Shunning Fruit-Bomb Glitz, Old Napa Wineries Craft Classic Reds

Clos du Val
The Clos du Val winery in Napa Valley. Clos du Val has been making Bordeaux-style cabernet sauvignon since its founding in 1972. Source: Clos du Val Wine Co. via Bloomberg

The reputation and glamour of Napa Valley is too often about razzle-dazzle rather than good wine, with well-financed estates producing fleshy, high-alcohol fruit bombs to win medals. Yet there are still wineries quietly making austere, traditional wines that deserve wider recognition.

Two cases in point are veterans in the valley, Concannon and Clos du Val, which turn out some of the most impressive, well-balanced red wines in California. Their quality is based on long knowledge of the soil and terroir and sense enough to know that fads in wine come and go, while hard work and experience endure.

Concannon is one of California¹s oldest, planted by Irish immigrant James Concannon in Livermore Valley in 1883. In 1961, third-generation Jim Concannon made the state’s first varietally labeled petite sirah (released in 1964). The family also developed some of the most widely adopted cabernet sauvignon clones, numbers 7, 8 and 9, now standard in many of Napa¹s finest cabs.

Fourth-generation vintner John Concannon, whose birth in 1961 was commemorated with the planting of that first petite sirah, now runs the company after 22 years as a sales manager for medical-device manufacturers. I recently had lunch with him at Capri, an Italian restaurant in McLean, Virginia, where he poured some of his Conservancy line of wines. The name comes from the conservancy of California winegrowers who placed their land in a legal trust to protect against development forever.

Brawny Red

I thoroughly enjoyed his 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, a brawny but balanced big red that, at just 13.5 percent alcohol, had hints of oak and plenty of dark fruit without the cloying sweetness and blast of more potent examples. At $15 a bottle, it’s a stellar buy.

Concannon’s 2007 Petite Sirah ($15) and Captain Joe’s Petite Sirah ($30) reminded me of the creamy richness this varietal delivers when made with care. The former is silky, with a good range of plum and cherry flavors within a light oaky framework; it was delicious with gnocchi pasta with tomato and mozzarella.

The latter, named after second-generation Joe, who served in the First Cavalry, is culled from Concannon’s best lots, then given a small amount of syrah (a different grape from petite sirah) for structure. At 14.5 percent alcohol, it’s a muscular wine that went well with our entree of veal scaloppine with a brandy cream sauce, and would be ideal for Thanksgiving dinner.

Memory Lane

Clos du Val, founded in 1972 by John Goelet and Bordeaux winemaker Bernard Portet (now retired), was the first Napa vineyard I ever visited, back in 1977. I recall Portet’s passionate prediction that there was great potential in the valley’s vineyards. A year before, Clos du Val was one of the cabernets selected for the now legendary 1976 blind tasting in Paris against First Growth Bordeaux. It came eighth out of 10 wines. In a rematch 10 years later, Clos du Val took first place.

Portet and successive Clos du Val winemakers (Kristy Melton, formerly of Saintsbury winery, took over in August) have always hewed to a classic Bordeaux style, determined primarily by the terroir and not by the winery.

I’ve always found Clos du Val’s wines among the most elegantly structured in the valley, never oaky, never hot, never sweet, never cloying, with sensible alcohol levels. Back when many Napa vintners scoffed at adding merlot to their cabs, Portet knew from the start how it softened the tannins, a traditional tactic in Bordeaux.

Stags Leap

I opened a bottle of the new release of the flagship wine, Stags Leap District 2005, the other night with a sirloin steak and was reminded all over again what a glorious match great American beef and fine cabernet sauvignon is. Rounded out with 14 percent merlot, velvety, restrained at first, then blossoming slowly with the fat of the beef on the palate, the wine is a paragon of how French tradition and California terroir can so honorably merge.

The function of all good wine is to please the drinker. In the case of Concannon and Clos du Val, they make me very happy.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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