Twenty years ago if you were in a restaurant and ordered a bottle of Opus One you were important. You were a fine wine connoisseur and you liked the best. Opus One raised the bar for Napa Valley and for domestic wine. If you were drinking Opus One you were drinking a regal wine that presidents and diplomats held in high regard.
If you were drinking Opus One you had arrived.
Perhaps that luxurious brand positioning started to work against the winery in the 1990’s as production increased and Opus One was everywhere. It was no longer scarce and no longer carried the prestige it once had, especially as new cult producers with small productions and high ratings like Harlan Estate, Bryant Family, Araujo, Maya and Shafer Hillside emerged from Napa. Robert Parker wasn’t giving Opus One 100-point scores. Sommeliers and serious collectors shied away from increasing prices and increasing production in favor of new producers.
After Opus One and Robert Mondavi Winery were acquired by Constellation Brands in 2004, this once family owned winery was now in the hands of a large cooperation. While the business and revenue generating conversation may have changed people's like or dislike of Opus One, the purpose of this post is to honor the founders and acknowledge that much of the original soul of Opus One is still there. It never went away.
America’s original ‘First Growth’
America’s wine making history is a blip on the radar compared to the wine making histories in countries like Greece, Italy, France or Germany where there’s well over one thousand years of production. History has a way of upholding the best producers over time. In Bordeaux for example, the 1855 Classification determined first, second, third, fourth and fifth growths aka left bank producers deemed the “best” by ranking. At that time in 1855 the right bank was considered inferior for wine production whereas today in 2013 right bank producers like Le Pin or Petrus might be held with higher esteem than the left bank first growths (or on the same level).
The point being is that was over one hundred and fifty years ago — “recent” in old world wine terms. Conversely, Napa Valley only gained popularity on the world stage as a quality wine region about thirty years ago (in our life time) — a mere drop in the bucket on the wine timeline. Compared to those old world wine regions, we’re infants over here in the new world just learning to walk.
If we were to do a classification rating and put a stake in the sand proclaiming our “first growth” wineries, Opus One would likely be on that list (founded in part by an actual first growth winery owner, Baron Philippe Rothchild of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild fame). Before there were domestic “first growths” there was Opus One. One of, if not THE original Cult wine. Grace Family and Caymus Special Selection are certainly on that short list as well.
Old world wine families might flick their cigarette butts in disgust and let out a “pffffft” when I ask you to go back in history with me to the birth of this icon. It was waaaay back in the late 1970’s. Robert Mondavi’s namesake winery was hitting on all cylinders and his first-in-the-valley tasting room was attracting more people to Napa.
The remarkable vision of the two cofounders might seem obvious today, but back in the mid 1970’s nothing was guaranteed. It took the fortitude and belief from two men who saw what was possible, even though there was little proof their idea could work.
To list all the innovative contributions Robert Mondavi made to the wine industry could fill a book, but his coup de gras may have getting Baron Philippe de Rothschild to go in on an ambitious project in Napa Valley.
Mondavi and Baron Philippe's collaboration would bring a balance and tension between old and new, French and American, Tradition and Innovation.
Mondavi and de Rothschild were at the top of their game. It was the mid-1970’s and Napa had just shocked the world by winning the Judgement of Paris. Robert Mondavi was quickly becoming an international icon. Napa didn’t have the booming tourism industry it has now. There was no social media or internet to discover a largely unknown wine region.
Baron Philippe had acquired other Bordeaux houses during his lifetime including Chateau d’ Armailhac and Chateau Clerc Milon as well as expanded into Chile through a partnership with Concha y Toro. He and Mondavi found a mutual connection of passion and excellence in their winemaking approach. Mondavi was leading a renaissance in California and the time was right for a joint venture.
In 1979, set out to establish an American “first growth” that would set the bar high enough to put Napa on the world stage. Mondavi not only understood the American palate, but he was responsible for broadening wine drinkers’ tastes by marrying wine to other luxury lifestyle enjoyments like music, the arts and of course good food.
The name, Opus One was chosen to be timeless yet exude a sense of time and place. They also wanted a latin name that would be recognizable in both French as English. Baron Philippe came up with the name which is inspired by the word, “Opus” which is a musical expression denoting the first masterpiece of a composer.
Part 2 of the story will feature behind the scenes winemaking technology and reviews of some Opus One library wines from 1982, 1991, 2004, 2005 and 2009.