Opus One. With the combined efforts of two enterprising and well-respected individuals in the world of wine, Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi, (at the time, owners of Château Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux and Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley), the creation of this winery played a significant role in elevating the stature and reputation of the Napa Valley while simultaneous attracting additional visitors to the valley who have become familiar with the provenance of the Opus One wines or have heard about its coveted reputation.
The Rothschild family traces their wine heritage back to 1853 when they purchased an existing chateau and renamed it to what is now the iconic Château Mouton Rothschild. Part of the Rothschild family also owns the equally iconic Château Lafite Rothschild. Today the Rothschild family owns numerous wine estates in Europe as well as in North and South America, South Africa and Australia. And this is only their global wine business – they are involved in a diversity of other businesses including financial, mining, real estate and agricultural ventures.
Robert Mondavi’s family has been in the Napa Valley since the 1940s; they purchased Charles Krug Winery in 1943 – Robert worked at Charles Krug Winery until branching out on his own to begin Robert Mondavi Winery in 1966. His philosophy about promoting the Napa Valley was that ‘the rising tide carries all ships’ – both promoting his own winery as well as his neighbors – essentially promoting the Napa Valley as a whole.
The focus of Opus One’s production is on a single world-class wine each year. However, since 1993 they have created a second much lesser known and promoted label called Overture. This wine is labeled as a Napa Valley Red wine and interestingly is one of a select few annual release wines from any winery in the Napa Valley that is not labeled with a vintage date. Overture is always a blend of multiple vintages from lots that were not selected for the Opus One wine. And this wine generally sees less French oak then its older sister.
The first vintage of Opus One was from 1979 and along with the 1980 vintage were both released in 1984. These vintages until 1990 were produced at Robert Mondavi Winery which is physically located almost on the other side of Highway 29 in Oakville. For several years the wine was blandly referred to as napanamedoc until Opus One was ultimately decided as an appropriate name reflecting the significant efforts and details that go into creating the wine each year – and referring to a composers’ first composition.
In 2004, as part of the sale of Robert Mondavi Winery, half of Opus One was sold. Today Opus One is under an interesting ownership with 50% owned by the public company, Constellation Brands and the other 50% still family owned by the Rothschilds.
One of the most easily recognized winery buildings in all of Napa Valley, glances invariably turn in its direction – especially from first time visitors to the valley driving by on Highway 29. The winery sits on top of an artificially created hill – round in shape, this circular theme is found throughout the winery in terms of its design.
Visitors can park on either the left or right side of the building – in our experience the right side typically fills up faster than the left side yet both parking lots are located approximately the same distance from the entrance. Sometimes when it is busy there will be an attendant at the end of the driveway directing people to park. The sizable cream colored limestone used in the building is reminiscent of public buildings in Washington DC or the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
The Neo Classical architecture combines refined European elegance with a modern California feel. Robert Mondavi used to describe the building as a “space ship” but when you get close you will see it is very elegantly designed. Most likely classical music will be playing through speakers located in the courtyard, greeting visitors and one can either walk to the left of the main entrance to their “Partner’s Room” for a tasting of their current release or if one has a prior appointment, check in at the main reception through the large wooden doors.
Their signature wine, Opus One is the only wine available for tasting in the Partner’s Room. For the price a generous amount of wine is poured – not a typical 1 oz pour that most wineries offer. Tours are by appointment and depending on the tour, usually last either 90 minutes (Estate Tour & Tasting, taste of one vintage) or 120 minutes (Library Tour & Tasting, taste of 2 vintages & a more in depth look at the winery). The tours are extremely informative with group sizes kept small.
Tours begin in the ‘salon room’ with a sit down introduction provided by your host – note the “old world” style furnishings in here. A few items date back to the 18th century and some of the antiques are even much older. These items were hand selected by Robert Mondavi’s wife Margrit and the Baron’s daughter Baroness Philippine Rothschild (both deceased).
Opus One has one of the largest and cleanest looking labs of any Napa winery we have visited to date. Guests will make a short stop here and then proceed to a large production styled room of which the top of about 40 tanks can be seen poking through the floor. This is one of the nicer production facilities you will see in the valley. The de-stemmer, sorting tables and other equipment can easily be wheeled from tank to tank depending on need. Grapes are sorted using an optical sorter (one of the first wineries in the Napa Valley to embrace this technology) and then the grapes are gravity fed into the tanks. Two large rolling doors open with great views of the vineyards in the back of the winery.
During the tour, your host will discuss select details of how they manage their vineyards – from the winery (or from the upper balcony with its 360 degree view of the valley) one can clearly see how healthy and meticulously groomed these vineyards are. Questions are encouraged throughout the tour. A short walk downstairs leads to the actual tanks for a quick description of how they are used during production and then leads out of the tank room past an elegant staircase (which leads back up to the rotunda). Lastly you will enter a room which many might consider the highlight of the tour both because this is where your tasting will occur and also because of the views of the elegant barrel room. This semi-circular room is called “The Grand Chai” and contains approximately 1000 French oak barrels full of wine.
Over the years the fruit sources for the Opus One wine has evolved including from parts of the To Kalon Vineyard. Grapes were also purchased from select growers although today the focus is on their estate fruit. The vineyards surrounding part of the winery may visually look different then other vineyards in the valley – they are trained to grow low to the ground with very tight spacing. All their vineyards are farmed organically.
The wines are all aged in new French oak – generally from between 18 and 24 months.
The Opus One wines are extremely high quality, but certain vintages are exceptional (such as 2013) and your guide can help clarify which ones these are. However, at the time of our first visit many years ago, the 2004 was already an extremely enjoyable wine in its youth. The 2004 Opus One is noticeably smooth on the palate, with silky tannins. A good word to describe this wine is balance – not one aspect of the wine dominates. At this age the wine is all about vibrant richly layered fruit on the palate – a few years of aging can only improve an already superbly crafted wine.
More vintages needed here. Tasting notes coming by end of 2021.
Worried about cork taint? Not with Opus One as their levels of taint are extremely low – well below the average because they employ a detailed testing program on any potential corks being considered for purchase. Corks are randomly sampled from 10,000 lot batches and when an unacceptable level of cork taint has been discovered based on testing, that particular batch will not be ordered.
The well designed logo is a profile image of both Rothschild and Mondavi’s faces. And a bit of wine trivia: Opus One was the only Napa winery verbally or visually referenced in the California Central Coast wine country based movie Sideways.
Current production is around 25,000 cases a year. No other winery in the Napa Valley produces this volume of wine at this price point. Very international in their scope of distribution, Opus One is currently sold in over 90 countries with a very strong presence in Asia. For more information and or to arrange a visit, please see: www.opusonewinery.com
NOTE: in late 2016 Opus One broke ground on a major expansion to both production and guest service space (40,000 square feet of additional space); this is the first change to the winery footprint since its completion in 1991. The extended space houses additional tanks, fermentation rooms, barrel storage and increased visitor tasting areas.
This review has been identified as needing a *major* update. We will revisit and make an extensive update to this review and photography once the new space has been completed (a tentative completion date of late 2020).
The addition is on the east side, so the views that everyone has come to know and love looking east from Highway 29 remains the same.
Château Lafite Rothschild
Château Mouton Rothschild
More photos coming soon