A Minor Opus

TIMES WINE WRITER

From the road the building looks a bit like Battlestar Galactica as designed by an ancient Roman architect, with flourishes by Cecil B. de Mille.

The lower half of the cupola-graced structure is hidden underground, with grass growing on the sloping sides. The courtyard's whitewashed stone, alternatingly smooth and rough-hewn, gives an almost Shakespearean-amphitheater feel.

This is Opus One, which is both a wine with a reputation far greater than the liquid in the bottle and a structure that pays homage to the dynamic duo who created the myth before they created the wine.

A vision of the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in Bordeaux and Robert Mondavi of the Napa Valley, Opus One is a red wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux red grapes. It sells for $75 per bottle, occasionally discounted so people, not just corporations, can afford it.

The one question I am asked the most is, "Is Opus One worth it?"

*

Regardless of what anyone thinks of the wine or its pricetag, one thing is clear: It is the single most successful wine idea ever developed in California. Maybe the world. One element in particular makes this true: Of the 20,000-odd cases made at Opus annually, more than half is sold by the glass in restaurants.

This last fact alone makes Opus One an astounding and envied--and copied--success story. Rarely does a wine sell anywhere near half its production in restaurants; even more rarely does a wine sell this much in restaurants by the glass.

Consider, too: Opus One is really a wine made to be stashed away and served only after a decade or two, when it has had sufficient age.

Yet virtually all of the Opus One served by the glass is the current vintage, which at present is 1991. There is no bottle age here. It is young, fresh, tannic wine.

Another shocking statistic about Opus One's success in restaurants is that the suggested price for a three-ounce serving is $12. At that rate, you'd be paying roughly $100 per bottle. But people seem eager to pay for it. And a big part of the reason they don't mind this expenditure is the flourish with which Opus is served.

Opus is sold not just as a wine but as an experience, and Opus One marketing director Stuart Harrison's program plays that theme as no symphony orchestra could. In reality, it is he, more than any winemaker or vineyardist, who is responsible for Opus' by-the-glass success.

*

When the program first began seven years ago, "most glasses of wine in restaurants were $3.50," says Harrison. "It became obvious to us that for a young wine that was quasi-collectible, this was an area of the market to investigate. We started it mainly to familiarize people with the wine. Well, it took off."

At the time, he thought the major part of Opus sales would be in specialty shops, sold to collectors. Today, less than 40% of the wine is sold that way. Some 10% is exported.

When the by-the-glass program started, a patron would order a glass of Opus One, and it would be delivered in a small carafe beside a tall tulip glass. The waiter would then pour the wine into the glass.

"Most nice wine glasses looked pretty empty with three ounces," said Harrison, so the Opus carafe, with the profiles of the baron and Mondavi etched into it, was made a part of the program. Patrons were supposed to be allowed to keep the carafe, but rarely did restaurateurs reveal this fact, and at first the program was only marginally successful.

But the idea was catching on. Harrison developed lapel pins for waiters, and staffs were trained to suggest Opus. It seemed to be a hit with young couples.

This year Opus One moved into the big leagues of entertainment/dining. Harrison long had wanted to have Opus served in fine crystal stemware, but the cost was excessive. Then Georg Riedel, the Austrian stemware producer, heard of the Opus by-the-glass program. He offered to contribute his elegant Bordeaux crystal stemware to the program, moving it into high gear.

*

Harrison developed a kit for key accounts (those who bought a sufficient supply of Opus One; Harrison declines to say what the minimum is). The kit contains Riedel glassware etched with the famed logo. Any customer ordering Opus would be served in the Austrian crystal glasses.

Also in the kit: silver-plated coasters; a silver-plated bottle jacket with a handle; a silver-plated drip stop, and two cans of Private Preserve, a product designed to protect opened bottles from further oxidation. And a limited-edition signed and numbered Opus lithograph.

To assist restaurant personnel in pouring the correct amount, there is an "Opus line" on each glass. Waiters are trained to bring the opened bottle of wine and stemware to the table on a silver tray and pour to the line. The glass is placed on the silver-plated coaster.

In the last year, Opus One's by-the-glass sales have not gone unnoticed. Such upscale wines as Dominus, Caymus Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon "Special Selection," Joseph Phelps Vineyards "Insignia" and Far Niente Winery's dessert wine Dolce are being offered by the glass too.

Opus has been more myth than meaning ever since its inception, which came about in the baron's bedroom late one morning. Mondavi, who has told the story a thousand times, says he was summoned to the baron's bedside at the chateau, where the baron was having a late breakfast.

"He said he wanted to do a joint venture," says Mondavi. "Well, I was shocked. I was sitting on the edge of the bed and I almost fell off."

*

The year was 1979. The project, begun informally with a handshake as a 50-50 deal, was announced before the harvest that year and even before Mouton's winemaker had investigated the Napa Valley's vineyards.

The first case of wine, still without a name (at the Mondavi winery it was called Napamedoc), was auctioned off at the first Napa Valley Wine Auction in 1981. Even though no one outside the winery had ever tasted the wine, a young Syracuse wine merchant, Charles Mara, paid $24,000 for the first 12-bottle case.

Then came the agony of building the winery that would house the project. Architect R. Scott Johnson of Johnson Fain & Pereira Associates of Los Angeles had the pleasure of sifting through ideas from two of the strongest personalities on the planet--ideas on what the project should be like, ideas that rarely coincided.

He was as much mediator as architect.

Construction of the winery took two years and $15 million, far more than was anticipated because the project ran into more roadblocks than anyone anticipated. Today Johnson has much more gray hair than he had at the start.

Originally Opus One was to be closed to the public, but a few weeks ago the side doors to the impressive property were tacitly opened to those with appointments.

The question of whether Opus One is worth the money is like that for any expensive product: If you have to ask, you can't afford it. But those who buy it are getting more than just wine. They're getting the myth as well.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Wine of the Week

1993 Baron Herzog Chardonnay ($9)-- A delightfully fresh, exotically scented wine that has spicy tropical fruit reminiscent of Vignoles or Viognier grapes. The faint Muscat note in the aftertaste is offset by a fine crisp finish.

Peter Stern, winemaker for this kosher wine project, said this wine, 100% Chardonnay, is 75% from Sonoma County grapes including a major portion from the cool Russian River Valley. Stern said that a portion had such exotic fruit elements that he chose not to age it in oak. The remainder was barrel fermented and aged, however, giving the wine richness as a counterpoint to the fresh, crisp finish.

In a blind tasting of 47 Chardonnays, this wine finished among the top five, even though it is kosher for all uses. Some 12,000 cases were made. It may be discounted to less than $8.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°