My job has flung me back to Opus One. A year and a half ago my wife and I paired our eighth anniversary with a visit. After three hours, we left impressed but confused. Can a single wine, no matter how good, merit a whole facility and army of employees?
Well, time for the prodigal son to return.
I am here with Cru Artisan Brands salespeople from Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. The market quakes with new markets abroad and millenials moving away from their parent’s cult wines. We need to know what will keep Opus relevant. To accomplish this, we will spend the whole day here. Yes, a single wine winery from 9am until 9pm.
A year has changed little. The sun still bleaches the white stone spaceship structure: its limestone arcades wrap the central court like a mini modern Vatican. Grass and vines glare green. Elegant staff still slip smiling from reception desks to doors to glassware.
Baron Rothschild and Mondavi’s revolutionary bridge between Bordeaux and Napa now tips on a turning point. Both men are dead. The Mondavi family left. Rothschilds still hold onto half. Their winemakers continue to ping pong between France and California, cross-pollinating each coast. Opus still pulls $1 million acre fruit from To Kalon vineyard. Yet even Opus, in all its grandeur, shakes as it steps off the shoulders of its past parents.
They set the bar with Krug Champagne:
Opus knows what they’re doing. After intros, half sipped flutes clank back onto the glass table. We shift into the tour.
The 2007 vintage Opus awaits us. It was cool and caught in the middle of a dry farming switch. Vines fought to produce their best.
A deep garnet core glints with brilliant ruby highlights that tear down my swirled glass. AROMAS glow with orange peel, pomegranate, brine, shredded clove, dried vanilla bean husk, and tobacco leaf. The PALATE feels dry but lifted, acidity dinging like a triangle. Dusted tannins prickle a medium plus body. Intense, open FLAVORS ring with orange peel, ruby pomegranate juice, framed in tobacco, chanterelle mushrooms, earth, mocha, and ginger snap cookies.
A decade after harvest, 07 finally sings full chested La Boheme: earthy, complicated, vibrant, and ever struggling. It is outstanding (5 of 5), ready to conquer the world, yet with years ahead of it.
We ponder 07 while Napa’s sun bakes us before the vineyard.
We learn of their ever-evolving trials into biodynamics, five clone Cabernet biodiversity, dry farming, and replanted blocks. Four plots make up 170 acres for Opus.
Once thoroughly cooked outside, sipping warm cab, we head in.
Inside, we cool down, pass the lab and enter Opus’s grape sorting second story. A lonely vine hangs crucified and split at its graft:
We ponder a possible tattoo. The graft point alone is bigger than my fist. Yet, quietly, on a side table, sits a baby graft-to-be and cutter:
This now standard practice makes for metaphor at Opus: here, American roots allow European grapes to thrive. Without us, phylloxera would have ended French wine. Without Bordeaux, Napa’s path could have veered any direction.
Opus 2010 fills new glasses. This was their biodynic vintage, before they stepped back to sustainable farming.
Ruby rims a more youthful, purple heart. AROMAS and FALVORS jump, young, angry, and dense with all spice, tomato leaf, black currant skin, anise, petrol, tobacco, and a green eucalyptus. Cedar tannins splinter throughout the packed PALATE and full body.
2010 is outstanding (5 of 5). But be wary, it is all punk rock. Decant it, age it a few more years, or tame it with old cheddar or steak.
We check out the tasting room construction outside and vineyards running East. The elephant in this grey hall is the berry sorter.
Small trays of grape bunches head to hand sorting, deleafing, shaking, and blowing into a net then rolled into a destemmer. Next a programmed digital vistalys system analyzes each berry by visual criteria, air jets shoo away a quarter of fruit to mulch, break the best berries, and then trundle the best fruit into pods, which wheel over tanks and and dump into them below our feet. What an efficient racket it must all make.
We step down to the tank rooms. It feels cool, calm, and dark. Plump stainless tanks gleam flanking unused barrels and presses:
But the barrel hall awaits: a crescent, windowed hall that wraps around a tasting table. It echoes the exterior. Barrel rows, striped red, run like beads around its neck. Here wine ages eighteen months before another year in bottle. They are top notch. Opus drops barrel suppliers if they look off. That red band is patented and antimicrobial. Reeds on the rim drive off bugs. No barrel gets used twice. After aging they are sold to the highest bidder.
2013 OPUS ONE tints new glasses an intense purple that runs right to the edge. Turbo-powered AROMAS of red fruits like cranberry sauce, Bing cherry lead to blood orange and vanilla all in one shout. The PALATE feels dry, chewy, tannic, warm and full, with enough lift but tight packed. FLAVORS slam with cedar, cherry, boysenberry, heat, and dried mint leaf of medium plus length.
2013 was a warm, dry, shortened vintage. This wine is all flesh and grip. It can be drunk now, but demands protein, and may not age as long as 07 or 10 can, but is no less outstanding (5 of 5).
We head out back. Dressy tables shade beneath oaks framing Napa River. A babble of French and American accents hover ready for lunch. Today, winemakers and staff from Opus, Bordeaux, and beyond dine with us. Michael Silacci, both winemaker and viticulturist, leads proceedings.
We get two wines, Opus’ multi-vintage blend Overture and Mondavi’s Sauvignon Blanc: a nice nod to their past. We quietly give thanks for the white, since the amazing multicourse lunch feeds us summer fare: caper salads, creamy salmon, fried chicken, and strawberry parfait: not muscular Cabernet territory.
Fat and happy, we return for our final tasting. This time we taste yeast. Well, wines made with different yeasts.
Three different strains line up beside three blends.
The 2015 Coyote strain comes from famed To Kalon vineyard a cross the street. DNA testing found it hybridized between native and winery yeasts used there. The resultant wine looks clear pretty deep and purple. AROMAS flex with blackberry compote, cedar, flint, black pepper, dried mint, iron oxide, musk, and herbs de Provence. The PALATE powers with intense acidity, tannin, heat, and edge. With FLAVORS of dried blackberries, iron oxide, pepper. This is a power punch that can handle Opus’s aggressive oak regime.
Next 2015 Wolf a true wild yeast. The wine looks deeper purple. Calm AROMAS waft up mellow caramel, gingersnap, and bramble fruits. The PALATE feels less acidic, more tannic, but leaner with dark fruits driving FLAVORS and orange peel.
And then I become that guy. I grab for a cracker, tip, and catch my last glass, flinging half of its expensive ounces all over a lovely rep from Alaska and myself.
Humiliated and daubing frantically, I move to the 2016 KS strain. Think pie: all-spice, boisenberry, cinnamon, and dried cherry skin AROMAS glow. The PALATE has tannic structure but pales mildly compared to the wild ones before. This would fill out the lean Wolf strain.
Winemaker Michael Silacci finds us again and remains somehow oblivious to my tie-dye experiment. So vineyard blocks and yeasted tanks ferment separately. He then narrows blends until reaching the pyramid pinnacle. We try three trial 2016 blends:
2016 Blend 2: AROMAS smell quiet, herbaceous, with orange peal. It is dry, with medium acidity, some tannic structure but quite round, fat. 2 is very good (4 of 5) but has no place to go.
2016 BLEND 6: AROMAS smell of blackberry, cassis, and mint. The PALATE balances even acid, tannin, and warm alcohol into integrated smoothness. It is very good (4 of 5) ready now but would collapse after a year or two in new barrels.
2016 Blend 9: Vibrant and complex AROMAS of woody cedar, earth, orange peel, brine make me almost forget there is fruit in there. But a blackcurrant syrup ripples beneath. The palate is grippy, warm, with chunky tannins. It is only very good now (4 of 5) and honestly not enjoyable as a drink but as something to analyze.
I prefer 6 now, but 9 will become Opus One 2016. Only years of practice could give the likes of Silacci vision to see the wine post barrel.
By now we assume it has finished. But Opus is not done with us. We meet at Farmstead Restaurant. A lackluster grower Champagne and an endless parade of appetizers flow:
Then bottles arrive. Opus served as the Rothschilds’ summer home. Well, they had a bit of a collection stowed away.
2003 may be the 150th anniversary of Château Mouton Rothschild, but 2003 was also a brutally hot vintage. It made monsters. The whole harvest crammed into ten days. But how does Opus’ French-er half fare?
Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac France 2003…. $520 gotta review it.
The APPEARANCE looks a deep garnet framed by thick legs. Intense AROMAS chunk into life: dusky, flinty, briney, with pruned black boysenberry, fennel, and pepper. The PALATE still cracks with rich dry tannins but a checked medium acidity, alcohol, and body. FLAVORS glow with berry fruit leather, prune juice, dusty barn for a medium plus length. Five years ago, this ’03 was probably once outstanding, but the tannic frame feels hollow. CMR still drinks very well (4 of 5), complex and all class, that compared to any 2003 amazes me.
But we came for Opus: the mind child of Mouton and Mondavi. Tasting 2013 again, now with Farmstead’s biscuit meat-fest, it forms a complicated, shouty, perfect chorus. They get along like siblings, energetic, and flaunting their best for our attention.
Back to our initial question: can Opus continue to matter past its parents? Well, we know 2013 works with food. 2007 has aged gracefully. 2010 has years to go. Even without knowing the methods and madness, objectively, these are impressive. But so are many wines.
Near $300 a bottle, few can afford Opus One. New markets have begun to collect it to prove their status. But today, fewer Americans cellar wines like this. Also brand-for-life loyalty is fading as a new generation buys for value, variety, and immediate gratification.
So I ponder the label. Mondavi and Rothschild’s blue, blurred profiles now float like ghosts, both deceased, faded shadows of decades of triumph.
But beyond former glory, Opus still strives to be the standard, bent on perfection, with little ceiling on expenses. Who else only buys new barrels for one use? Who else avoids distractions like providing a “range” of wines. Winemaker Silacci could stand on the shoulders of giants and just coast. But the wine world never stands still. Each vintage and trend presents new challenges. Luckily, Opus continues to manage brilliance by tirelessly tweaking and rebuilding itself.
Opus One matters most because of its relentless, monoptic focus. And you can taste it.