In a scene of the upcoming film “Somm 3,” the third installment of the popular wine documentary series, several tasters are seated around a bottle of one of the most celebrated Napa Valley wines ever made: the 1972 Clos du Val Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
For the majority of the tasters, the scene is a chance to experience an historic wine that is today all but unattainable. For one of them, the scene is more a reunion of sorts.
That taster is Steven Spurrier, the man behind the 1976 Paris Tasting that saw Napa Valley wines best their supposedly superior French competition. Organized by Spurrier, that now famous Judgment of Paris is today considered Napa Valley’s first leap toward the world fame that has so shaped it today.
With his co-tasters, Spurrier describes the wine, Clos du Val’s first, which ultimately took eighth place in the Paris Tasting’s red category, proving that it could go toe-to-toe with the best French wines of the day.
For Spurrier, the scene is a visitation with one of the wines that, on his watch, changed the world. But for the audience gathered last week at Clos du Val for the film’s world premiere, the scene was a bridge.
Held partly in Clos du Val’s recently completed new tasting space dubbed the Hirondelle House, the premiere served at once as a christening of the new space and, with the ’72 Reserve’s scene, a meeting between the winery’s place in history and its new stake in the future.
A few years ago, the Goelets knew things had to change.
For their role in the Paris Tasting, founders John and Henrietta Goelet, working with French-trained winemaker Bernard Portet, had cemented the winery as a Napa classic early on.
But to take the more than 40-year-old winery into the next 40 years, the family realized that being classic wasn’t going to cut it. So they called in Steve Tamburelli.
Today, Clos du Val’s president and CEO, Tamburelli joined the winery in 2014. Stepping in with essentially a blank slate, his task was simple: come up with a plan to get one of California’s most famed wineries soundly through the next four decades.
But times had changed, and what had worked for the winery before was in need of major updating.
“The winery hasn’t evolved at the same rate that other Napa wineries had evolved, on kind of every level,” Tamburelli said on recent afternoon in the completed Hirondelle House, several days before the premiere.
From price to quality, the winery was lodged in “an Old World mindset,” guided by French values, Tamburelli added. And the valley was leaving them behind.
Having succeeded in its original drive to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the best wines from France, it now needed to reestablish itself on its own turf.
Tamburelli was going to catch them up, asserting at the time, “’We can make wines that we can put next to anybody’s wines in this valley.’”
But trying to maintain high production levels over the years had pushed the winery to buy fruit that it would then add alongside the grapes from their own vineyards. “And all of a sudden, the wines you’re producing aren’t necessarily wines that are representative of these great vineyards that you grow,” Tamburelli explained.
So, Clos du Val would double down on its reputation as a Cabernet house, starting with the vineyards. But for quality to pull ahead over quantity, the winery would have to stop buying fruit from elsewhere and production levels would need to be slashed in half. It would be a hard sell to the owners.
“But they bought it,” Tamburelli said.
Persuaded in part by a landscape of distributorship that in recent years had made it difficult for independent wineries like Clos du Val to gain traction in the wholesale market, the owners approved a plan trellised around a key source of Napa’s lifeblood today: the visitor.
Except the expectations of wine country tourists had changed greatly over the years. Visiting a North Coast winery a few decades ago, a guest’s experience would be much more focused solely around the wines. Today, a tasting room built simply around product sampling is scarce to see, and ‘guest experiences,’ albeit centered on wine, have largely become as much a part of a winery’s identity as the wines it makes.
“I think our tasting room, in many ways, is kind of a microcosm for where Clos du Val is,” Tamburelli said.
Whereas the winery’s previous tasting room was closer to “circa 1987” with a traditional stand-up tasting bar, “Napa Valley hospitality has gone in a different direction,” he said. “That’s been a really, really, really fundamental shift in how wineries like Clos du Val approach our business.”
Enter the Hirondelle House. Abutting the ivy-coated walls facing Silverado Trail and attached to the production space of the original winery, the new space is a sleek take on modern Napa hospitality. Its walls and ceilings coated with the staves of dismantled barrels, the main space offers guests a wide indoor area to move through, while a patio grants plenty of outdoor seating.
A members’ patio sits off to the north, complete with fire pit. Inside, a library will hold wines dating to the ‘70s, and through one of the experiences, guests can choose their own wine from the library at a quoted price.
Experiences like these can also now be cultivated before guests even arrive at Clos du Val. For instance, visitors can tell the winery in advance if they favor Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay over Cabernet Sauvignon and a tasting will be tailored around their preferences.
The goal, Tamburelli said, is for Clos du Val to emerge from its re-imagining as a leader in the “über-personalization” of guest experiences. For now, the Hirondelle House is tentatively slated to open to the public in early October.
But what about the wine?
In scaling back the winery’s production by 50 percent, the sea change in the cellar is being led today by winemaker Ted Henry, who joined Clos du Val in 2016.
Coming on, Henry was adamant that the cellar be retrofitted to include small fermentation vessels. Stepping down from 20-to-30-ton fermenters to 6- to 8-ton fermenters, the smaller vessels offer Henry more control over the fermentations. By handling less wine at a time in each vessel, temperature control can be more precise and experimentation comes with less risk.
With the move from quantity to quality, the wine’s prices have also risen accordingly.
“The wines have moved up in price for sure,” Tamburelli said. “But they still represent great values in regard to what the Napa Valley landscape looks like wine-wise.”
An overhauled portfolio now exclusively made up of estate wines, which are also all produced at smaller volumes, makes any comparison to Clos du Val’s previous model somewhat unbalanced.
The closest comparison would be Clos du Val’s former Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon beside its new estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Both represent the winery’s “entry level Cab,” but are still two completely different wines, Tamburelli said.
The former was made using a significant amount of purchased fruit, while the new estate Cabernet is made in less quantity and entirely with Clos du Val’s own fruit. The latter now retails at around $50. “In the world of Napa Valley Cabernets from a reputable producer, I think we’re still relatively well priced,” Tamburelli said. “But the price points, in general, are higher than they were before, for sure.”
On the vineyard side, Henry works with Jon-Mark Chappellet, Clos du Val’s director of operations.
In its estate vineyard adjacent to the winery, the vines previously bore between 5 and 6 tons per acre. Scaling back, each acre now yields between 3 and 4 tons. Herbicides and pesticides are a practice of the past and this year marking the first of a three-year process for the winery to gain certification for organic farming.
A shift in canopy management has led the team away from vertical shoot positioning for their vines, with the addition of crossbars to boost shade to the fruit zones limiting the amount of sunburn the fruit might take. Post-harvest, the soils are “recharged” to restore nutrients ahead of the next growing season.
“The vineyards, I think, have never been happier and the quality in the fruit is showing that,” Tamburelli said.
Also propping up the winery for a more secure future is a recently inked 35-year lease for a new vineyard, set on a 100-acre plot of land directly south of Yountville that had been fallow for 18 years. Tamburelli noted that negotiations for the lease were already in the works before he joined the winery.
But, he explained, the estate vineyard in the Stag’s Leap District, with vines that were planted in 1994, will soon be in need of an extensive replant that will last for the next 10 years. In turn, the grapes from Yountville will become the winery’s main fruit source. This year will be the first that fruit will start coming in from the new vineyard.
Of course, once the replanting is finally complete, the winery will be able to source from both vineyards, and more decisions will have to be made then about the winery’s production and its path ahead. But, Tamburelli added, “Having excess Napa Valley Cabernet is never a bad thing.”