Ask your local sommelier for a wine recommendation and you’re likely to get a suggestion for some obscure, enamel stripping high acid low alcohol wine from France or a place you haven’t heard of, right? At least, that’s what wine critics at big name wine publications would have you believe.
It’s not like there isn’t truth to that stereotype. A good sommelier won’t do those things. However, an average or below average sommelier will perpetuate the stereotype and get you to drink something they like to drink along those lines—not that you’d like it. The good somms, especially Master Sommeliers have evolved and will steer you to a wine you will like without making you feel silly. If you want Silver Oak with your halibut and that makes you happy, so be it.
There’s friction between the sommelier community and major wine publications (and their reviewers). On one side, the sommelier is perceived as a snooty know-it-all who turns their nose up at any wine over 14% alcohol made with new oak. On the other side, the wine critic representing a pay-to-play business who’s lifeblood is advertising dollars from major wine conglomerates who just happen to end up gracing a majority of the Top 100 list each year. Coincidence?
Knowing who to trust for wine recommendations isn’t hard. Not one other person can possibly know what you as an individual likes to drink. The best wine for you is the wine you like.
Let’s look at the motivation behind wine publication recommendations. First, it’s important to note wine publications are a business motivated by the almighty dollar. Wine critics cover a region regurgitating the same content (worded differently) over and over in an effort to fill pages of a magazine that’s 50% advertising. “Chewy dense tannins and refined oak”… Sound familiar? The wine critic is not trained to follow any industry standard nor do they have any accreditation—it’s just their opinion. Anyone can give an expensive wine a high rating, especially if the producer is an advertiser. Expensive wines aren’t hard to figure out—someone at your table is bound to like it.
The sommelier is motivated by….well, now let’s look at that. It’s not money. Sommeliers are motivated by something entirely different. The sommelier fights for artists. Small, independent producers with no advertising dollars who happen to make great wines need a champion, and that champion works the floor at finer restaurants.
The sommelier is more of a filter of typicity. Each grape is supposed to taste like something specific. Merlot has a benchmark. Chardonnay has a benchmark. Riesling has a benchmark. When a winemaker hits the bullseye of what the grape is supposed to be, from the place its grown it gets closer to the center of that grape’s typicity. Often times those producers are relatively unknown from places you wouldn’t think to look. And yes, sometimes the best examples of typicity are lower alcohol wines with less oak. Not always, but often.
Anyone can oak the crap out of a wine and get points. Too much oak usually means higher prices and higher scores. But not necessarily recommendations from sommeliers as the wine loses its typicity. Take the 2009 Chateau Monbousquet from the right bank in Bordeaux for example. Robert Parker gave the wine 95 points. But smell the wine and it neither smells like Merlot, nor does it smell like the place its grown . It smells like a lot of crazy wine making techniques. Some wine lovers and collectors like that, which is fine. But the typicity of the grape is way off.
At the end of the day, sommeliers are value shoppers. They’re constantly trying to find the best examples of typicity for each grape at the best possible price, no matter the region. You might get some unexpected recommendations from regions you didn’t expect, such as Domaine Skouras Megas Oenos from Greece ($25 retail) or Graci Etna Rosso ($26 retail). If you like Cabernet based wines from Bordeaux, you might like the Skouras. If you like Pinot Noir, you might like the Etna Rosso.
Aside from typicity, the sommelier is also looking for structure. If you were to make a movie, you’d have a “good guy” and a “bad guy”. The tension between good and bad creates drama. All the supporting cast adds to the story and makes the drama more intriguing. A wine has tension between sugar and acid. They are the main building blocks to the story. Drama between the two makes the wine interesting. All all the additional flavors serve as a supporting cast.
Wines with impeccable balance between sugar and acid are wines you’d probably hear as a suggestion from your sommelier. It’s like a friend recommending a good movie. A sommelier is likely to recommend “Forrest Gump” to you while a wine publication is motivated to recommend “Transformers” to you.
If you cross paths with a sommelier who isn’t listening to you and just wants to recommend a wine they like, they’re doing it wrong. Call them out on it. If they listen to you and your likes, then steer you to something they think you’ll like based on what you described, you probably have a good sherpa of value.
The Importance of Family
As a doe-eyed newbie I felt like the new kid on the first day of kindergarten when I got into the wine business. In October, 2003 the country was entering into a recession, there was a heat wave killing people in Europe, Chicken n’ Beer by Ludacris was the #1 album in the country, and I had just left my job at NIKE after eight years of branding and marketing.
When you reboot your life and career, there’s usually a catalyst for the change. In this case, it was my family. My Mom's body was breaking down and her Multiple Sclerosis was starting to take its toll. It was a proverbial fork in the road decision—stay at my dream job working for the company I always wanted to work for, or go take care of family. After about two seconds, the road leading to family was an obvious choice. But what to do about a job? At that moment in time with nothing to lose I decided to follow the advice of ‘do what you love’. I collected wine so why not try a career in the wine business? After moving to Denver, I took the first step hand selling wine in a local wine shop. The very first bottle I sold was a bottle of 2002 Wente Riva Ranch Chardonnay.
Let’s look at that word, ‘family’. We’re all were born with one. Even if we haven’t met everyone in our family or don’t particularly want to be around our family, we are genetically linked to other human beings. In the world of wine, ‘family’ is used far less domestically than in other parts of the world where multi-generational families have made wine for centuries. In the U.S. we have winemaking families like the Wagners (Caymus, Mer Soleil, Belle Glos), the Trefethens, the Hirsch’s, Sokol Blossers, Figgins (Leonetti) among others.
But no winemaking family has the historical depth and breadth quite like the Wente family of Livermore, California. They mention being the longest continuously running family winery in the U.S. (135 years) almost matter-of-factly when talking about the history of their little corner of the world. At one point in the 1800’s, Livermore was one of America’s premiere wine producing regions.
Ask any vineyard manager growing Bordeaux grapes (especially Sauvignon Blanc) in California if they have a “Wente clone” in the vineyard and chances are they do or did. In 1882 Charles Wetmore famously brought Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon vine cuttings from Chateau Yquem as well as cuttings from Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux to Livermore. Wetmore travelled back to France in 1889 with his wine and won Grand Prize at the Paris Expo giving America its first win internationally. His Cresta Blanca wines along with Chateau Wente were some of the first wines made with the clones.
Wetmore’s early success and Livermore’s location thirty miles south of the bay area could’ve led to the region becoming “the Napa Valley” of California, yet over a century later and Livermore valley is yet to realize its potential. Carolyn Wente and the family’s tireless work in the valley suggests the best days are still ahead. To this day, Wente honors Charles Wetmore with their Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon.
Home is where the History Is
Upon arrival at one of Wente’s two Livermore locations, there’s a sense of visiting the family in their living room. On two separate visits, a Wente family member stopped by to greet my wife and I. Chief winemaker, Karl Wente recently joined us on the tasting room patio mere days before harvest to discuss vintage 2014 and the responsibility of upholding the Wente name.
“Do you feel a lot of pressure keeping the family name in good standing?” I ask sniffing and sipping a surprisingly accurate Cabernet Franc. “I grew up around these vines and got to know the fruit as a kid,” he tells us. “We have consistent vineyards that produce consistently quality grapes year in and year out. I just try to get out of the way of that”.
Charles Wetmore may have been onto something. Livermore’s unique combination of sandy gravel soils peppered with random Limestone deposits along with its warm days and cool foggy nights near the ocean put the region more on par with Bordeaux’s Maritime right bank climate. Conversely, Napa and Sonoma feature a Mediterranean climate with more volcanic mother soils and alluvial deposits.
Out of the entire lineup of wines, the Sandstone Merlot was a hair-blow-back ringer. Wente may be known for its Chardonnays, however, this $20 bottle is on the money for what Merlot can or should be. No wonder, as it’s grown in shallow well-drained gravelly soils not much different than its right bank brethren.
As sommelier’s, we look for typicte, or the accuracy of what the grape should taste like from the place it’s grown. Wente Sandstone Merlot is the benchmark of not only what Merlot should be from Livermore, but from the entire state of California.
Other standouts from the Wente lineup include the Cabernet Franc and winery-only GSM blend. Although higher in alcohol and oak than I’d like, it did represent what we love about Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. Roasted meats, smoke, iodine, black and dark red fruits all working in concert with one another.
For visitors and wine lovers alike, it’s not hard to find a Wente made wine to put on the dinner table. But just in case, Wente’s new Winemaker Studio offers visitors the opportunity to make their own wine. Part rustic cafe, part laboratory, Wente’s Winemaker studio lets you play mad scientist with your favorite blends.
On this day we did the sniffer seminar. 20 glasses of clear liquid were all lined up in a row with each one smelling like one specific wine smell ranging from “cat pee” to “cassis” and “tobacco”. Half the fun is trying to guess what each smell is, the other half is the social element challenging fellow sniffers sitting around the table.
I smell wine for a living, so I thought I’d crush everyone, yet I did the worst only getting 3 smells right.
Visitors have a myriad of ways to enjoy their time when visiting Wente in Livermore. Once the itch to taste wines at the tasting room gets scratched, and class is dismissed in the Winemaker Studio, one might play a round of golf at the golf course, or better yet, roll into town for a little BBQ then take in a concert at the winery (which is what we did). Tony Bennett was playing on my birthday, so we spent the summer night under the August sky taking in the sounds of a living legend while sipping on Wente Pinot Noir.
In a strange twist of fate, Colorado's legendary wine guy, John Verdeal (the guy who first hired me into the wine industry in 2003) was sitting at the next table over. It was a reminder of the importance of family, friends and why we enjoy wine in the first place. As for Wente, the family winery is in good hands for the near future and years to come.
When I told some friends I was going to visit Opus One on my birthday they scoffed. “Ooooh, GOD! They are sooo pretentious there!” they said. “Don’t forget to kiss the ring on the way in”.
I brought my Mom and Mrs. B along for the ride because, hey, it was my birthday. Not sure what experience others had at Opus One but what we found on our visit was one of the warmest, most down to earth winery visits I’ve ever experienced…anywhere. And that’s saying something as I’ve probably been to over 500 wineries around the world.
Robert Mondavi is easily the person I admire the most in the wine industry, so to see Opus One three decades after he cofounded it was personally rewarding. His vision, his passion, his standard of excellence and his soul are still part of the DNA that is at the heart Opus One. What I saw on this day wasn't the Opus One brand but rather Mondavi's fingerprints that were still all over this place.
Chief Winemaker Michael Silacci and PR Director, Roger Asleson met us in the front lobby for a short introduction and conversation about Opus One’s history. In my head I’m thinking, “okay, when’s it going to feel stuffy?” Silacci’s easy going demeanor and laid back style was warm and engaging. His black horn rimmed 1960’s hipster glasses with salt and pepper speckled hair began to remind me of a cross between Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State and Mr. Natale, the coolest teacher at my high school.
Silacci’s seasoned veteran worldliness gave a glimpse into a yoda-like genius intellect matched only by an unabashed humility and a patience to teach. It was obvious this dude was cool as hell and knew his stuff. But he never made any of us feel stupid about asking anything. Moreover, he took time out of doing something probably more important to spend time with our little group. Our day was just beginning.
Over the course of our time together, we’d come to learn Silacci’s role as Chief Winemaker wasn’t only about upholding the Opus One standard of quality set by the founders (discussed in part 1) but he nurtured people at the winery much like the vines—with patience to help everyone grow and flourish over time.
Precision in the Vineyard
Any winemaker will tell you work in the vineyard is where good wine is made. If you don’t have good fruit coming into the winery, you aren’t going to make good wine.
Michael Silacci and his team use cutting edge technology to manage every single grape cluster in every row. When interns from the Baron Philippe de Rothschild side of the partnership came over from Bordeaux they weren’t simply put into the winery to clean tanks. Instead, Silacci challenged them to truly get to know each vine by mapping out and digitally track every single vine in the vineyard. A daunting task in any vineyard, but at Opus One it was a major undertaking.
The result allows Silacci’s winemaking team to manage every vine as an individual living thing with its own personality. The visual grape analyzer pictured above gives the winemakers an accurate portrait of the sugar content leading up to harvest. They constantly monitor grapes from around the vineyard throughout each day.
Winemaking is a bit like being a painter. A good painter has a palette of colors to dip their brush into when creating a work of art. The better the control over the colors, the better the artist is. Instead of colors in a palette, a winemaker has individual lots or tanks. By keeping grapes, rows or blocks separate during production allows the winemaker freedom to pull from different parts of the “terroir” to paint a masterpiece. At Opus One, the winemaking and viticulture team painstakingly manage every vine so it produces the best possible fruit that goes into the final work of art. When it comes to blending the final wine, Silacci and his team taste through every single individual lot as if picking colors from their palette.
It’s important to remember Opus One was created to be a American “first growth” modeled after the great houses of Bordeaux where red wines are blends made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. When those grapes come together with the right amount of each, it can be magic in a bottle (see reviews below). Great care is taken throughout every step of the winemaking process, including hand soaking corks in a solution that removes any corked bottle causing bacteria.
Tradition and Innovation in the Winery
To this day Opus One still embraces the soul of the two founders. Balance and tension between French and American, Old and New, Tradition and Innovation is what gives the wines their identity. The word that kept popping up was, 'DNA'.
As harvest gets under way each year, shallow bins of pristine fruit come into the winery with the utmost care to insure the weight of grape bunches don’t squeeze juice out of the grapes prematurely. From there they go through an initial hand sorting picking out only the best fruit. It's at this point where many luxury wineries would be satisfied with the quality of grapes going into their wine.
In the relentless drive to create the wine Robert Mondavi and Philippe Baron de Rothschild envisioned they take it a step further. If you've never seen a laser fruit sorter it is one of the coolest inventions in the wine industry. Seriously, it's cool as hell.
Pre sorted grapes come cruising down the conveyor belt into the sorter. A laser "eye" rapidly looks at every grape and quickly identifying the "good" grapes and the "bad" grapes. As the grapes fall into the press little air blowers kick out the bad grapes. Watch as Michael throws in a random leaf to demonstrate how the eye sees it, then kicks it out. Only the absolute best grapes make it into the tank:
Two hours have passed and we don't want it to end. Our hosts have filled our heads with enough winemaking geekery to fill a semester at UC Davis. It wouldn't have been as interesting if Michael and Roger's experience wasn't matched by their wit like when I wasn't looking and Roger busted my Mom for illegal parking in the winery:
So then we moved down into the barrel room where future vintages of Opus One were nestled into their slumber in prime French oak casks in a temperature controlled room under ground.
Oak is an ingredient that doesn't get talked about enough in winemaking and tasting. What was the percentage of new oak? What's the toast level? How much of it was new and how much was neutral? These different facets all add up to the oak influence on a wine. Add too much oak and it becomes an oak bomb covering up fruit and terroir. Add too little and the wine can be wimpy.
Here they seem to find the right balance of oak satisfaction providing enough but not so much it overpowers the main attraction—the fruit. These wines are meant to age and they are modeled after the great Bordeaux houses. To that end, oak isn't just a flavor, it's an ideal meant to compliment texturally and well as sensuously.
When a red wine is sitting in the tanks after pressing it’s like a child waiting to discover the world outside. The core personality is there and the fruit is primary, but the wine isn’t mature enough to be on its own. In the barrel wine becomes more of an adolescent looking forward to leaving the close protection of the winemaking team. The fruit is still primary but now there’s other things rounding out its personality, like oak nuances. Continuing in its evolution, red wine grows up and becomes an adult in the bottle leaving the nest (or winery) out into the world. Whether it’s a twenty five year-old adult just starting out on its own or a senior citizen, an adult doesn’t want to lose the child within (the fruit at the core).
All the painstaking work in the vineyard, and all the technology in the winery would be nothing if the wine didn’t become the thing Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild envisioned in 1979. We found on our visit that Opus One’s legacy is cemented in place.
Our small group moved into the tasting room adjacent to the barrel room where a little birthday surprise was waiting. The folks at Opus One heard it was my birthday (probably from Facebook) and started the tasting off with a little Champagne...which was nice.
Krug Champagne - What can you say? It’s Krug Champagne! The best thing about enjoying that bottle of Krug wasn’t how good the wine was, it was the fact the people at Opus One understood the concept of ‘surprise and delight’. They didn’t need to acknowledge it but they did. And what better way to freshen up your palate before tasting through the library wines of Opus One.
1982 Opus One - Still so youthful with evolved baked red, black and blue fruits wrapped around a sturdy structured core. This wine was old school Napa and only the third vintage in Opus One's history. I imagine the winemaking team was starting to really fire on all cylinders by the time they were bringing in fruit from the 1982 vintage.
Before the valley took off and winemakers started equating oak usage to quality and price in the mid-1990s, wines were made for longevity rather than immediate drinking. This one was no different. If tasted side by side with first or second growths from 1982, Opus One would definitely stand up and have a loud voice in "who's the best wine on the table?" conversation. Still has life ahead of it.
2004 Opus One - Michael Silacci’s second vintage and it’s apparent he’s got a handle on the fruit in the vineyards. Just over ripe red rhubarb, choke cherries, black cherries show off less tart fruit notes and developing black and blue fruits in equal harmony as if to suggest the perfect blend of grapes showed what the future would hold. Damp earth is starting to emerge with silky cocoa slippers hidden underneath the luxuriously textured moderate tannins. Still plenty of time ahead, but developing nicely.
2005 Opus One - The vintage was a pretty stellar vintage in many parts of the world, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. Bordeaux, Tuscany, Piedmont and most red wine producing regions of the U.S. enjoyed warm temperatures with enough cool nights to give wines ageability. Not as open as the 2004 on this day, but precocious enough to draw you in for a later date with greatness.
2009 Opus One - Using the child, adolescent, adult analogy above the 2009 would be the college student about ready to graduate and set out on its own. Under ripe primary dark red fruits with slight herbal rose stems, ripe black plums and already seamless oak integration. Colors in the glass went the darker side of Ruby town with a thin watery meniscus around the rim. A big vintage to be sure as temperatures were hot, most likely leading to primary fruit that may not age as gracefully as the 1982 or 2004 but will still be great to drink in 7-12 years.
After tasting through the wines one word kept popping into my mind—consistency. Thirty-plus years of an icon isn't very long in wine terms but it was apparent Opus One the brand was in good hands and kept its direction close to the trajectory set out when hair styles were big and disco was king.
We had spent the better part of an afternoon with Michael and Roger but didn't want it to end. It was almost 3pm and we hadn't eaten lunch. Luckily, Rutherford Grill was close by and the wait was short. We enjoyed our hosts so much we invited them to lunch. And to our great surpass, they joined us!
We continued a great conversation, the kind Ernest Hemingway must've had sitting at a table side bistro in Paris on a buzzing Friday night. We ordered more Champagne and opened more Opus One while savoring grilled artichokes and French Dips.
It's safe to say this winery's legacy is in good hands and the evolution of an icon is on schedule.