Clos du Val: Updating a Classic Napa Winery – in Massachusetts

Improbable as it sounds, not that long ago the current head of one of Napa’s major wineries spent six years farming oysters in a small Massachusetts town south of Boston. Which is where I met Olav Goelet, CEO of Clos Du Val Winery, when he returned to host a sunset gathering on a warm autumn evening, at Island Creek Oyster’s aquaculture farm. Figuratively and literally, this seaside village was a far cry from the Napa Valley: Duxbury, MA, founded 1637, current population 16,000.

Clos du Val Winery, founded in 1972, is located in the famed Stags Leap District of Napa Valley. This is the district that put California wines on the global stage, when they bested Bordeaux in the famous “Judgement of Paris” blind tasting  in the mid-1970s. Which was only a few years after Olav’s grandfather John Goelet partnered with Bernard Portet, a young French winemaker, to found Clos du Val. Portet remained winemaker there for over 35 years. For decades, Clos du Val’s beautiful Bordeaux-style wines were widely admired, and justifiably so.

Returning to the 21st century: obviously, Olav did not go directly from a boat on Duxbury Bay to heading a historic winery. And though most of us have heard of Clos du Val, what has the winery’s path been since it was founded by Olav’s grandfather 50 years ago?

It seems that for the past few decades we wine writers and consumers have all been wandering around the global wine world, trying this and that, getting excited about every new or rediscovered region we encounter. And it appears something similar may have been taking place at Clos du Val. Had they lost their way? Were they just following the crowd? A little of both, possibly. Not that the wines suffered, it was just that the name faded from our collective consciousness somehow.

As John Goelet and Bernard Portet were ageing, the family came together to decide on succession. John Goelet’s six grandchildren agreed that Olav would take the winery’s helm. Momentous events happened over the next few years: the pandemic occurred, John Goelet passed away, and suddenly, here we all are with Olav, at Island Creek Oysters – now at ICO’s 1803 Winsor House “tide to table” restaurant, a short walk up from Duxbury’s coastal waters on Cape Cod Bay.

At dinner on that balmy evening, I sat with two of six cousins in the current generation that manages the family corporation, which includes the California winery as well as a seafood company in France, etc. Oysters, wine, coastal France: it all makes sense.

After a course of fresh oysters served on the bay, we began the meal with Striped Bass Crudo accompanied by the 2022 Clos Du Val Sauvignon Blanc. Sauvignon blanc is a varietal usually blended with semillon in Bordeaux, as it is here. The wine was fresh, fruity and aromatic. Olav explained his philosophy of blending to show “the purity of the fruit.”

The following course of Scallop Toast (with charred cauliflower, almonds, capers and scallions) was paired with a red wine, the 2021 Clos du Val Napa Cabernet. It worked because this is light style of red, with well-integrated tannins and acidity. Aged in only 30% new French oak barrels, it is a blend of all five classic Bordeaux red varietals: 86% cabernet sauvignon, 7% merlot, 5% cabernet franc, 1% malbec and 1% petit verdot.

The third wine was the 2019 Clos du Val Yettalil – Yetallil being the nickname of Olav’s grandmother, who was winery founder John Goelet’s wife. Another Bordeaux blend, this is quite different, being soft and smooth yet “powerful” and well-structured, made with 64% cabernet sauvignon, 13% merlot, 12% cabernet franc, 8% petit verdot and 3% malbec, and aged in 25 % new French oak. Though it is created to age well for many years, here the wine paired nicely with Flank Steak accompanied by small mounds of bone marrow and celery root puree, wild mushroom and swiss chard.

To conclude the dinner, I could only applaud their choice of the sumptuous dessert wine Malviasia di Lipari – which is not part of the Clos du Val lineup; it was a lovely choice to accompany slivers of orange lavender cheesecake with white chocolate.

Clos du Val is now back on my radar. Not just because they fed me a light, elegant dinner, but because of the wines I experienced that evening.