The Original Gangster Cult Winery Experience
Opus One. The legendary combination of one of the wealthiest in France – Baron Phillipe de Rothschild and pioneer American winemaker Robert Mondavi, who joined together to form the first ‘ultra-premium’ winery in the Napa Valley.
In a crowd, the mention of the name may bring any reaction from eye rolls among those who believe it overpriced to oohs and awwws by those enamored by great quality and prestige that the name implies.
Still, the mystery exists and therefore intrigue grows. Last weekend, we attended a trade tour of the grounds and winery. Having both worked with importers and seeing the demand for Opus One wine grow, especially abroad and even more especially amongst the Asian countries, we had to know. What was the big deal?
We arrived a few minutes before scheduled and took a few pictures outside the building…no judging – When in Rome! We met our host and guide who, as we were so happy to find, was genuinely excited and proud to show us around and talked very realistically about the winery and process. He took us on what was a very real and transparent tour, describing the history, vineyard practices and winery processes.
First, he sat us in the parlor and explained the story of Opus One’s beginnings, leaving out no detail, from the fist fight between the Mondavi brothers, to Baron Phillipe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi hashing out the winery plan literally at the Baron’s bedside.
We followed him up to the crush pad, which overlooked the vineyards, and he touched on the viticulture practices, including a brief history of phylloxera, it’s effects in Europe and America, and the importance of vine-rootstock grafting, for which there was a full length vine hanging in the winery for a visual. Roots and all. We studied viticulture. I had only heard, never seen, how long a vine’s roots could grow.
The rigorous sorting process starts with small picking bins. Instead of dumping these bins into a big half-ton bin, they are brought up to the crush pad individually to prevent bruising and breaking of the skins. This is very important, because after being hand-sorted, the berries fall onto an infrared scanner, which is calibrated every day to a certain ripeness level and size. If the grapes at the bottom of the bin are smashed, this machine could not do its job! The scanner takes a picture of each individual berry, allowing them to pass if they fit the standard, or if they don’t, a pocket of air will shoot off at the exact time the unfit berry passes, and they will fall into a catching bin. What!! One of the coolest winery machines we’ve seen!
Alas, a machine still a machine and just in case it is slightly over calibrated, someone needs to be watching this bin closely to make sure they are not losing valuable fruit. There are so many eyes watching this fruit to make sure the quality is preserved, it is incredible.
After a short elevator ride, the berries fall into a crusher, which delicately breaks the skins as they fall into two round tanks. Being on the second level of the winery, these tanks are rolled over larger tanks into which the underneath valve of the rolling tank is opened and the berries, skins and seeds falls into the tank just by gravity.
Downstairs, in the tank room begins the extraction and fermentation. Afterwards, the wine goes to rest for a while in a beautiful temperature and humidity controlled room where the malolactic bacteria can work its magic.
We had passed the lab earlier, a bright-white immaculately clean room, which probably looked very different just three weeks ago, mid-crush and what will look very different in a few months, say late winter early spring, when the winemaker sits with a group of blenders, and many more glasses to determine the final blend of that vintage of Opus One.
One thing that we kept thinking, what happens to the rest of that wine that is just slightly less than perfect for Opus One? The Opus blend will be a different blend every year, consistency is important, but maybe some years need less of one varietal and more of the other. What happens to the other precious juice? Answer: Overture. This wine sells for almost a third of the real deal.
The tour ended in a tasting nook off the barrel room where seven glasses, already poured, waited for us. We talked casually, asked questions when appropriate as our host led us through the aroma and flavor components. The 2011 is a little more herbaceous and restrained being a cooler year, a little more like wines from Bordeaux. When the questions ceased, he took us onto the terrace to enjoy a stunning fall-inspired, late afternoon Napa Valley view where we savored a few more sips.