Art has a reputation for being cut off from everyday life, existing in a separate realm of sumptuous galleries, cloistered museums, outrageous prices, and snobbish patrons. That view of the art world ignores all the local art in communities throughout the world which is accessible and can be enormously satisfying, but such is our fascination with celebrity and money that we think of the art world in those terms. I suppose it is then fitting to kick off this inaugural post in a series about the art of wine with a winery that perhaps best represents the celebrity and ostentation of the art world—Opus One.
Opus One certainly has pedigree. It began as a partnership of Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Pauillac, France, and the renowned Robert Mondavi who helped build Napa winemaking from the ground up—a marriage of French aristocracy and American immigrant grit. They made their first vintage in 1979 using the Mondavi facility, moving to their current location in 1991.
Visiting Opus One is indeed like visiting a modern art museum. The building is a massive, cream-colored, laterally-elongated, modern mansion that seems to grow naturally out of the hill on which it’s perched. Mondavi likened it to a space ship, but the central courtyard bounded by colonnades on each side and an interior adorned with limestone mantels and opera chairs is an intriguing amalgam of old and new.
Upon entering the hushed foyer with classical music playing gently in the background you are greeted by a “concierge”, a charming, yet formal woman whose job it seems is to check your reservation and escort you to the tasting room—in other words a greeter.
In the contemporary, but understated tasting room, bathed as always in classical music, you walk to the bar where a charming yet formal young man gives you an information packet, explains the very limited options for tasting, and pours your wine which you can then take to a nearby couch served by a coffee table, or weather permitting, to an adjoining courtyard. The formal young man was slightly more knowledgeable than a moonlighting college student when I asked him questions about the wine, but only slightly.
Opus One makes two wines: their flagship Cabernet-based blend and a non-vintage second wine called Overture. The cost without the tour is $50 per glass for a healthy 5 oz. pour of their flagship wine; the Overture was available for tasting as well.
All of this is a bit precious and pretentious and is clearly designed to project an image of old world, aristocratic, class and sophistication. But it does have an aesthetic purpose. We were able to sit quietly and undisturbed for a considerable length of time and think about the wine. The atmosphere invites contemplation which is not true of many winery tasting rooms (or art museums for that matter). If you spend much time exploring the art world, pretention is part of the landscape. Why should the wine world be any different? Yes, great wine can be appreciated without the trappings of luxury; but some of the connections to a different time and place would be lost without them.
What makes Opus One worthy of mention in a series on the Art of Wine? As you know if you’ve been reading my work on the aesthetics of wine, I think fine wines that are intended to provide a distinctive aesthetic experience are works of art. Opus One surely qualifies as fine wine. But in particular, it’s an iconic wine that succeeded in bringing a European, classical, wine sensibility to the warmer climate and richer soils of Napa. In 1979, it represented the coming of age for Napa wines which could not only compete on the world stage with Bordeaux but enter into an equal partnership with the most storied wine region in the world. Artworks not only represent their subject matter but make statements about them as well. Opus One not only represents the blending of these two glorious wine traditions but speaks eloquently of this merger of two sensibilities, striking a balance between opulent, generous, accessible California fruit and the restrained, steely, elegance and finesse of Bordeaux. It tastes like what it means and that is the essence of fine art.
Thus, instead of worrying about pretention we should celebrate this icon for its meaning as well as its flavor.
But is the wine really that good? We were fortunate on the day we tasted because they were pouring their 2011 as well as their 2013 which made for an interesting comparison. 2011 was a very difficult year, with cool weather throughout most of the summer and excessive rain during flowering that disrupted fruit set. The weather in 2013 by contrast was close to perfection. A good wine should bear the marks of its vintage and in this case the difference was very apparent in the glass.
The 2013 was dense with expressive dark and red fruits but set off by plentiful herbal aromas and black olive. It has a bright rather than brooding aspect with chocolate and crushed rock emerging with time in the glass. The palate is rich and viscous upfront and maintains its roundness and depth even as fine-grained, satin-like tannins take the stage, which then fade rapidly through the soft, elegant finish. What it lacks in length it makes up for in sheer charm and polish. The oak is extremely well done, already well-integrated and never a distraction. The blend is 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot, 6% Petite Verdot, and 2% Malbec.
The 2011 has less exuberant fruit and is more deft than dense. The cassis with cranberry undertones and floral notes are pleasing but upstaged by prominent thyme and bay leaf. Cocoa, earth and toast are beginning to emerge so there is ample complexity developing as the wine ages in the bottle. On the palate, the wine opens gently with a delicate touch. The tannins have softened considerably but the finish lacks length and seems to fall apart a bit as the tart acidity is exposed and the texture becomes firm and less yielding as it evolves in the mouth. This is a good wine but surely not extraordinary although it may surprise us and age quite well. The blend is 71% Cabernet, 11% Merlot, 9% Petite Verdot, 8% Cabernet France, and 1% Malbec.
Opus One uses high density planting in their vineyards, more typical of Bordeaux than California, which produces smaller berries with higher skin to juice ratios. The grapes are harvested in lots, sent through their optical sorter, and then dropped directly via gravity into fermentation tanks where the lots are fermented separately using a mix of propagated yeasts found in their winery and vineyards. The wine is aged in new French oak from several coopers; the 2013 saw 17 1/2 months in oak. It then spends about 3 years in bottle before release.
In the end, these wines are really about polish. They exude refinement and grace and, if those qualities are the most important to you, Opus One will be compelling. They lack the pure power of Harlan and I prefer the paradox of delicate, feminine nose and massive structure of Screaming Eagle. A more precise comparison might be Corison with whom Opus One shares the goal of classic elegance and herbal penumbra.
It is worth pointing out that Napa’s “cult” Cabernets, if you can find one, sell for several hundred dollars more than the $300 price tag of Opus One, and with an annual production of around 25,000 you can actually get your hands on a bottle without too much trouble. That in itself is an accomplishment in a wine world in which the very best are often out of reach.