The Best of Two Worlds

Times Staff Writer

Across a temporarily hushed dining room, the Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi stood and summarized one of the most stylish wine events of the year in Los Angeles. Looking toward the neighboring table where Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, co-owner of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, was seated, he pronounced for the small crowd in attendance, “Hey, we make a quite a team.”

It was a decided understatement.

The corporate marriage of French royalty with one of California’s first families in wine is electric in the glamorous world of high-priced Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux. And such was the case when these two came together at a press luncheon last week at Jimmy’s Restaurant in Beverly Hills for the international debut of the 1982 version of their jointly produced “Red Table Wine.”

This so-called table beverage is actually the fourth vintage of Opus One: the most expensive wine ever produced in California. Suggested retail price for the current release is a handsome $50 a bottle.

Though enjoying Mondavi’s modest declaration, Rothschild reserved her opinion of the luncheon proceedings until she was able to taste the ’82 Opus One, which arrived after a course of smoked whitefish in Champagne sauce. At that point, little noticed, she flashed the thumbs-up sign to one of her French colleagues.

So, all was joyous as the meal proceeded, interspersed with short talks from Mondavi, Rothschild and the two allied wine makers responsible for this project, Tim Mondavi and Chateau Mouton Rothschild’s Patrick Leon.

The festivities were certainly enhanced by the generous servings of the three most recent Opus One vintages, along with a 1976 Reserve Henriot Champagne, a 1982 Mondavi Reserve Fume Blanc and a French Sauternes. This was the type of event for which the bar tab alone would extend the deepest of wallets.

Yet, despite the embarrassment of riches, the fourth vintage in this regal partnership is more than just a curiosity. There are rumblings that the Mondavi-Rothschild cooperative venture may significantly influence this state’s premium wine industry in terms of technology, style and pricing.

This new approach made in vineyard heaven melds the sophistication and finesse of French wine making with California’s bold innovations and rich grapes. Add these qualities to a graceful label featuring two of the foremost names in wine and an almost irresistible aura is created.

That there could even be amicability between the old and new wine worlds was inconceivable just a decade ago. And this unlikelihood is precisely why Baron Philippe de Rothschild, the baroness’ father, proposed the idea to Robert Mondavi a number of times during the early 1970s.

Details were finalized in 1979, and the initial release came not long afterward when the first two Opus One wines, Vintages 1979 and 1980, were made available.

“These wines are a story about two men,” Rothschild told the luncheon guests. “They are two men from different horizons, languages, backgrounds, cultures and opinions. They had no reason to get together, but they did.

“They liked each other and shared a passion for the great thing in their lives, and that is wine.”

Rothschild, a former stage actress, made an elegant presentation, which was liberally doused with charm, wit and humor. The performance was noteworthy, particularly because she was battling laryngitis.

A few hours after the luncheon, in her suite at the Bel Air Hotel, Rothschild explained in more detail the goals of Opus One.

“We (Chateau Mouton Rothschild) are more modest than (Moet et) Chandon and some of the other French companies (that have opened their own California wine properties),” she said. “We could go that way and we could make the best wine here, but, then again, maybe not. Rather, we felt the best way to work was with people (the Mondavis) who know the land. This way, you get the best of getting together, by linking two countries and their respective knowledge.”

How this joint venture actually works is, indeed, an accomplishment.

At least four times annually, the designated wine maker from Chateau Mouton Rothschild travels to California to participate in decisions during key points in the grape growing, harvesting and processing year. The French and the Californians work by consensus, and the resulting product has qualities that seem to reflect both styles.

“We have to agree on something unanimously. If not, then we forget about it,” Mondavi said. “We have had honest differences of opinion, but you have to be a big enough man to agree. Going in, I wasn’t so sure. You know how chauvinistic the French are, particularly about their wine. But there is a rapport between (us.)”

For the next few years, Opus One wines will be made primarily from grapes grown by the Mondavis. However, a special vineyard is being prepared that in the future will supply all the grapes to the Opus One wines.

It is this recently planted Napa Valley plot that is revolutionary for California. Rather than having the traditional 450 vines per acre, the Opus One project will have 1,200. Forcing more vines to share a small area will dramatically decrease the yield, but will raise the quality of the fruit. When the 94 acres devoted to Opus One begin bearing fruit, the company will increase production from its current 6,000 cases a year.

Different Techniques

A new winery complex also is planned that will employ techniques currently unused in Napa or Sonoma, such as thin oak aging barrels.

However, bringing the best of France and California into one bottle has already shown signs of success, particularly in Opus One 1982. This extremely stylish, supple wine is made from 82% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, 16% Cabernet Franc and 2% Merlot.

Tim Mondavi says that Opus One should be leaner than normal California Cabernets, but richer than the traditional French Bordeaux. The wines are designed to be drinkable upon release and yet deep enough to age 25 to 30 years.

“The great aim for Opus One is to make a wine that will take a long time to mature and that will come closer to the great Bordeaux wines, which have that great ability to age,” Rothschild said. “For now, I wouldn’t say these are the best wines I have ever tasted. That would be stupid, considering some of the wines (I) have at home and because (the Opus One series) is not now at its optimum. But they are great wines.”

Despite the glowing description accorded the latest Opus One release, is this wine worth its unprecedented price tag?

“Sure the names (Mondavi and Rothschild) sell, but there has to be quality in the wine,” Robert Mondavi said. “This wine is made more complex, interesting and elegant than what’s ever been made in California. There’s more subtlety, more flavor than others. . . . We have pieced together something unique in California wine making and in the world.”

Price Will Fluctuate

Mondavi also mentioned that in future years the price of the wine will fluctuate depending on quality, production and whatever other factors go into such things.

Beyond the matter of price is whether there is even a demand for Opus One in a struggling domestic wine market. At this point, sales are not a problem. In fact, Opus One is in limited distribution in only 18 states and it will be a number of years before the wine is available nationally.

Furthermore, Mondavi has no trouble defining who his customers are.

“The person who would buy Opus One is interested in something unique with style--those looking for the best things in life, something special. Even young people who appreciate quality will save to buy something like this,” he said. “This wine is like a fine painting. . . . It’s for those people that will pay double the normal prices to get something with a style of its own.”

The impact of Opus One has been felt beyond just wine shops’ shelf tags. Mondavi says that employing some of the Rothschild techniques to his other wines has raised the overall quality of all Mondavi products. Meanwhile, the French have incorporated a number of Mondavi procedures to improve the characteristics of their grapes. This type of progress was what both partners originally had in mind.

Whether these innovations will disseminate throughout the rest of the wine industry remains to be seen. Nevertheless, Mondavi is bullish.

“We’re just getting started,” he said.