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Tasting Opus Alone and With Its Competitors

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Nov 8, 2006 9:57am ET

When I met with Opus One CEO David Pearson (see my previous post) and winemaker Michael Silacci, they had arranged for a select vertical of their wines.

I had also asked Pearson, partly in jest, if we could taste the wines blind with a few ringers. Many winemakers and winery owners are reluctant to put their wines into such situations outside of private staff tastings.

So he set up two tastings. The first was a flight of seven vintages of Opus, dating to 1980, and the second was a flight of six Napa Valley competitors.

The Opus tasting was revealing on a couple of counts. The 1980, the winery’s second release, was in magnificent shape—the best I’ve tasted from this vintage. Not long ago I had a bottle of 1979, the debut vintage, and it too was in great shape.

The 1980 is still dark-colored, with a perfumed aroma, ripe currant and a hint of raisin; it turned to tobacco and tar on the finish. We all agreed it was in superb shape. It could easily last another decade.

The next wine, the 1997, really fooled me. Its initial loamy earth and currant aromas and its deep, plush concentration and thick tannins had me thinking this was a great 1997. When it was released, I rated it 96 points—one of Opus’ best vintages ever. But it became apparent with a few minutes of aeration that this wine, or at least this bottle, had a serious problem with brettanomyces. It became progressively dry, leathery and bitter. I found it sadly disappointing and, for me, undesirable.

Pearson said that the 1997 vintage is one of the years that fell in the middle of the winery’s brett problems, which occurred in the 1990s. The wine can show well, he said, but we all agreed that the brett in this bottle was over the top. I imagine some people will either love it for its density or be put off by its brettlike character.

The 2001 (89 points on release) showed better than when it came out. Intense, rich and balanced, with spicy currant and a hint of mocha. The finish was a bit clipped, but overall I thought it was borderline outstanding.

The 2002 (86 on release) also showed well, though it clearly needs time. Intense, firm, tight and compact, with the same flavor profile of spicy currant. May surprise with age.

The 2003 (87 on release) tasted a little better than when I reviewed it earlier this year. Like the 2002, it was tight and compact. A very good wine, but it left me hoping for more depth on the finish.

The 2004 (which I have previously tasted from barrel) was my favorite—rich, supple and plush, with currant, chocolate and ripe, fleshy tannins. It should be the best Opus since 1997, when the brett took over.

The 2005 (also not yet rated from bottle) was sleek and elegant, with great balance and depth and fine-grained tannins. Many 2005s I’ve tried are a shade less opulent than 2004 or 2002, and they are lower in alcohol as well. This wine impressed me for its elegance and balance. Should be outstanding.

The second flight was totally blind for me; not even the vintage was revealed until after we tasted the wines and discussed them. Pearson knew which wines were included, but not the order. It turned out to be a flight of 2002s.

Wine No. 1: Very dark, rich and seductive. Plush, with layers of earthy currant, spice, cedar and tobacco. Great depth and a long, persistent finish. We all agreed this was a terrific wine in that bold, assertive style, power with finesse. From Bryant Family.

Wine No. 2: Restrained, elegant and compact, but very complex and deliberate, with spicy currant and fine grain tannins. I guessed Opus, and it was.

Wine No. 3: Very rich and expansive, plush and deep, with loamy currant, hints of toffee and a long, persistent finish. The group favorite. From Araujo.

Wine No. 4: Ultraripe, rich and floral aromas, though not as showy on the palate. Seemed closed down and didn’t compare with the other wines in the flight. "An off bottle?" I wrote. From Colgin IX.

Wine No. 5: Very dark in color, rich without being heavy. Deeply concentrated, intense mocha, currant and vanilla bean notes, turning elegant on the finish. From Merus.

Wine No. 6: Excellent aromas of red currant, earth and spice, with a touch of herb. Fine balance and depth. It seemed to lose a bit on the finish. From Rubicon.

The first of the two tastings left me impressed by the 1980 Opus and its ageability, along with the thought that the 2004 might be a tremendous wine.

The second tasting showed that the management team is still game to face the stiffest competition, and that it is determined to prove Opus' critics wrong. The price isn't about to change, but the wines could and should be better.

Bruce Raines
New York —  November 8, 2006 1:54pm ET
Three or four years ago, at a private club in New York, a good number of wine lovers came to a blind wine tasting of 1996-1997 California cabernets. Five wines were tasted; three in the $20-$30 range, the $50 Chalk Hill, and the $150 Opus One. The Chalk Hill exhibited itself well, and came in first. The Opus One, with all its hype, came in next to last, behind two $20-$30 wines. Enough Said. Bruce
Mark Owens
Cincinnati, Oh. —  November 8, 2006 3:15pm ET
Hello James, nice comments. My question is, does Rubicon and Opus belong with the rest of the class? With the exception of the Colgin possibly, "off bottle", usually, Araujo, Bryant, Colgin & Merus are exceptional wines. Does Rubicon and Opus belong in this group in your opinion? I love the other four mentioned but have never really been impressed with Opus. I have always found it boring.Thanks,Mark
David A Zajac
November 8, 2006 3:20pm ET
Unfortunately I must agree, I have had numerous vintages and the last excellent vintage was 1997. I have not had it now in a couple of years, so can't speak as to the brett issues today, but it was a legitimate mid 90 point wine. The vintages after that, 1998 - 2001 were all mediocre wines AT BEST. Sad to say, but at these prices, they are no longer on my "to buy" list and won't be anytime soon. When will California wake up and stop charging top dollar for mediocre wines? In an off year, you can still buy Latour for under $200/bottle, in a great year its now more like $600, but with California, not just Opus but all producers, its last year plus 10% or more regardless of vintage conditions or whats in the bottle.
Steven D. Brown C.s.w.
November 8, 2006 11:44pm ET
I'm not defending Opus but I do think that it is misunderstood on two levels. One,it really has no peerage, it is a unique concept and project to be compared to nothing else but itself. It may not be a wine that I embrace but I do understand its mission.Two,Opus is not just a wine concept but a marketing concept.It is a status validator.There are many reasons people buy wines and the genius of Opus is that it knows, defines and dominates its place in the market. Many wine afficianados reject this wine but that does not stop it from flying off of shelves and wine lists.Every vintage sells out.It is what it is.
Matt Devan
Fairhope, Alabama —  November 9, 2006 11:50am ET
It is probably just a coincidence, but Kevin Vogt's and James Laube's most recent blogs give excellent complimentary views on a serious wine issue. Kevin's experience as a sommelier sheds light on the difficulties of sharing your idea of best values and best finds with the wine buying majority that prefer the comfort of well known brands. There is a perception of gentlemen's club safety with Dom, Opus, Mondavi Reserve, Beringer P.R., etc... with these sentiments echoed at every price point. Blackstone and Kendall-Jackson offer safety to the masses. Jordan offers safety to the middle class. Those of us who prefer to hunt for our dinner are dumbfounded by the steel-fisted grip that branding and marketing have on the typical consumer, and it hurts our feelings because we see the art of wine being slandered by the business of wine. James Laube discusses Opus from (what I took as) an objective standpoint; finding that it can make it to the olympics, but won't be standing on the podium at the end of the day. I think it is a matter of perspective. If we choose to judge these wines on their pedigree, then the bulldogs are easily worth $1000 a pop. But if we judge each wine as a separate entity, representing a singular moment in time, then the puppy pee'd on the carpet and needs to be banished to the carport.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  November 9, 2006 2:17pm ET
Steven and Matt, nice comments and perspectives.
Glenn S Lucash
November 12, 2006 5:56pm ET
Except for the "hunting for my dinner", I whole heartily agree with Matt's eloquently stated position.
La Quinta, CA —  November 17, 2006 12:58am ET
I'm sorry but give me Carter To-Kalon Cab, or Merus, Buccella, Insignia, Caymus Special Selection, Realm, Pride Reserve Cab, Pahlmeyer, Sequum, Lewis, Viader, Cliff Lede, D.R. Stephens, Darioush, .....So on and so forth. Let all the people that don't know any better keep buying Opus from me. I sell Opus for $139 a bottle...still overpriced!!!!
Scott Hilderbrand
Casper, WY —  November 21, 2006 2:22am ET
James. Was able to steal a 1991 Opus from a steak house (I think $90.00 with the take out discount). Loved it but thought it was too light bodied. I havn't tasted any other older cabs to be able to compare. Was wondering if you have had the 1991 in recent years and your new thoughts. I seem to like newer cabs like the 2001 David Arthur Estate, more texture I guess.Scott Hilderbrand, Wyoming
Chris Miller
Frederick, MD —  February 15, 2008 10:21pm ET
James, I was surprised to see how much you liked the 04. I just purchased a case of the 04' Opus. Planned on cellaring for a few years but couldn't wait to try one and gave in to temptation last night. Upon opening, I immediately noticed the smell of high alcohol. Tasting it initially, I was very disappointed. We decanted it but this did nothing to change our opinion. The 04' tasted extremely flat and dull, again very high alcohol. It is possible we just opened a bad bottle but at the $150/bottle price I paid, I don't really want to chance opening another one to find out. We tried the 03' last month after cellaring for a year (again, impatient) and I recall a nice floral scent, bold fruit and stiff tannins. I am thinking of exchanging my 04's for the 03's now. I liked the 03' so much more. Your thoughts?

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