Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Three decades of Opus One

The place looks like an alien spider ship just descended to take over Oakville. Sitting on the valley floor next to Highway 29 and Oakville Grocery, Opus One has a grass lawn growing on its inclined circular walls. Scott and I imagined sliding down that thing in a cardboard box, but then thought better of it lest we ruin our upscale reputations with this venerable establishment. Too late, I suppose!

If you never heard of Opus One, then you've surely been living under a rock. In fact, even the far-away Japanese are so gaga over Opus that Japan is Opus' third biggest market, after US and France. There is a guy out in Kobe, who built a virtual shrine to Opus, with bottles from every vintage stacked high and wide, and savored every day of every week of every year, like a religious reminder that he is alive. The winery’s 2000 vintage was noted in volume 1 of "Kami no Shizuku" (watch it on this blog) - Japan's insanely popular manga with the protagonist searching the world for iconic wines. While in the rest of the world Opus' distribution is done through a group of Bordeaux negociants, the winery is so hot in Japan, they are now placing permanent sales staff there.

Opus One was founded in 1979 as a joint venture by Baron Philippe de Rothschild, legendary proprietor of Chateau Mouton Rothschild (Bordeaux 1st Growth Grand Cru) and Robert Mondavi, to create essentially a Grand Cru Bordeaux in Napa Valley. The winery's logo is perhaps the most recognizable of all American wineries. If you look closely, the likeness to the two founding men is unmistakable.

Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild

In the tradition of Bordeaux, they cultivate estate-grown fruit from their four vineyards, and bottle it into a main wine - Opus One ($150-200), and the second wine - Overture ($70). Both are Cabernet-based Bordeaux blends. Annual production is around 25,000 cases. Prior to 2004, Opus One was co-CEO'ed by one appointee from each side - Mondavi and Rothschild. Winemaking was also done with oversight and final approval from both. Since 2004, when Mondavi winery was acquired by Constellation Brands, Opus One has had a single CEO - David Pearson, and a single winemaker - Michael Silacci, who run the winery with more autonomy, with Rothschild and Constellation supplying three members each for the Board of Directors. Opus One now has the freedom to make viticulture, winemaking, personnel, and sales & marketing decisions, including competing with Bordeaux world-wide.

I sat down with Opus' winemaker since 2001, Michael Silacci (previously of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars), and their Director of PR since 1995, Roger Asleson, for a tasting of 6 vintages spanning the last 30 years: 1987, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2005, and 2007.

If images of Napa fruit-bombs, dark, thick, jammy, overripe, alcoholic oak monsters come to mind when you hear "Napa Cab", I have to say, Opus has threaded the needle. These wines are more red then black, plush but not thick, medium not full bodied, possessing decent acidity, with none of the jammy, overripe character that you will find in many California reds. That's not to say that they are Bordeaux-like. The alcohol levels have climbed steadily from the 1980's, when they were in 12-13% range, to the 1990's in the 13%-14% range to the 2000's when they are solidly in the 14-15% range (in 2007 at the higher end of that range, and in 2010 likely at the lower end of the range). I asked Michael about it.

"In the 80's, we had to replant many vines due to phylloxera. By then, we had learned how to grow healthier vines, more suitable for our climate and soils. We started using better root-stocks. Healthier vines reached sugar ripeness earlier.", explained Michael.
"But why would you not pick earlier?", I pressed.
"Because we still have to wait for phenolic (physiological) ripeness of skins and seeds, otherwise the wines would be overly tannic and green. This causes sugar ripeness to climb (and the acidity to decline). Higher sugars, especially pronounced in hotter years, result in higher alcohol. That's why we will see slightly lower alcohol in 2010 - on average a cooler year than its predecessors."

To flesh this out further, I borrowed this excerpt from
Winemakers commonly make a distinction between two rather separate ripening processes, known as phenolic ripeness and sugar ripeness, although this distinction is contested by some. Phenolic ripeness (also referred to as physiological ripeness) refers to the changes in the tannins that occur in grape skins, seeds and stems. Sugar ripeness refers to the breakdown of acids and accumulation of sugars. In the classic northern hemisphere regions, grapes are typically harvested by sugar ripeness. In many vintages it’s a question of getting the grapes as ripe as possible before autumn rains set in, and usually the phenolic ripeness is satisfactory where yields have been kept sane. [Editor note: I believe that is more of a case in Bordeaux and Burgundy.]

In warmer regions the growers get better results picking by phenolic ripeness, because this often trails sugar ripeness. Warm regions have no problem producing grapes with high levels of sugar and thus potential alcohol, and here the challenge is to get grapes to reach phenolic ripeness without making wines with heroic alcohol levels and no natural acidity. It’s no good picking earlier at 13 degrees potential alcohol in order to avoid an alcoholic wine, because if the phenolic ripeness isn’t adequate the wine will have an unpleasant green, unripe flavour to it.

To my palate, certainly the 12.5% of the 1987 was the most pleasing. The wine is decidedly more Bordeaux-like - possessing herbaceous notes, high acidity, a touch of smoke, and cool mouth-feel. Incredibly youthful, energetic, and fresh, the tannins are still there, keeping it alive and well. From there, the 1995 and 1997 add a bit of heat, thicker texture, a bit of jerky and spice, and feel like a baby of two worlds - Old and New. The 2001, 2005, and 2007 are different - obviously more fruity, almost apricoty, with fruit/berry tea component, hotter, plusher, perhaps "cleaner", with strong tannins reminding of the wines' youth. The entire line-up stays light on the palate, with a streak of chocolate-covered black cherries running through. The 2007 seems more open and approachable than many 2007's from other Napa producers, such as Bond. Out of curiosity, after I finished going forward in chronology (from 1987 to 2007), I went backward. Now the 1987 was tough to drink - noticeably greener, leaner, and more sour. This reminded me of how wine-drinkers with California palates must experience French wine :)!

"At what age do you recommend drinking Opus One?", I asked Michael.
"Well, we release 3 years after the vintage, and think the wines are drinkable on release. That said, I prefer them at 12-17 years."

Since 2001, Michael applied much of his time and wisdom to establishing and training a dedicated vineyard crew. Prior to that, crews used to rotate from other Mondavi's vineyards, including those that grew grape varieties that had nothing to do with Opus One. According to Michael, cultivating grape vines is different for each grape variety, and even each vineyard. Developing intimate knowledge of the land and the vine, creating an emotional attachment between the farmer and the final wine is key in his mind to raising quality of the final product. Opus One now has a veteran crew of 20 devoted vineyard workers, who not only tend to vines but even compete in teams to vinify two mini-tanks, under the supervision of Michael, of course. If successful, not only do the workers learn to appreciate the fruits of their labor in not just monetary terms, but their wine gets blended into Opus One, and they get to take home a specially labeled 3-pack of the Opus they made. The sense of ownership is something that money simply cannot buy, and Michael is very proud of that.

As I listended, I couldn't help but think of how these were the same savvy management principles that experienced managers use in all walks of work, not just viticulture. In my hi-tech day job as a Vice President at YouSendIT, if you make employees care, really care about the product they build, have them touch all aspects of it, not just their specific area - from engineering, to testing, to supporting customers, then the product will show it. Ask them to take it home with them and use it, and both the morale and the quality will go up. You will get happier workforce and happier customers.

In addition to team building, Michael has poured his energies into increased dry-farming (i.e. stressing vines by limiting water, except in the most extreme heat spikes). "Grapes, like people, get their intensity and depth from being deprived of easy life. Struggle causes them to dig deeper and to get better.", Michael explained his philosophy. "But only up to a point. I want to impart into them a sense of urgency, not a sense of anxiety. If you push too hard, they shut down.", he smiled, referring equally to his workers and his vines.

To help refine clone selection and irrigation schedules, he has hired experts to develop a very detailed soils analysis of the land. He believes the combination of those three strategies - the dedicated crew, the dry-farming, and the knowledge of the soils has resulted into steady improvement of the quality of Opus One in the past decade. You be the judge!

Walking through the clinically clean and meticulously arranged wine storage facility, I gazed at the shiny stainless steel tanks and experimental hi-tech grape sorting equipment that uses computer vision to filter out faulty grapes -- further evidence that the winery constantly invests in the latest methods to drive the quality of Opus One ever higher.

"But why do you want to keep improving quality, Michael?", I asked a devil's advocate's question.
"I guess no one had ever asked this.", he eventually said. "I am a perfectionist."
"Well, your wines are loved throughout the world. So what if you'd have an imperfection? A little animal, raw meat flavor, like in Northern Rhone, gives character.", I said.
"It's probably Brett", he said. "I actually enjoy a little bit of it."
"Then why would you try to improve this?", I wondered. I recalled a conversation I'd had with Italian wine expert Enrico Nicoletta of Wine Warehouse. When asked if the quality of Italian wine had changed over the last 30 years, he was very quick and confident to acknowledge the dramatic improvement. "Then what about the glorious vintages of the past?", I asked Enrico. "Yes, true, but those were few and far between. The consistency with which good quality wines come out of Italy today, vintage in and vintage out, is unprecedented." So relating that back to my dialog with Michael Silacci, I asked Michael:

"If great vintages already produce great wines, is this push for quality aimed at raising the level of poor vintages? I imagine it also helps you be more efficient and increase production without sacrificing quality?"

I suppose that's an equation every winemaker works to solve - maximum quality at maximum yield. Perhaps these questions puzzled him a bit, but he finally exclaimed: "If I weren't improving the quality, my job would be boring!"
We left it at that.

Earlier, Michael and Roger had walked me through their lab, where they are currently refining methodology for cork testing, with the vision to test for TCA (cork taint) not just samples of every cork batch, but every single cork that goes into their bottles. An ambitious and pioneering endeavor, ultimately designed to protect the reputation of Opus One.
"If consumer drinks a corked wine, they may not necessarily realize it's flawed. They may simply decide the wine is not good.", Michael explained.

On the way from Napa, I stopped in downtown San Francisco for a Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting of the newly released 2008 Grand Cru Bordeaux. What a great opportunity to contrast Opus One against the French brethren, while memories were still fresh. The top 3 members of the Union were notably absent - Cheval-Blanc, D'Yquem, and Mouton-Rothschild. The rest were all well-known names at the lower rungs of the Grand Cru hierarchy, with Figeac and Angelus being perhaps the more famous from the right bank and Talbot and Lynch-Bages (5th Growth) from the left. While Lynch-Bages to me was the best of the show, generally I didn't enjoy any of the 2008's. Very tight and ungiving, many with greenish character, tons of smoky wood and soapy spice, dark black fruits, extremely tannic and masculine at this point. I will come back to them in a year or two for further judgment. In comparison, the 2007 - current release of Opus One - now seemed like a pretty girl ready to go out.


Mark said...

Hey Gary,

I saw your comment over at Vinography about Alder's audience, so I thought I'd stop in and say hello. I'm amazed that Opus One is the same age as me, perhaps it's the way the Valley works, but everyone acts like it was founded close to yesterday. It's an interesting project, I wonder if it's one which could get done in the current economic climate.

Lastly-I saw your bio....Ask Jeeves, now that's a blast from the past! Nice blog BTW!

Iron Chevsky said...

Mark, thanks for stopping by here!

Anonymous said...

so what's your favorite vintage? did you taste the second wine?

I agree Bordeaux 08 is uninspiring. Parker missed it by a wide mile......

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