Just a year ago, as her husband relinquished all winemaking and executive duties at Clos Du Val Winery, Helia Portet wondered just how long she’d have Bernard under foot.
It was summer and the vintner who helped establish the acclaimed Silverado Trail winery in the early 1970s felt “like a fish out of water.”
Portet in retirement — with no wine aging in a barrel somewhere? Sacré bleu!
When he made his pronouncement at a Bastille Day celebration, no one really believed Portet would ever hang up his wine thief. Especially his spouse. “My wife says I’ll never really be retired,” he said at the time.
This year, also on Bastille Day, Bernard and Helia Portet welcomed wine writers and friends in their Napa home to learn what the respected winemaker is up to now.
Turns out, he’s teamed up with Don Chase — a wine industry veteran (Beringer, Rutherford Hill, Quintessa, Heublein) with whom he worked at Clos Du Val — to launch both a new partnership, Polaris Wines, and a new wine brand, Heritance.
And, if you’re a fan of Bernard’s wines, like most of us, there’s more good news. First — winemaker Portet and managing general partner Chase have invited Bernard and Helia’s son, Olivier, to head up the national sales and marketing effort for Polaris. On top of that, Polaris will market, as a wine merchant, varietals from other regions of California as well as imports.
If there’s anyone who’s qualified to handle the latter, it’s Olivier Portet. Trilingual in French, English and Spanish, he’s worked in every aspect of the industry, from taking part in harvests in his youth to peddling wine to retailers and restaurateurs, from launching a boutique wine import, sales and marketing firm to taking on the role of director of European imports for Wilson Daniels managing a $20 million portfolio for the past five years.
Responsible for the day-to-day operations, Chase brings “big business efficiency and connections to Polaris Wines,” winemaker Portet said.
Portet said the idea for launching the firm grew as he continued to see grapes ripening on the vine last fall, grapes that didn’t have a home.
“And I can only do so much sailing,” he said of his favorite pastime, and spending time with his grandchildren and other family members.
A coffeeshop conversation led to Chase and Portet shaking hands on the Polaris venture. “Don was willing to run the business side while I would do the winemaking part,” he noted. “It was a perfect fit. Then Olivier threw his hat into the ring.”
Portet said the Polaris business model made sense. “We can grow slowly and wisely, being responsive to the market,” he maintained. “Polaris is a brand builder, not a case mover.”
Heritance is the first venture of Polaris, at the moment a 5,000-case operation offering but two wines — sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon — both made by Bernard Portet.
Heritance is trading on three numbers to explain its enological equation:
• 1 Family — a legacy of winemaking that comes from Bernard Portet, Clos Du Val co-founder, who’s been crushing grapes and blending wines for decades.
• 9 Generations — Bernard Portet represents the ninth generation of a family of grapegrowers and winemakers from France, dating to 1668 in Cognac, France. He was mentored by his father, a regisseur at Chateau Lafite.
• 4 Continents — Portet has made wine around the world on four continents, Europe, North America, Australia and South America.
Throughout his four-decade career, Portet has kept a simple goal in mind — “to blend wines from different varieties and terroirs to create finished wines greater than the sum of their parts. It is a style that creates uniquely distinctive wines.”
As one might expect, Portet is launching the brand with Bordeaux varietals.
A 2010 Heritance sauvignon blanc is an assemblage of sauvignon blanc (91 percent) and semillon (9 percent), with grapes coming from Oakville and Pope Valley. Tropical fruit and figs are predominant aromas, while lively acidity refreshes the palate with citrus flavors and finishes with a hint of lime peel. It’s an elegant wine, given a bit more mid-palate, I suspect, by the addition of semillon. (Remember when Clos Du Val used to make a remarkable semillon? Love to get my hands on a bottle of that today.) Production is 2,000 cases, with suggested retail of $18.
A 2008 Heritance cabernet sauvignon is a blend of all Napa Valley fruit — cabernet sauvignon (92 percent) and merlot (8 percent). It has a lovely nose of black fruit and spice, which repeats on the palate. It exhibits soft texture, an elegant wine with a bargain price of $28 for a Napa Valley cab. There’s a hint of oak in this round blend, with a bit of spice on the classic cab finish. Total production is 3,000 cases.
Both wines should be released by the first of August. To check on retail outlets, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.