It was yet another gorgeous, sun-filled day in Oakville, the fog having completely burned off, the sunshine making quick work of the remnants of the previous evening’s chill still present in the air. I was trying very hard not to hate everyone who lived in the area. I’d also not had adequate time to absorb enough caffeine to put myself in an appropriate (aka “sane”) state of mind – my appointment with Opus One began at 9:30 AM. That’s, like, what, three hours before I should be awake when in CA after a night of “extreme” wine tasting ?
Michael Silacci, Opus One’s winemaker since 2004, was addressing a small group standing in the vineyard lots adjacent to the famed winery building that, from highway 29 either looks like a temple to modern viniculture, or an invading spacecraft (depending on your point of view of Opus’ wines). Dressed in jeans and a fleece, he was obviously feeling at home in the vineyard. I think he’d probably had more coffee than me.
I was on a ‘technical tour’ of Opus, with a group that included winemakers and interns from local wineries (Harlan, and Tandem), representatives from winemaking properties in Argetina, France’s Medoc, and Australia, and little old me (at the invitation of Roger Asleson, Opus’ Director of PR). Roger had previously extended an invitation to tour the winery, and “drill down to another level of detail to show what we’ve been working on in the vineyards and in the cellar for the last several years.”…
Full disclosure: I’ve long been a fan of Opus’ wines. But even for hard-core fans there is no escaping the criticism that Opus has, at times, under-delivered for their price-point. In my experience, this negative perception is driven primarily by two factors:
1) Disappointingly inconsistent `98, `99, and 2000 offerings, produced during a time when their previous winemaker “wasn’t as present” (according to some of the Opus staff) – while those same wines remained expensive enough to be out of reach for many wine consumers.
2) Opus’ uncanny ability to receive rating scores in the low 90s from the establisheed wine magazines, prompting consumers to wonder why they should pay twice the amount for Opus than for higher-scoring, neighboring Napa wines.
…even for hard-core fans there is no escaping the criticism that Opus has, at times, under-delivered for their price-point…
Standing outside of the winery, my thoughts moving slowly from coffee to the possibility of a wine tasting, someone in our group asked Michael about the appropriate level of winemaker involvement in the vineyard. Michael squinted in the early afternoon sun, holding his hands above his eyes to block the growing potency of the incoming rays. “The best thing that you can put in a vineyard is your own two feet,” he answered. “We spend a lot of time in the vineyard. We have people here who do both viticulture and viniculture.”
Maybe things were a little different around here.
Another difference at Opus that would have been blatantly obvious to even the casual observer: some of the vineyard plots were completely empty; others were nursing young, small, and fragile new vines. According to Roger, Opus is embarking on a 25 year program to “replant nearly the entire vineyard.”
If Opus is trying to reinvent itself, it’s doing it literally from the ground up.
After finding himself with a glut of interns, Michael put them to good use, evaluating and scoring 266,000 vines in all four parcels of Opus’ estate vineyards, and creating a digital map of vine health. The results spurred the redevelopment program, the data and helped to gain the buy-in of the program from the shareholders. The vine pruning is now all Guyot, and kept fairly low to the ground, to better control vigor and discourage carbohydrate storage. “The vines are becoming more resilient, and I’ve noticed a difference in the texture already,” said Michael.
“Every living thing at Opus One, whether it be person or grape vine, needs to have a sense of urgency.”
More vineyard changes are afoot, but less obvious than the above ground replantings. Vine nursery quality control systems have been put in place, as has a redesigned water management system better suited to the gravelly veins that span out under Opus’ vineyard soil towards the Napa river. In the brightening sun illuminating the young vines, Michael explained that the new system “encourages the roots to grow as quickly as they can and as deeply as they can.”
A 25-year redesign commitment during an economic downturn? Isn’t the stock market squarely in the toilet? Most CA wineries that I’ve talked to that have seen their fine wine sales drop upwards of 25 percent.
“We’re not seeing a softening,” Roger told me earlier that morning. “We still can’t get Opus One to everyone that wants it. People are still ‘lining up’ for our wines, but the line is maybe half a block long, instead of being three blocks long.”
Turns out this is due to yet another change at Opus, one that helps them get their wines to where the money is: over 30% of their sales are overseas, via négociants in Bordeaux who in turn sell Opus on the international markets. Using négociants avoids cannibalism between Opus’ markets, and affords them more agility than most large wineries in distributing their wine to areas of stronger sales, better weathering the current stockmarket slide.
It was early, and I was low on coffee, but certainly thinking clearly enough to wonder: if your shareholders have approved a 25 year replanting program, and you’re not hurting for cash, then what’s with the sense of urgency?
“We went from relying on the team from Mondavi, and using their equipment, to having nothing – and having to put a team together quickly,” said Michael. A bit of background: since the sale of Mondavi’s wine holdings to Constellation Wine Brands in 2004, Opus One has had to do things differently. Things like buy new equipment, and make totally autonomous decisions in vineyard management, sales & marketing, and administration. It now seems Michael’s personal mission is to keep momentum behind those changes, and reward individually accountability in the vineyard and the winery, without losing site of the vision established for Opus One by its founders.
Opus One’s origin story is a tale now well-familiar to most California wine lovers. In 1978, the late Napa pioneer Robert Mondavi teamed up with the late Bordeaux iconoclast Baron Phillipe Rothschild (of Mouton-Rothschild, the only 1855 classified growth ever to get promoted to Premier status), to create a joint venture a stone’s throw from Mondavi’s winery in Oakville. The two men sealed the deal via a handshake in the Baron’s office, which also happened to be the Baron’s bedroom, where he did “90 percent of my business” (my kind of Baron!).
Their idea, Opus One, aimed to use New World fruit (and technology), balanced with Old World Bordeaux winemaking, to produce (according to Mondavi) a wine of “bottled poetry,” made by “a vibrant business instiution designed to last a hundred years and more. We had only one criterion: The Best.” Whether or not Opus One has lived up to that original aim is a matter of “love-to-hate-it” conjecture: a topic that well-off wine consumers love to debate ad nauseum, and pundits love to dismiss outright (even if they’ve never actually tasted the wine).
Fast-forward to 2004: Michael has been named winemaker, Opus One (along with the rest of the Mondavi wine empire) is part of Constellation Wine Brands, and Michael is sitting on jury duty, day-dreaming about how to raise engagement at the recently sold Oakville icon. It’s long been known in the corporate world that higher engagement leads to higher quality products and better business results. And higher engagement starts with getting employees psyched about their day-to-day work. During his jury-duty day-dreaming, Michael decided to challenge the Opus One employees – all of them – in an interesting way: In an effort to encourage independent decision making and “cross pollination” of roles within Opus, small teams would be formed across all functions (including cellar & vineyard management, PR and accounting). Each team would be responsible for a small amount of wine – all aspects of that wine – from vine to glass. Decisions on every aspect of the vine and wine would be made by the teams themselves, not by Michael. Even though each team had only a small amount of vines under its remit, their total would potentially equate to a few hundred thousand dollars worth of wine at retail.
…Whether or not Opus One has lived up to Mondavi’s original aim to be “The Best” is a matter of “love-to-hate-it” conjecture: a topic that well-off wine consumers love to debate, and pundits love to dismiss (even if they’ve never actually tasted the wine)…
How did the staff take it? “They’re scared to death!” Roger told me. They’ve got a decent track record, though: so far, their lots have made it into the final blend of either Opus One or the estate’s second wine, Overture.
“The more you challenge people, the greater they rise to the occasion,” Michael told us while standing in the midst of Opus’ large, engraved (and nearly spotless) tanks on the winery’s ground floor. “What’s the ‘pectin’ [in winemaking]? It’s humans. People hold it all together.” Renewed by their newfound sense of ownership, the staff’s input has started to change other aspects of Opus’ winemaking. “We went from racking based on a calendar to racking based on how the wine is developing” explained Michael.
Our group strolled along the outer edge the winery, where Michael showed us some of the new (and also engraved) harvesting equipment that Opus One had to procure when Mondavi was sold. About 60 percent of harvesting is now done at the ungodly hour of 3AM PT. Why would Michael torture Opus’ vineyard workers in this way? “In the evening, the vine rehydrates, and that extra intake of water helps to dilute the sugars,” resulting in lower alcohol levels for the finished wine. “It’s also better for the cellar, since they have fruit at 8AM, right when they get in.” At least the bleary-eyed harvesters are given hot chocolate, lattes, and coffee during the proceedings (now a harvest-time tradition at Opus).
“We want to be around in fifty years, one hundred years…”
We worked our way out of the warn Northern CA sun and down into the grand chai, Opus’ Rothschild-inspired barrel room. Michael likened it’s semi-circular windowed view to a nursery, and the barrel-staining process (used to hide spots left over from barrel sampling) to a bib. “Let’s go in and see our babies” he said as he led us into the chai.
Changes are afoot in that quiet, reverent space as well. To minimize the potential of bready off-aromas, lees wine is no longer used to stain the barrels. Wood rails were removed to cut down on moisture retention, and other anti-microbial actions are in progress. The barrel coopers (all 14 of them – “they’re a part of our team” said Michael) are brought in at regular intervals for a complicated series of barrel sample tastings that help determine the best blend for the finished wine. Why all the complexity?
“We’re constantly trying to fine-tune what we do,” explained Michael. Extending the nursery analogy, Opus’ all-French oak barrels are single-layered before racking, to maximize attention to the “babies” during the most formative first 8-9 months of their little lives. From there, it was onto the adjacent tasting room, to see if all of the attention, changes, and raised engagement actually make a difference where it most counts – in the wine.
Earlier in the day, sans coffee but buoyed by how pleasantly everyone treated me at Opus, I asked Roger Asleson how he felt about the perception that Opus One has underperformed. “We want to be around in fifty years, one hundred years,” he answered. “The key is balance” – of the wine, of Napa with Paulliac, of providing approachable, excellent wine now and experimenting for the long term goal of being “one of the best wines in the world.” While the current criticism is important to Opus, in terms of a 100-year timeline, “it’s a blip on the radar.” No questioning the Bordeaux influence in that statement…
In the underground tasting room, Michael poured the 2005 and 2004 vintages for our group to sample. Seated at the circular “reserve” tasting table, sipping the wine, the conversation naturally became more intimate. The group members asked Michael what he thought of the big wine magazine scores for these Opus vintages (both received 90 points in Wine Spectator).
“I don’t make wine for scores,” he answered, “I want to respect the vineyard. I’m looking for balance. I want people to imagine it’s as if they’re reading poetry.”
When you don’t differentiate based on scores, you can do it based on price point, which has been both the boon and the bane of Opus One since it released its first vintage for $50 a bottle (a then brazen amount).
“I don’t make wine for scores. I want to respect the vineyard. I’m looking for balance. I want people to imagine it’s as if they’re reading poetry.”
At 25,000 cases, poetry can sometimes be difficult to pen. Balancing early approachability with long-term aging potential adds to the trickiness. My take on the tasting: it was almost like trying two entirely different wines. And both of them were very, very good.
The 2005 was the thicker of the two, all black plum and pepper at first, with mushroom and blueberries coming a few moments later. The mouthfeel was noticeably smoother than the 2004, the finish was long with an almost BBQ like char. After a few minutes, mint leaf was jumping out of the glass. Its acidic structure made it more approachable than the 2004 as well.
The `04 was classic CA Cab: currants, black tea leaves, plum, and a bit of french bread aroama floating on top (ok, maybe that last bit isn’t exactly classic CA). The tannic structure was firm, as was the acidity, suggesting a long, long life ahead. The finish was ridiculously long – I think I can still taste it – with toffee and brandy notes. A few minutes later, black licorice took over. It’s like an elegant eighteen wheeler (if there is such a thing) – a wine built for the long haul.
If poetry means being able to appreciate an effort as a work of art, with unfolding levels of complexity, returning to find new and interesting elements each time you revisit it, then I’d say these wines were pretty close to being poetic. Whether or not it’s $160+ worth of being poetic will, undoubtedly, still be matter of “love-to-hate-it” conjecture.
I can hear the pundits debating it already…
Leveling too much criticism on Opus One based on price and magazine scores, rather than on experiencing the wine itself, might be missing the point. “We’re not photographers, we’re film makers,” said Michael, referring to the winery’s long-term view, which seems to be shared by everyone that I ran into at Opus.
Earlier that day, while touring the winery laboratory, the noises of various analysis equipment humming away in the background, we asked Michael if the current bio-dynamic craze might come to influence Opus. Turns out they are experimenting with bio-dynamics already, but are still looking for the right balance, using one of their best vineyard lots.
Experimenting on a prized lot? Isn’t that a bit risky?
Michael seems easy going about the potential dangers, and I wondered if his laid back demeanor belied a more intense passion to drive changes at Opus, or at least hid the trepidation of having to convince shareholders that this kind of risk-taking is worth it. If it made him nervous, he sure didn’t show it.
“If you don’t put something at risk,” he said, “you’re not going to take it seriously.”
For now, the risks seem to be paying off, for those who can still find – and afford – a bottle of his Oakville poetry.