MICHAEL SILACCI – WINEMAKER, OPUS ONE
Château Mouton Rothschild winemaker Lucien Sionneau and Robert Mondavi’s son Timothy made the partnership’s first vintage at the Robert Mondavi Winery in 1979. The following year the partners officially announced their joint venture.
In 1981 a single case of the joint venture wine sold for $24,000 at the first Napa Valley Wine Auction – the highest price ever paid for a California wine. In 1982 Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild began label design. The partners agreed to choose a name of Latin origin for the joint venture, allowing for easy recognition in both English and French. Baron Philippe announced his choice, “Opus,” a musical expression denoting the first masterwork of a composer. Two days later he proposed an additional word: “Opus One”.
The 1979 and 1980 vintages were simultaneously unveiled in 1984 as Opus One’s first release. Opus One then became known as America’s first ultra-premium wine, establishing a category of wine priced by the bottle at $50 and above.
Following Lucien Sionneau’s retirement in 1985, Patrick Léon joined Château Mouton Rothschild as winemaker and Timothy Mondavi as co-winemaker of Opus One.
Three years later, Baron Philippe de Rothschild died in France at the age of 85; and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild took the reins of the family wine business. This same year Opus One exported a share of its 1985 vintage – and became the first ultra-premium California wine to be sold in France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland. International demand for the wine continued, and in 1999 Opus One celebrated its 20th anniversary by holding vertical tastings and gala dinners in Oakville, New York, Paris and London. In 2001 the release of its 20th vintage – the 1998 – was met with gala events in Tokyo and Hong Kong.
The winery’s board of directors appointed David Pearson CEO in 2004, the first person singly responsible for Opus One. Michael Silacci was thereafter named winemaker, the first to assume full responsibility for viticulture and winemaking.
Constellation Brands, Inc. purchased Robert Mondavi Corporation and assumed 50% ownership of Opus One in 2005. Baroness Philippine de Rothschild and then Constellation Brands President and COO Robert Sands announced the Opus One Accord between Baron Philippe de Rothschild, S.A. and Constellation Brands, Inc. Opus One assumed operating independence in three key areas: vineyard management, domestic and international sales, and administration.
Of the great European wine families, the Rothschilds are perhaps the best known. And Baron Philippe de Rothschild is perhaps the best known of this great family. At the age of 20, Baron Philippe took on the management of Château Mouton Rothschild from his father Baron Henri. Philippe’s vision changed the world of wine: he invented Château bottling, commissioned great artists to illustrate his wine labels – and, in partnership with Robert Mondavi in 1979, created Opus One.
In the 1980s, after her father’s death, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild left a stage career that included the Comédie Française and the Renault-Barrault Theatre Company, bringing her own exquisite style and creativity to the design, construction, and operation of Opus One.
Among great New World wine pioneers, Robert Mondavi is an international icon. Bringing a passion for excellence to everything he did, Robert Mondavi led a renaissance in California fine wine for over six decades. Among other accomplishments, he introduced temperature-controlled fermentation, French oak barrel aging, and high-density viticulture to a fledgling American wine industry. But life was not only wine for Robert Mondavi: he broadened the American cultural palate by marrying fine wine to food, music, and the arts. One of few Americans to have received the French medal of the Legion of Honor, Robert Mondavi showed extraordinary vision as co-founder of Opus One.
Winemaking at Opus One resolves to a single goal: to produce an extraordinary wine. No compromises are made. Guided by the vision of our founders, our winemaker Michael Silacci combines intuition and technical acumen with the dual perspective of viticulturist and winemaker.
Every cluster of Opus One grapes is hand-harvested, and just as much care is taken when transporting them from the vineyard to the winery. The integrity of the grapes is assured by placing the clusters in small picking boxes that hold no more than thirty-five pounds (sixteen kilograms).
The grapes are hand-sorted: any leaves or imperfect grapes are discarded. Only gravity is used to move the berries from the destemmer into the stainless steel fermenting tanks below. Stainless steel is the perfect material – it provides a cool and gentle beginning to the fermentation process.
Because Opus One makes only one wine, each tank can be dedicated to a single lot of grapes; each tank is used only once during harvest, so fermentation and maceration need never be rushed. The long, warm maceration in temperature-controlled tanks draws out myriad rich flavors and colors from the skins, seeds, and pulp. The tanks are raised so the free-run wine can flow into new French oak barrels; the remaining skins tumble easily into basket presses.
In another gentle, unhurried step, the skins, seeds, and pulp are pressed. Like the free-run wine, the pressed wine is put into barrels to be aged. To provide backbone to the wine, a portion of the press is often added to the final blend.
Once the wine is safely in barrel, the topping, racking, and fining processes begin. During the first year, Michael continually tastes from each French oak barrel, evaluating the effect of the wood on the wine.
Fining, which occurs after the final racking in tank, also illustrates the hand-crafted nature of Opus One. Carefully added in more turbid vintages, fresh egg whites attract the very small particles that would otherwise remain in suspension. Fining clarifies and polishes the wine. After about a year and a half in barrel, the wine is bottled. Opus One receives an additional year and a half of bottle age before the wine is released— some three years after harvest.
PAUL LATO – OWNER, PAUL LATO WINES
From my experience of tasting the finest wines from around the world, all the greatest wines possess authenticity, harmony, and elegance. These are the qualities I constantly try to capture in my wines. The ultimate goal is to create wines that are seamless and textural with enough structure and balance to complement fine cuisine.
In order to make wines of the highest caliber, I select unique vineyards that are cared for by talented vineyard managers committed to excellence. I strive to locate and source from not only the best vineyards but the best blocks within each of these vineyards. During the growing season, yields are restricted to achieve maximum concentration of flavor. Harvest is based on physiological ripeness, which changes depending on the vintage characteristics.
Cellar work is based on minimal intervention, cleanliness and purity of intention. Because every vintage is different, I do not believe in recipes. With due respect to science, I do believe that true artisanal winemaking is based on intuition, sensitivity and passion. Keeping the lots small allows for gentle handling throughout the winemaking process. I want my wines to give pleasure and keep your palate interested until the last drop from the bottle – I hope you like them at first sip and love them at the last.
At Paul Lato, we love great food as much as we love our wine. In fact, we don’t believe the two can be separated. We treasure our relationship to the restaurants who serve Paul Lato wines, as they provide the outlet and the knowledge to properly showcase the balance and harmony we strive to impart to each bottle.
Paul Lato is a Polish-born professionally trained and educated sommelier who first visited California's Central Coast in 1996 on the invitation of Au Bon climat's Jim Clendenen. Clendenen told him, "You don't need to read any more wine books. Just come out and work for me one harvest and you will understand how this works." After three months with Clendenen, he returned to Canada where he was a sommelier for Toronto's best restaurant, and worked for six more years in the wine trade until he was ready to make a permanent move.
In 2002, he decided to follow his dream to make wine and returned to California's Central Coast. He brought all his savings (which wasn't much), and his life folded into two suitcases. He had plenty of passion, a little craziness, and considerable innocence, convinced he could actually become a successful winemaker. In fact, above all, the motivation for Paul is passion.
Bob Miller, the late co-owner of Bien Nacido Vineyards, gave Paul a job as a $10-an-hour cellar rat, and let him stay for free in a bunkhouse at the vineyard. Miller also encouraged Paul to make his own wines. During the long harvest days, he watched many experienced winemakers at work and asked many questions.
Starting with the 2002 vintage, he made six barrels of wine. By chance he met Robert Parker who said, "I hear you are this sommelier who makes wine. I want to taste it." Paul sheepishly told him he had only three barrels of Pinot Noir and three barrels of Syrah. Parker said, "You are starting with the hardest grapes to vinify. But don't worry about it. I'm a wine taster and I taste everything. But, if its shit, I'm going to tell you."
Parker was impressed with the wines and as he jotted down notes in his black book, he asked Paul, "What is the name of the winery?" Paul said he had not decided. Parker responded, "You have a tremendous talent. Hurry up with the name, because I want to be the first one to write about your wines." To this day, Paul says, "If I live another 100 years, I will never forget that. It brought tears to my eyes."
He has grown slowly, crafting under 500 total cases of Pinot Noir and Syrah, but gaining a reputation, and consequently having more and more access to fine vineyards. His distant mentor has been the late Henri Jayer of Burgundy and the Chave family of Rhone, and admires the older style of Williams Selyem wines as well. He found the road to success to be brutally hard, but without Parker's blessing of the first vintage, he might not have survived.
The first year, he stayed in several friends' places, and one friend invited him to live in his house, knowing he had no money for rent. In one of his darkest moments, a helpful call came from Thomas Keller, who said he loved Paul's wine and wanted it for the French Laundry. Somewhere along the way, he also discovered the writings of Joseph Campbell, and took to heart his reassurance that pursuing what you love is what matters most in life. Throughout his first ten years, many people gave him a helping hand when he needed it most. Many days he had enough gas to get to work, but not enough to drive back home. And every time, someone would show up and ask to buy a bottle or two of my wine. Paul's independent spirit forbade him from taking on investors. Paul tastes with Parker annually and he found him to be a great taster with an incredible sense of humor. "As a critic, he wants to bring new stars up, rather than break established ones."
Paul Lato wines are sold through a mailing list with very limited retail distribution. He is not as well-known now as he should be, but very knowledgeable pinotphiles, including myself, sing his praises. His Pinot Noirs are sourced from several premium vineyards, including Gold Coast, Fiddlestix Vineyard, Solomon Hills, Zotovich, and Pisoni. He is married to Pinot Noir, but also maintains a friendship with Chardonnay and Syrah and all varietals are top notch.
Paul is aiming for an ultimate production of 2500 cases annually. At some point, he would like to have an estate vineyard.