Monday, August 27, 2012

Opus One: Conception and execution of the highest order

Opus One is an Oakville-based winery joint venture that grew out of Baron Philippe de Rothschild's (at that time the owner of Mouton-Rothschild) desire to partner with an American producer to make a distinctly American wine.  I have visited the winery twice in a little over a year -- once as a member of the UC Davis Wine Law Conference team that visited the facility on June 6th, 2010 and, secondly, on a personal guided tour organized by @sdematei and led by Jim Nicolette, Guest Relations Coordinator -- and this post presents my understanding of the winery operations based on onsite discussions as well as material gleaned from secondary sources.

Based on the recommendation of his friend Harry Serlis, Robert Mondavi was the only producer who was considered by the Baron as a potential joint-venture partner (Julia Flynn Siler, The House of Mondavi, Penguin 2007).  The Baron invited Robert Mondavi to meet at Mouton-Rothschild and in the course of the visit (1978) proposed a joint venture based on equal footing (a surprising proposal to Mondavi given the size and prestige of Mouton).  The agreement coming out of the meeting was for the formation of a fifty-fifty joint venture which would produce a single red wine with a proprietary name (Siler 2007).  Robert Mondavi would provide the grapes and make the wine for the joint venture until it was able to meet its own needs and a search would be initiated to identify and procure property to house its operations.

The joint venture released its 1979 and 1980 vintages simultaneously in 1984 under the winemaking stewardship of Timothy Mondavi and Lucien Sionneau, the Mouton winemaker.  The product introduced on the market represented a compromise between Sionneau's preference for a more elegant offering and Mondavi's hankering for a California-style red wine (Siler 2007).

The climate and soils of Oakville, Opus One's home AVA, has been described in a previous post.  The estate currently owns and operates four vineyards, totaling 169 acres (68.4 ha), in the AVA.  The first acquisition was the Q Block (35 acres (14.2 ha)) of the famed To Kalon Vineyard from the Robert Mondavi Winery in 1981.

This was followed by the acquisition of the 50-acre (20.2-ha) River Parcel in 1983, the Ballestra Vineyard (49 acres (19.8 ha)) in 1984, and the To Kalon K Block (48 acre (18.4 ha)) in 2008.  In 1995 the Q Block was replanted with low-yield, high-density, phylloxera-resistant rootstock.  The density of the re-plantings was five to six times higher than is normal for Napa but was pursued in order to produce smaller berries with resultant higher skin-to-juice-ratio which, in turn, would translate into more intense flavors and aromas. Overall vine density ranges between 500 and 2400 vines per acre.  Vines are spur-pruned with new plantings going to Guyot.

The goal of Opus One is the production of an extraordinay wine and the person leading that charge today is the Winemaker and Viticulturist Michael Silacci.  Mike has a Masters degree in Viticulture from UC Davis and Undergraduate degrees in Enology from UC Davis and the University of Bordeaux.  Mike spent 6 years as the winemaker at Stags Leap Wine Cellars and 1 year as the winemaker at King Estates in Oregon but is especially mindful of the years (6) at Beaulieu Estates where he got to work alongside the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff.  Tchelistcheff had come back to Beaulieu Vineyards as a consultant and Mike worked alongside him for approximately 3 years and came out of that process a Tchelistcheff disciple.

Mike came to Opus One in 2001 and put the vineyard team together, drawing extensively from Mondavi personnel. Mike sought out committed vineyard workers who were willing to take on responsibility and ownership.  In 2004 he placed the cellar workers into teams and gave each team four barrels of wine (value approximately $250,000) with the goal of having "their" wines included in the Opus blend.  According to JIm Nicolette, since that initial assignment, only one team has missed the blend.

During my initial trip to Opus I was mesmerized by the corporate strategic management skills exhibited by Mike.  These are not the type of skills that you encounter in a winery on a daily basis.  First, he was very strategic in his thinking and every action that was undertaken was part of a larger plan.  He related the story of how he eventually got the executives in France to commit the financial resources to replanting the vineyards and it was brilliant.  Second, his management style was highly motivational.  Rather than pulling folks along, he gave them a sense of shared ownership and responsibility and a "we all win together" attitude.  He spoke very highly of his staff and their successes to the UC Davis team where a lot of winemakers would have used the opportunity to laud their own accomplishments.  And that love is returned.  A fair amount of the time that I spent with Jim was taken up with favorable stories about Mike's effect on and in the workplace.  According to Jim, Mike's motivational management style has dramatically changed the culture at Opus One.

Harvesting of the grape berries are done by hand by teams working between 3:30 and 10:00 am.  The berries are deposited into small picking boxes for transport to the winery where they are hand-sorted before being placed in the destemmer.  The berries are gravity-flowed from the destemmers to stainless steel fermenting tanks on the floor below.  Each tank is dedicated to a single lot and is only used once during harvest.  The berries undergo a warm maceration at the conclusion of which the tanks are raised and the free-run juice is gravity-fed into new French oak barrels.  The remaining solid material is placed into basket presses and the resulting juice is itself placed into oak barrels for aging.

The wine is kept in oak casks for 18 months during which time it is racked and topped-up as needed.  In turbid years the wine is subjected to egg-white fining. The final blend is determined by a tasting team comprised of the winemaker, two assistant winemakers, and a contingent from Mouton-Rothschild.  The blend is generally 85% Cabernet Sauvignon with the remainder being some mix of the other Bordeaux varietals.  A general practice is to co-ferment the best Cabernet Sauvignon with Petit Verdot.

The wines are bottled after the 18-month residence in cask and spend an additional 18 months in bottle before public release.

Opus One bottles its vintage Bordeaux blend for worldwide distribution and a non-vintage second wine -- Overture -- which is only avaiilable for purchse at the winery or on the winery's website.  The flagship wine is generally concentrated with apparent black fruit and silky tannins but ages well, as demonstrated in a recent Masters of Wine tasting in London where Mike's favorite vintages were showcased.  The wines are generally favorably received by the critic-class and have developed a faithful following worldwide.

In closing I should note that, with Constellation's purchase of the Robert Mondavi Winery, the joint partners in the endeavor are now Constellation Brands and the Baron Philippe de Rothschild organization.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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