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Opus on Its Own

Constellation and Philippine de Rothschild remain partners, but Napa winery will distance itself from Mondavi

Tim Fish, James Laube
Posted: September 22, 2005

The owners of Opus One said today that, in the future, the winery will operate more independently from its Napa Valley sibling, Robert Mondavi Winery.

Constellation Brands, which bought Mondavi last year, and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild will continue to own Opus One jointly, but they said it was time for the celebrated Oakville winery to strengthen its own identity. In the past, it has had close ties to Robert Mondavi Winery, since vintner Robert Mondavi cofounded the Franco-Californian venture in 1979 with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Philippine's father. For a time, Mondavi's winemakers also oversaw winemaking at Opus One.

After Constellation took over the entire Robert Mondavi Corp. last year, many industry observers speculated that the partners would end the joint venture, with one selling out their 50 percent stake to the other. Some thought that the owner of Bordeaux first-growth Château Mouton-Rothschild would not want to work with a company that had long been known for mass-market brands such as Almaden and Paul Masson.

Instead, Philippine de Rothschild described Constellation's involvement as "an enrichment" and said that she never gave serious thought to parting with her half of Opus One, which she inherited after her father's death. "For us, there was very little talk of buying the other 50 percent [from Constellation]," she said. Selling Opus "would have broken my heart. It really didn't cross my mind. I'm really not a seller."

Although she allowed that, eventually, "[a sale] might happen," adding that "anything may happen in life," she dismissed the possibility for now. "For the moment, for me, it's really out of my thoughts."

Constellation Brands wanted to keep the prestigious Opus One brand, which sells up to 30,000 cases a year of its Bordeaux-inspired interpretation of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $150 a bottle. But Robert Mondavi's top wine, the Reserve Cabernet, competes with Opus One and it, too, might benefit from distancing itself from the high-profile joint venture.

Opus One has been a successful winery, despite some ups and downs that have caused it to lose some of its luster. It is no longer closely affiliated with famous Napa vintner Robert Mondavi, and dozens of new California Cabernet producers have emerged in recent years, making the market for prestige brands ever more competitive. Opus wines have been very good, but not among the elite in recent vintages. The winery has also undergone key changes in management. In 2001, Michael Silacci, formerly of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, took over as winemaker, and in 2004, David Pearson became CEO.

Opus One is the last of Mondavi's joint ventures to settle its future. This past spring, Tuscan producer Frescobaldi took full ownership of Ornellaia and bought out the other half of the Luce venture, which it sold back to Michael Mondavi's new company. Last year, the Chadwick family of Chilean producer Viña Errazuriz bought Mondavi's stakes in the Seña, Arboleda and Caliterra projects.

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