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Opus One Looks Ahead

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Nov 7, 2006 9:54am ET

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.

Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  November 7, 2006 1:56pm ET
I would think that the first and most important challenge facing the people in charge at Opus One would be to start making a wine that is worth $165 per bottle, which it has not recently been
Michael Minor
Dallas,TX —  November 7, 2006 3:33pm ET
I agree with Hoyt, there is no way the last several vintages have been worth the asking price. I would but several California Cabernets including Silver Oak in the same basket.
Kevin Rogers
Geyserville, CA —  November 7, 2006 4:18pm ET
I find it interesting that in the latest issue, this publication has compiled the "Napa top 50". And then lumped everyone else from California into the "best of the rest". What's really interesting is that on your average scoring index, Peter Michael, a Sonoma County winery, had the highest average scores for the period of time used in your survey. Which would mean that if you had titled your article "Top 50 California Cabernets" you would've had to put a Sonoma winery on top. Which may be why it's a Napa top 50...
Peter Czyryca
November 7, 2006 4:54pm ET
Not sure what recent refers to (02-present maybe) but I thought the 1998 and 1999 were outstanding. As they should be for $140+ wines.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 7, 2006 5:10pm ET
Kevin, you're right on both counts. Focus was on Napa and Peter Michael deserves credit for making consistently great Cabernet...from Knights Valley.
John Wilen
Texas —  November 7, 2006 6:46pm ET
If I were to ask a dozen of my experienced CA cabernet drinking buddies to name the most over-hyped, overpriced wine made domestically, I'd bet 10 out of 10 would name Opus. To a man (or woman), they would describe the wine as "a great, impressionable gift, perfect for someone who values a name but cares very little about taste". None of them would ever buy the wine for themselves to actually consume. We've all just had too many bad experiences with previous vintages.

I find two things amazing about Opus.

First, that you can maintain a franchise on such a weak foundation. Like Mont Blanc pens, which are also heavily gifted, but may not be the best analogy (!), Opus positions itself as a luxury brand through pricing, the appearance of quality, and most importantly, by the aura of prestige. But unlike Mont Blanc, my experience tells me that Opus buyers rarely purchase the wine for themselves. When owners write with a Mont Blanc, they are rewarding themselves with a luxurious pen and projecting an image as a select member of a small group of writing connoisseurs. On the other hand, I believe the wine connoisseur segment look condescendingly on Opus consumers. "He bought the name and can't tell the difference." I have to believe that Opus knows the exposure of such a positioning.

Second, why is that Genevieve Janssens, who we dearly love, is/was not able to make a better Opus, when her tiny garage wine "Portfolio" is so radically better!
Peter Czyryca
November 7, 2006 8:08pm ET
John - great analogy with the prestige angle being skewed. I think Opus juice is always "good" - but like you say, they're not charging "good" prices. For $165 750ml, it had better be an outstanding or better bottle of wine.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 8, 2006 11:26am ET
John, part of the reasons are in the story. A tainted cellar, for one. Secondly, I think too much emphasis was put on sales and marketing perhaps at the expense of the wines. Opus is one of the world's greatest business successes, irrespective of how anyone feels about the wines or their relative value. But now Opus has its own vineyards and a renewed determination to earn its stripes. We'll see.
Genevieve Janssens
Oakvillle, CA —  November 10, 2006 1:57pm ET
Hi Jim and John, My last vintage at Opus One was 1997. Opus One is a wonderful story which showed the way to other beautiful stories. Two leaders of the wine industry helped the rest of the world to progress. I do agree with you Jim that Opus One has been contaminated by Brettanomyces. The winery was new in 1991 and already the wine had brett. At that time I could not figure out why. Later on, I realized that the brettanomyces were coming from the vineyard. Michael Silacci has done a wonderful job of eradicating the contamination. At the present time, I am totally dedicated to Robert Mondavi Winery at Oakville and spend my time in the vineyards and at the winery taking great care of our vineyards and wines.I hope John that you have tried our RMW wines and enjoyed them. Please let me know what you think about them.Cheers, Genevieve
Daniel Sogg
San Francisco, CA —  November 10, 2006 6:01pm ET
The source of Brett contamination in wines is certainly a complicated and controversial topic. I just spoke with microbiologist Lisa Van de Water, who has worked with producers for more than 30 years. While she can't say that Brett never comes from vineyards, she says that not one of the studies done in New Zealand, France, Portugal, Croatia, South Africa and California has found it in vineyards. She says that Gallo tested thousands of grape lots from around the state and never found Brett originating in the vineyard.

It is apparently remarkably easy to contaminate a winery with Brett. It can arrive in purchased barrels, purchased wine, even a borrowed hose or bucket. Van de Water related the story of how a Brett contamination at one facility was traced to a reused cork. The cork originally sealed a bottle of Brett-infected Burgundy; the owner then reused the cork on a bottle with which he topped barrels.

Dan Sogg
Associate editor
Wine Spectator

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