Wine: Opulent Opus

Since its inception in the boudoir of Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s Château Mouton, where Robert Mondavi and his daughter, Marcia, were received in 1978, Opus One has conjured controversy laced with the faint exoticism of the Old World and bolstered by the bold enterprise of the New. On that distant day three decades ago, the baron—swathed in a silk robe and gently stroking his lapdog—completed a conversation he had begun at a convention in Hawaii eight years earlier, when he had declared to Mondavi his interest in California Cabernet. “Can you think of anything we can do together?” he had asked.

The invitation to Bordeaux announced that the aron had, after reflection, arrived at an answer to his own query. Despite his very traditional heritage, the baron (who, as Mondavi recalls, had a flair for dramatic attire, often donning a serape or an Argentine bolero) was at heart always a bit of a maverick. Although a long procession of Rothschild proprietors precedes him, he stands in the truest sense as the great house’s founder, having fought for decades to win for his then-second-growth estate the much coveted first-growth status enjoyed by his cousins’ Château Lafite Rothschild. The baron was an innovator who unabashedly pursued his inspirations, often flouting the conservative French winemaking establishment by applying modern marketing methods to the sacrosanct issue of Bordeaux and expanding his production into new regions. The wild frontier that most consistently held the cultivated Frenchman’s eye was California’s Napa Valley. Here his eye also espied a kindred spirit in Robert Mondavi, who had established one of the area’s first and best luxury wineries at a time when bulk operations still predominated. A two-hour talk at the château convinced the two men that beneath their distinct personalities flowed a common vision: The New World could produce its own, unique equivalent to first-growth Bordelaise wines.

Mondavi and the baron divided the venture between them from the start. Until the partners could acquire vineyards in Napa Valley, the grapes would be sourced from the best of Mondavi’s existing vineyards. The winemaking responsibilities were also split between Mondavi’s son, Tim, and Lucien Sionneau, technical director for Baron Philippe’s wine operations. Though the enterprise was announced in 1979, its first releases, the 1979 and 1980 vintages, did not become available until five years later. Priced at $50 per bottle, the wines sold out immediately.

These diverse initial bottlings illustrated the dual nature of Opus One from the beginning—a quality that collectors embraced and critics approached with some ambivalence. The 1979 was understated, softer, and more quietly sensual than its sibling, containing 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 16 percent Cabernet Franc, and 4 percent Merlot. By contrast, the bright, voluptuously fruity and dark 1980 vintage comprised 96 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 4 percent Cabernet Franc. Some commentators have since noted that these quite different wines signaled a future weakness in Opus One’s production: the lack of consistency in its fruit. The sale of Q Block in Mondavi’s famed To Kalon vineyard to the joint venture provided an outstanding source of Cabernet Sauvignon, which has come to dominate most vintages since 1984. In fact, the best of Opus One’s oeuvre—1980, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1994, and 1997—tend to emphasize its dense, rich Cabernet Sauvignon character, while still retaining the elegance imbued by Sionneau and, later, Patrick Léon, winemaker at Mouton-Rothschild. Léon worked alongside Tim Mondavi from 1985 to 2003, after which current winemaker Michael Silacci assumed sole responsibility for winemaking at the estate.

Silacci’s accession reinforces Opus One’s evolution from an American-European hybrid blend to a more solidly Californian creation. The recently released 2001 vintage ($160) is the first to be produced under Silacci’s management, and its fruit benefited from a year in which the Golden State’s climate was at its grape-growing best. Light rains in winter and steady sunshine during the summer provided even flowering and a long, steady growing season. A tapestry-like blend of 87 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 6 percent Merlot, 3 percent Malbec, 2 percent Cabernet Franc, and 2 percent Petit Verdot, this long-macerated wine is iodine-dark blue lanced with lines of royal crimson when held to the light. The nose exudes currants, densely extracted black cherry, succulent plum, pepper, and rye. On the palate, the 2001 vintage coats the senses with its beautiful satin texture; this accompanies a jubilee of cassis, dark cherry, vanilla cream, and cocoa that finishes on a spicier note of pepper and thyme.

With the merger agreement signed last November between Constellation Brands, the New York–based wine and beer distributor, and Robert Mondavi Corp., the ownership of Opus One seems likely to change, as have the estate’s winemakers over the decades. With these changes may come further evolutions of style for this protean label whose one constant has been an extravagance of character that embodies the joie de vivre of its founders. The 2001 vintage reassures us that, whatever the future holds, Mondavi and the baron’s legacy endures.

Opus One Winery



More Spirits