Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Opus One – An Epic Winery in Oakville, Napa Valley

The Founders – Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild

There are five wineries classified Premiers Crus in the Bordeaux region of France –Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour, Château Margaux, Château Haut-Brion and Château Mouton Rothschild. These were established by the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855 which resulted from the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris. At the “request” of Emperor Napoleon III a classification system for France’s best Bordeaux wines was established which were to be on display for visitors from around the world. Brokers from the wine industry ranked the wines according to a château’s reputation and trading price, which at that time was directly related to quality. The wines were ranked in importance from first to fifth growths (crus). All of the red wines that made it on the list came from the Médoc region except for one: Château Haut-Brion from Graves. 

Since then these wines have been the benchmark for wines made from the five classic Bordeaux varietal grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec. These wines were considered to have an unsurpassable superiority that could not be rivaled anywhere in the world. This was the common belief until a blind wine competition in 1976 that came to be known as the Judgment of Paris. At this event two American wineries (Château Montelena and Stags Leap Cellars) from the Napa Valley won a blind wine competition using French judges on French soil. It was then that the vision of Robert Mondavi was realized – the Napa Valley had finally been recognized as a world-class wine producing appellation.

Three years after that world changing event in 1979 Robert Mondavi, the founder of Robert Mondavi Winery, and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, manager of Château Mouton Rothschild, became partners in an American-French venture to produce Premiers Crus-like wines in the Napa Valley

The joint American-French venture of Opus One in 1980 was revolutionary in the wine industry. But the plans for the winery had been developing between the two men since the early 1970s. In 1980, Robert Mondavi sold 35 acres from his To Kalon Vineyard in the Oakville AVA to the joint venture that would serve as the backbone for the blend. Today, four major vineyards of 169 acres provide 95% of the blend which consists of the five Bordeaux grape varieties.

The first vintage was the 1979 which was released in 1985 at the same time as the 1980 vintage. It was created using the facilities at the Robert Mondavi Winery. The wine was originally called Napa Medoc until 1982 when it was renamed Opus One. In the 1980s, after her father’s death, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild left a stage career that included the Comédie Française and the Renault-Barrault Theatre Company, bringing her own style and creativity to the design, construction, and operation of Opus One.

In 1989 a new limestone winery was built across the road. The first vintage from this block was released in 1985. The first vintage from the new winery was from 1991 and was released in 1994.

In 2004 Robert Mondavi sold his share and Rothchild partnered with Constellation with a first right of refusal for 50/50 partnership. Following Constellation Brands’ 2004 purchase of Robert Mondavi Winery, the estate of Baron Rothschild negotiated with Constellation Brands control of marketing, vineyard management and administration of the winery to become an autonomous winery maintaining its own vision with one wine maker. In the following year Constellation and Rothchild agreed to maintain joint venture with three people from each company on the board. Rothchild and Constellation now meet twice a year in Paris and New York and once a year at Opus One.

The Architecture

The iconic winery was designed by architect Scott Johnson whose best known designs include winery landmarks such as Opus One in the Napa Valley and Byron Winery in Santa Barbara County. Scott was born in California (February 1, 1951) and educated at Stanford University, U.C Berkeley (AB in Architecture) and the Harvard Graduate School of Design (Master in Architecture). He is the co-founder and Design Partner of Johnson Fain, an international architecture, planning and interior design firm located in Los Angeles. He is also the author of the recent books including The Big Idea: Criticality and Practice in Contemporary Architecture, Tall Building: Imagining the Skyscraper, as well as Tectonics of Place: The Architecture of Johnson Fain.
In 1989 the building of Opus One began with the intention that it would live for 300 years. To accomplish this longevity they used rebar so thick that it took a special concrete agent, developed after the Loma Prieta earthquake, to allow the concrete to flow. The design of the building seems to have a multitude of influences depending on what the perspective and angle of the viewer. From a distance it is reminiscent of a ziggurat, a temple tower consisting of a lofty pyramidal structure with a shrine at the top like those found in Mesopotamia or the Mayans temple in Central America and Mexico. Once you approach the courtyard it seems very Romanesque, an architectural style of Medieval Europe characterized by semi-circular arches. But then as you enter the winery it becomes very post-modern with a corkscrew-shaped staircase that takes you down to the barrel room. Inside the winery the old and new world are blended with the use of California Redwood and stainless steel that are juxtaposed throughout with cream colored limestone as well as wall sconces adapted from Chateau de Rothschild.  In addition to the grandness of the architecture, the landscaping of the courtyard has also been integrated with a beautiful olive trees. Along the top of the ziggurat in is a terrace where visitors can sip a glass of wine while enjoying the surrounding view. The winery is centrally situated between the Mayacama and Vaca Mountains so that the elevated promenade provides the visitor with spectacular view of the surrounding hills, vineyards in every direction.

The Wine

While visiting Opus One I sampled the following wines:

Upon arrival and being greeted by the tour guide I and a few other visitors were given our first pour of a wine that is similar in profile and blend to Opus One which is labeled “Overture.” Opus One is only made with the optimum grapes from the estate vineyard. Those that are high quality but do not quite meet the winemaker’s standards are then used to make this second tier wine with the same care and attention to detail that is used in making Opus One. It is a blend of the 2007 and 2008 vintages and is labeled as a non-vintage wine. On the nose this wine has subtle aromas of black currants, dusty black cherries and a hint of pepper. But it needs a lot of time to breathe and plenty of swirling to coax the bouquet out of the glass. The fruit is up front, it is medium bodied with ample acidity and a medium length finish. This wine sells for $80 a bottle.
After sampling the wine and exchanging greetings we then took a tour of the winery including the production areas with the fermentation tanks and then barrel room. We were then seated in a small tasting room at a lovely round table where we sampled two vintages of Opus One side by side.

The first pour was a 2006 vintage of Opus One, a blend of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 5% Cab Franc, 3% Petite Verdot and 3% Malbec. Like the overture, this wine needs plenty of time to breathe and would be best served decanted. This wine has subtle aromas of black currants, blackberries, black olives and a hint of dusty cocoa. On the palate it has BIG tannins with a lot of grip and ample acidity. The wine is well structured but somewhat reserved. If you are accustomed to fruitier Napa Cabs this wine will surprise you as it seems much more French in style. This wine sells for $209 a bottle.

The second pour was a 2009 vintage of Opus One, a blend of 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Merlot, 5% Cab Franc, 6% Petite Verdot and 1% Malbec.  A significant contrast with the ’06, this wine is much more fruit forward without becoming a fruit bomb. On the nose it has aromas of freshly picked blackberries, cassis and vanilla. On the palate it is very polished, well rounded and is more of what you’d expect from an upper echelon Napa Valley wine. It has more of a “drink now” appeal but will undoubtedly improve in the next five years. This wine sells for $235 a bottle.

To see more pictures of Opus One, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

To visit or for more information:

Opus One
7900 St. Helena Highway
Oakville, CA 94562
Phone: 1-707- 944-9442 / 1-800-292-6787



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