More than a few of Napa’s pioneering wineries have undergone dramatic changes in the past several years. Many share a common narrative: They made distinctive wines in the 1960s and '70s when Napa was developing. In the 1980s and '90s they either lost their way qualitatively, or tastes shifted, depending on your viewpoint. Enter new owners, new winemakers and new investment, and they’re enjoying a renaissance today—think Mayacamas, Stony Hill, Diamond Creek, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars … the list goes on.
Clos du Val is of a similar ilk, without having changed hands. After debuting with a 1972 Cabernet that was included in the famed Judgment of Paris tasting, winemaker Bernard Portet and the Goelet family were off and running. The winery based itself in the Stags Leap District, eschewing Oakville or Rutherford, and was credited with being among the first to use Merlot prominently in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon. The house style was built around elegance and freshness and could even be considered a forerunner of the “food wine” craze that swept Napa in the 1980s.
By the 1990s though, Clos du Val had fallen into a slump. Production levels had increased significantly and, in addition to its mainstay Bordeaux-style blends, the winery got caught up in chasing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well, a chase it seemed disinterested in. The winery and Portet refused to shift with the times, and as other producers in Napa raced ahead and the market followed, Clos du Val seemed stuck on the side of the road.
Now, with a new generation of ownership and another winemaker change, Clos du Val is making a concerted effort to get back in the game. And the winery aims to do it by getting back to its roots, focusing on Cabernet bottlings made in a more restrained style.
Olav Goelet, 32, represents the third generation of his family’s ownership. After working for a fishery in Massachusetts and some of the family’s other agricultural interests, Goelet moved to California in 2018. Since then, he’s found the winery taking up more and more of his attention.
“There’s been a lot of identity searching and realignment, as we try and get back to what my grandfather and Bernard started,” he says. “The more time I’ve spent here, the more I realize I like creating something, as long as I can see it being enjoyed by others. I’m seeing that in wine now. I just didn’t realize how much time and effort was needed to put grapes into a glass.”
Goelet’s list of changes is lengthy, from a label revamp starting with the 2019 vintage to vineyard and winery reinvestments. He also hired Carmel Greenberg as winemaker in June of this year. She’d previously been working with winemaker Tod Mostero at Dominus, owned by Bordeaux’s Christian Moueix.
“It’s a reboot in some ways,” says Greenberg, 45, about the lineup of changes she’ll help implement. “We’re like a start-up company, but one that is 50 years old, which is kind of cool. I’m applying what I’ve learned so far, but tweaking along the way for the fruit I am getting now, because it’s different from what I was working with. And I’m doing that while aiming to get back to the original style of Clos du Val, with fresh, elegant wines.”
Born in Wisconsin, Greenberg’s parents moved to Israel while she was still an infant. After growing up there and working in restaurants, she decided to pursue wine. She returned to the U.S. to study at U.C. Davis, and after graduating decided to stay in California. She now has the estate’s 120-acre Hirondelle Vineyard to focus on as the winery’s Carneros holdings (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) have been sold off. An in-depth soil analysis is helping bring a long-term replanting program into focus, with changes in rootstock and row orientation slated to start next year.
“There’s no rush,” she says. “I’m taking the time to look at everything and learn. It’s my first time as head winemaker and there is so much that is different here, such as irrigation, for example, after working with dry farming at Dominus,” says Greenberg.
There will be no red wines from Clos du Val in the 2020 vintage, due to smoke taint (a common decision for Napa producers after last year’s wildfires), so Greenberg starts with a clean slate.
“It’s tragic that the winery loses a crop. But on the positive side, I can just totally focus on ’21 now and not deal with wines in barrel that I didn’t vinify,” says Greenberg.
Even starting with an empty cellar, it’s going to be an accelerated learning curve. Among Greenberg’s tasks will be to streamline the choice of coopers. There are currently barrels from 38 different coopers in the cellar, when most wineries prefer to use just a few, for consistency of quality and style.
Greenberg’s first vintage at Clos du Val is giving her some solid raw materials—albeit in reduced quantities following a very dry year that resulted in small clusters of very small berries. Harvest hasn’t quite wrapped up, but Greenberg sees a vintage that “isn’t as generous as 2018 or tannic as 2013. But quality is obviously pretty good.”
With a more streamlined production and a recommitment to a specific style, Clos du Val is trying to reassert itself. It will be a big test for Greenberg in her first head winemaking role. Goelet seems supportive and committed though, which will be key to turning their plans into tangible progress.
“No year is the same, and you have to plan for the unexpected. But we’re thinking in terms of decades," says Goelet. "And it’s exciting.”
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