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Opus One Project Will Be Testament to 2 Wine Makers

Times Wine Writer

A decade after a joint venture was formed between the two most dynamic wine men of France and California, ground has been broken for a winery that will make California’s most expensive red wine, Opus One.

The men who created Opus One in 1979--Robert Mondavi of the Napa Valley and the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Bordeaux--wanted this winery to be a lasting image of their contributions to wine. Until now, the wine has been made at the Mondavi winery nearby.

But, say insiders, this new building might never have come about without the catalytic cooperation of the architect, three engineering companies and peripheral firms, all of whom figure in this drama revolving around two powerful personalities who, at times, interacted as well as oil and water.

“When you have two strong-willed partners, there’s a lot of back and forth,” said Bill Phillips, president of Summit Engineering of Santa Rosa, the civil engineer on the project, which is in its fifth year with only a hole in the ground to show for all the planning.

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“Obviously, it doesn’t take five years to draw a building,” R. Scott Johnson, the architect for the project, told a crowd of 200 that assembled for ground breaking ceremonies. “But this building is a story about marriages, about families, about two different cultures--and about two men who have strong and independent personalities.

“Mondavi is a self-made man,” said Johnson. “He has made his career in his lifetime. He is the patriarch of wine making in the Napa Valley and the spokesman for the industry.”

The baron, on the other hand, “was a Rothschild,” one of Europe’s most powerful families, Johnson said. “If there is anything in the world that has pedigree and aims high and has for generations, Rothschild captures those things. Yet at the same time, he was like Bob in that he was fiercely independent and created many new things.”

Opus One was the first joint venture between a California winery and a French chateau. The wine is made from Napa Valley grapes but made like wine from the Baron’s Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. From the first vintage, 1979, the wine, at $55 a bottle, has impressed wine experts, commanded respect and generated imitators.

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The parties in the venture disavow any suggestion that the winery is a scheme to generate publicity. It was planned long ago.

The building will not be visible to the public. Instead of sitting out on Highway 29--a Napa Valley road running north-south and dotted with tasting rooms--the hemispherical Opus One winery is hidden in a thicket of grapevines a few hundred yards east of the Mondavi Winery off the Oakville Cross Road. When completed in 1991, it will not be seen from either road. (Nor will it be open to the public.)

Moreover, much of the winery will be hidden under a berm, so that only a part of its 60,000 square feet will be apparent from outside.

“Look at it this way,” said R. Michael Mondavi, president of the Mondavi Winery, as he squatted down facing a miniature sculpture of the building set on a pedestal. “From this view, it looks like Battlestar Galactica.”

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Johnson was quick to point out that the building, with a stone colonade front and redwood pergola, had to be a careful blend of two cultures, upper-class French and agricultural Californian.

“Bob (Mondavi) is more effusively outgoing than the baron was, and more experimental,” Johnson said. After the baron died in early 1988, Philippine de Rothschild, his daughter, took over the project. “And the baroness is an actress and a world traveler who preferred more classical themes.”

The design, incorporating both modern and classical themes, uses indigenous materials such as limestone and untreated redwood.

Johnson, Fain & Pereira Associates of Los Angeles won a contest with five other architectural firms nearly five years ago to design Opus One. Summit Engineering, which specializes in winery work, entered the project in 1986. Phillips, its president, said he immediately realized that this was no ordinary winery project.

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“As things go down on paper, people can look at the concepts and they can review them. Then there are meetings,” said Phillips, adding that decisions were slow in coming because of the 6,000 miles between participants.

Phillips added that many people on both sides of the venture tossed in their desires during the planning stages. “So there weren’t just two people interfacing, there are a whole set of varied opinions, overlaid with some pretty strong personalities. All the compromises had to be well negotiated.”

Johnson said he had to balance engineering concerns with his design, ever cognizant of the French notion of a cellar as well as the environmental concerns of the Napa Valley.

Although those connected with the project declined to speak directly of conflicts during the project, one insider associated with the project said there were disputes--heated at times--about the design, the engineering and aspects of the business relationship.

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“There were sparks from time to time,” said the insider. “But they were at most battles, never a war, and everything was eventually worked out.”

During the design process, Johnson met with Mondavi and the baron separately. After the baron died on Jan. 20, 1988, he dealt with the baroness. He said the French worried that he might not be fully aware of their history, so he visited Pauillac, where Mouton-Rothschild is located.

“I would liken the process to any work of art,” Johnson said. “It is not possible for two people to paint the same painting at the same time. One person can paint, then another can paint. Each party can sort of manifest his own autonomy.”

Insiders say the project will cost about $14 million, 35% higher than originally projected.

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The final design has a long entrance road leading to a path in the berm. Only after walking the length of the path will visitors see the cloister of facilities.

“The inside courtyard or cloister is limestone, which is a classical, subtle reference to the perfection of late 18th-Century France,” Johnson said. Seasonal wildflowers on the berm give it a Napa Valley look.

The ground breaking ceremony, held July 6, was staged between American Independence Day and Bastille Day, with the red, white and blue of both nations everywhere, including a flag of the original 13 colonies and a French tricolor.

A Mondavi spokesman declined to discuss the profitability of Opus One (formed as RMR Co.), but in 1986, it made 10,000 cases of wine, which should generate about $3 million in gross revenue. The new winery will have the capacity to make 20,000 cases.

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