Opus One in Perspective
By James Laube, senior editor
Opus One is not the be-all and end-all of wines, but it deserves its due. Now, after 20 vintages, many important things have changed -- things that influence the way wine is made as well as how we think about wine. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, these changes have paralleled Opus' rise to international prominence.
Opus would never have been conceived were it not for the foresight of its two founders, Robert Mondavi, the famous Napa Valley winemaker, and Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux's Château Mouton-Rothschild. Rothschild's curiosity about the potential of California wines led to discussions about a possible joint venture. Mondavi's desires to make finer wines and to expand globally were a perfect fit. Who better to learn from and share ideas with than an able and willing partner from France?
Mondavi's drive to excel -- not to mention his amazing capacity for knowledge and his ability to experiment and change -- cannot be overstated. His family initially resisted him when he mentioned a possible alliance with Rothschild, but he prevailed. Moreover, even at age 86, he is far younger mentally and more open-minded than most of the brightest minds in wine today. His willingness to examine his wines and learn from their strengths and weaknesses has helped keep Opus (and Mondavi Reserve Cabernets) on the cutting edge.
Mondavi's competitive spirit has benefited California wine. These days, there are so many excellent wines being made that no one winery dominates year after year. Mondavi doesn't like to lose blind tastings, but he always participates; too many of today's top winemakers know only the good times and won't show their wines in off-vintage retrospective tastings -- they're worried that less-than-flattering reviews might tarnish their images.
Because he studies vintages carefully, Mondavi and his staff have learned from past mistakes and are better able to apply their knowledge to future wines. Other wineries are often slower to make needed adjustments.
The entire contemporary approach to winegrowing, from vine trellising to leaf removal to harvesting mature grapes, came of age in the past 20 years. Much of the thinking was borrowed from the Bordelais, who routinely battle inclement weather throughout the growing season. Opus was among the first in California to implement close vine spacing, planting what was the most expensive vineyard in California history -- and it had to be ripped out and redone because of phylloxera.
Extended skin contact during fermentations, to extract flavor and soften tannins, also gained prominence during this time. The first Opus, in the 1979 vintage, had 10 days of skin contact; the 1996 had 37 days. Opus '79 spent 24 months in new oak; Opus '96, just 19.
Our approach to wine drinking has changed. Today's young wines are so polished and detailed that they're delicious to drink on release. The old Bordeaux mentality that young reds should be hard and structured, and that you had to wait for a wine to age before it would reveal its greatness, fell by the wayside. That thinking has largely been replaced by an emphasis on immediate gratification.
We're more aware of vintage differences and that better wines can be made in challenging years. The toughest California vintages of the past 20 years -- 1988, 1989 and 1998 -- ended up producing good to very good wines because winegrowers are more attentive to their grapes.
With wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, which lends itself to blending, the use of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec are more precise, adding the right elements of complexity. There's a keener awareness about the use of oak for aging, flavor and texture.
Perhaps most importantly, we're more attuned to how wine is used as a dining beverage. No one has studied this longer or more carefully than Mondavi himself. He loves to eat and drink, and he remains convinced that gentler wines, favoring elegance, grace, harmony and finesse, are best suited for mealtimes, and he rails -- politely -- against wines that are too aggressive or powerful.
Always looking to the future, Mondavi believes that over the next five years, even more changes in winegrowing will result in finer wines. It's a vision you can trust.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)