyard sites for him.

KK: Where did Mr. Portet look?
JC: Oh, he went to Toulet, Australia, California, and South Africa, and after a couple of years settled on Stag's Leap.

KK: Why did he choose Stag's Leap over other Napa Valley districts?
JC: He preferred the area because it was slightly cooler than other regions.

KK: What kind of wines did he plan to make there?
JC: When they purchased the winery, they only purchased about 30 acres, but soon thereafter they got a long term lease on 120 acres adjacent to the winery land. He was planning on planting Bordeaux varieties and some Zin (if you are making wine in California, it's as if you have to make Zinfandel). There weren't many Cabernet grapes planted in Napa Valley in those days, and Bernard likes forward fruit and robustness in Cabs, but he felt that the California Cabs were a little alcoholic. Truly, he was a trailblazer.

KK: When was this?
JC: They started growing in 1970 and first harvested in 1972. That '72 Cab was actually the wine that was chosen by Steven Spurrier for the 1976 tasting in Paris, to which he invited the top winemakers of Bordeaux and five Cabs from California. In a rematch in 1986, the '72 Cab won first prize, which shows the wine's ageability.

KK: With so much focus on your Bordeaux varieties, it's also important to know that you also grow and produce varieties from Burgundy as well. When did you start making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir?
JC: Yes, its true that Clos du Val's reputation was built on the Bordeaux varieties, but the Burgundies are also wonderful. A year after beginning with the Bordeaux varieties, John Goelet suggested that Bernard also try making the Burgundies. In the same way that he had in the beginning, Bernard set out to look for a site suitable for Burgundian varieties, and he chose Carneros for its rolling hills, closeness to the San Francisco bay, and cooler temperature. They bought land there in 1973, didn't plant until 1980, when they were more established.

KK: When did you start working at Clos du Val?
JC: I started at 1999, and this is my fourth harvest here. I was brought in to oversee the winemaking operation of all the varieties and now oversee the vineyard side of things as well.

KK: What would you say is your specialty that got you hired?
JC: I am particularly well versed in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Bernard was looking for someone who had a good knowledge of Burgundy varieties, the idea being that Clos du Val had an established Cab style and program, and wanted to have a distinguished Burgundy program as well. The Pinots and Chard were good when I got here, though, and I have simply tweaked them so they are more user friendly.

KK: How is your winemaking style unique?
JC: We are very proud of it and it is different. My personal goal is to make complex wines that are as pleasurable as possible without too much of anything. I want balanced wines, meaning complex and elegant wines that have wood, alcohol, acid, and tannin, but nothing in an extreme that overwhelms the other aspects. We focus on the distinctive varietal character and make wines that are very food friendly.

KK: How do you do this specifically?
JC: With Pinot and Chard, I use restraint, and it definitely tastes like the varietal it is supposed to be…and relatively easy to drink. We make our Chardonnay in a style like most white Burgundies. It is balanced, and although aged in mostly oak barrels, it is made from a mix of clones that have citrus, white pear, and apricot. We use a small amount of new wood, which imparts just a hint of vanillin, and we control the alcohol so it is rich and buttery, but not overwhelmingly so.

We use a bit of malolactic, as well. Whites need acid, and our Chardonnay is fruit-driven with acid on the finish. We are actually getting ready to pick some of this year's Chardonnay. The grapes are approaching 22 sugar and taste delicious.

KK: You employ so many traditional techniques, but do you harvest completely by hand?
JC: We do have a machine, and it is very gentle. We have used it in the past few years and only in Stag's Leap, because that area is flat, unlike Carneros. We harvest Chardonnay and Pinot in the Carneros vineyard by hand because it is so hilly. Merlot, which we grow in Stag's Leap, is also more sensitive, so we pick some of it by hand. We pick by hand for the Cab from the reserve blocks as well.

KK: How do you process the grapes after you harvest them?
JC: We bring them to the winery and, with the whites, we crush and destem them and send them straight to the press, except for the reserve Chardonnay, on which we use a whole cluster press. This technique reduces the amount of handling and is a lot more gentle. Sometimes the wine tastes no different in the end, but it is an old fashioned way from Burgundy, and we take as much care as possible to do the best we can.

KK: What about the reds?
JC: With reds, we bring them in, destem them, crush them a bit, and then ferment in the tanks for 7 -40 days depending on the variety and lot. Pinot gets a special treatment. For Pinot, we use only open top stainless steel, and for the cap, we use a pump down device which is operated by air. That's certainly different from the old days in France when a man would jump in and shove the cap down!

KK: What percentage of Estate Grown grapes do you use in your wines?
JC: This year, I think we will be 65% estate grown, a percentage that increases every year. In our Cab program, we are still very dependant on purchased grapes. We get them from a variety of other vineyards in Rutherford and Saint Helena, and we get Merlot from Carneros. We are not 100% estate grown now, I think, because we went through phylloxera with everyone else. All of our vines were ruined and we had to replant, and our first vintage with the new vines was in 1975.

KK: What do you see for the future? Do you intend to be able to produce with all estate grown grapes?
JC: We are definitely moving in the direction of trying to be estate bottled with all our varieties, and I think we will achieve it soon. We have 9 labels right now, and we hope to focus a little more and reduce the number of labels. Now we have a Napa Valley Cabernet, Napa Valley Merlot, and Carneros Chardonnay that are available to the general public, 3 labels for limited releases, and 3 only for tastings.

KK: It sounds like you don't expect to expand…?
JC: True. We are not going to expand because we are at capacity. We will continue tweaking our process, as that is simply a part of the winemaking business, but I see our wines becoming more concentrated, and I see us becoming ever better at what we do.

KK: How is Bernard Portet involved in vineyard and winery operations?
JC: Well, there are two sides to my job, the vineyard and the winery. Bernard is involved in both on a regular, but not daily, basis. For the vineyard side, Bernard comes from France and we sit down with the vineyard manager, Al, to make change decisions, and then we implement the changes. It works the same in the winery.

KK: How does it work to have you be the Director of Vineyard and Winery Operations, even though the Assistant Winemaker, Kian Takavolli, is primarily in charge of the Cabernet program?
JC: Even though he is more on the Bordeaux side and I am more on the Burgundy side, we all meet together and ask each other what we think we should do differently, and we all discuss it and work together on the final decisions. For example, for the Cabernet program, in the last few years we have used only thin staved barrels as opposed to thick staved, which allows for more air contact. We've also implemented longer skin contact times for the lots that we think will become a part of the reserve program. The process is constantly evolving, just like any creative or business venture.

KK: I know that most wineries in the Napa Valley are involved in some of the many viticultural groups and organizations in the area. How are you involved?
JC: As a group we are involved in almost all the organizations. Marketing and Sales are involved in Napa Valley Vintners' Association, Al, our vineyard manager, is in the farm borough, and the winemakers and vineyard guys are involved in the different technical groups. We get involved in some of the other issues, and we sponsor some of the musical groups like the Chamber Orchestra and Symphony, and the Carneros Quality Alliance. We are trying to be active socially and politically and promote Napa Valley as a whole and keep up the reputation that most people are aware of about the region. We like to keep it that way.

KK: I have always been struck by the sense of community among Napa Valley vintners. Is it true that you are all friendly and open with one another about your techniques?
JC: Yes, even after all these years of competition, it is still very open. For example, at the technical group meetings, usually 50-100 people attend and discuss everything and anything. It is definitely an environment where you respect one another and can ask each other for help if necessary, at least as compared to the older world systems.

KK: What am I stealing you away from today? You must be harvesting.
JC: Yes, we started harvesting 2 days ago. Also right now we are finishing off our annual bottling and looking after what we've got. It's an exciting time.

KK: And it is your 30th anniversary this year, right? How are you celebrating?
JC: We have had a number of parties, such as a toga party and a 70s party. We have been taking a lighthearted approach around here, but we are also doing some retrospective press tastings around the country, which are more serious. Coming up, we have our annual harvest party on September 27th, and the next day is our reserve release party.

Clos du Val Wines

  • 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
  • 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, Stag's Leap
  • 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vineyard Georges III
  • 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 1999 Merlot, Napa Valley
  • 1999 Zinfandel, Stag's Leap
  • 1999 Sangiovese
  • 2000 Pinot Noir, Carneros
  • 2000 Ariadne
  • 2000 Chardonnay, Carneros

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