On opposite walls in David Pearson’s office are two imposing photos of wine legends. One is dead. One is still alive.
To Pearson’s right is a black-and-white photo of Baron Philippe de Rothschild. “His eyes follow you around the room,” says Pearson, the CEO of Opus One, acting as if it’s both reassuring and intimidating.
Indeed, the baron looks quite serious. Thoughtful but resolute, as if he is staring into the future.
On the opposite wall is a handsome photo of Robert Mondavi, dressed in a tuxedo. His gaze is less “I have my eye on you” than “I know we’re great and we can do this with class and style.” It’s a pose many people have seen from Mondavi over the years.
Working between the two men who conceived of Opus One is an awesome setting, admits Pearson, who is 44. He has big shoes to fill, but he seems equal to the challenge. He is a U.C. Davis winemaking graduate who has also worked in research for Heublein and marketing for Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s wines, including Château Mouton-Rothschild, and then for Robert Mondavi Corp.
Today, he works in one of the world’s most dazzling wineries, an architectural monument with few peers.
Yet what strikes me most about Opus One these days is Pearson’s candid talk about the wines, both the good and the bad.
Although Pearson refers to Opus as “the child of two great minds,” he is quick to add, “This can’t be all about the past. It has to be about the vines and wines. Opus One has to earn its image.”
Opus One, modeled after a Bordeaux château, but set in Napa Valley soon after the California appellation had first taken the world stage, produced its debut wine in 1979. In the late 1980s and roaring 1990s, it became one of the elite Cabernet producers. (The label doesn’t identify a varietal, but the wine is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with Cabernet Franc.) Since its founding, Opus has added vineyard land in Oakville and built the monumental edifice that some consider a tribute to its founders. Today it owns nearly 140 acres of vines, including some in the prized To Kalon vineyard. Its 2003 vintage was priced at $165.
Yet its image has been smudged a bit, first by problems in the winery and then by the sale in 2004 of Robert Mondavi Corp. to Constellation Brands, which immediately raised concerns about Opus’ future, even though Baron Philippe’s daughter, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, opted to remain in the joint venture with Constellation. Chief among those concerns were whether it would maintain or improve quality, or whether that would be sacrificed to pump up production
“The biggest concern is the impression [in the wine trade] that Constellation will beef up production,” says Pearson. The company could do that. But the aim now is to improve quality, and winemaker Michael Silacci is in charge of that.
At some point starting in the early 1990s, the winery developed a problem with brettanomyces, spoilage yeast that can give some wines an elevated, spicy aromatic quality, which some people admire. Yet when unchecked, it can turn a wine earthy, leathery, sometimes dirty and off-putting.
I consider brett a defect, yet many winemakers liken it to seasoning, and it is in many wines.
“Clearly in the 1990s the wines showed [brett],” says Pearson. “Opus One has been overwhelmingly successful as a business. It’s our past that has made us successful and made us what we are. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about [by the quality of the wines]. It’s part of the history of the wine.”
Coming next: A tasting of Opus One and a blind tasting of its competitors.