These are notes from an organised tasting events of some sort. Every note is dated, and prices and UK stockists for wines are given where known.
Opus One vertical tastingby Tom Cannavan, 12/06
Michael, who trained at UC Davies and the University of Bordeaux, is Director of Viticulture and Oenolgy: he is overall chief winemaker, though still with two assistant winemakers, one from the US and one from France. Michael's background has included stints at Beaulieu Vineyard in Napa, King Estate in Oregon and as winemaker at the famous Stag's Leap winery in Napa.
grapes and vinesThe wine world has spawned many big-money joint ventures, and all have been with some degree of cynicism. There are those who are deeply resistant to the notion that just because a great European house has joined forces with an ambitious New World estate, the wine they jointly produce should automatically be good, or should command a stratospheric price.
Opus One's original vineyards were planted under a Bordeaux influence, so much more tightly spaced than would be typical in the Napa region. In the benevolent climate, the vines gave higher yields than might be thought desirable for a wine with Grand Cru ambitions. Michael has been continuing a programme of work to manage this better, and has switched to Guyot pruning since the early 2000s. This is one of the reason a dedicated team was required, and the team spent three days in Mouton-Rothschild in Pauillac "learning to prune Guyot properly," according to Michael, who videotaped the training for the benefit of his future vineyard workers.
Another move was to hire the renowned French soil specialist Xavier Pages, who began to map the soils of Opus One minutely. Xavier's research led to wholesale changes to all the drainage systems of the Opus One estate in 2002, so they could better control the water to the vines. Michael says this is having a hugely positive impact on his fruit.
crisis, what crisis?At the end of 2004 US drinks giant Constellation Brands took over Robert Mondavi. Though many worried what this would mean for Opus One - such a personal passion of the Mondavi family - Michael Silacci seems entirely genuine when he says the effect has been positive: "To a large extent we have become masters of our own destiny for the first time." This means that Opus One's management has total control of the company and decision-making (where formerly this was done by a board made up of Mondavi and Rothschild representatives) and even extends to distribution: now neither Constellation nor Rothschild controls the flow of Opus One to the market: all of the wine goes through 18 négociants in Bordeaux, supplied directly by Opus One.
Michael feels it is vital that everyone involved in Opus is constantly feeling challenged: "that it's never same old same old," he says. To that end he takes his cellar workers and divides them into two teams each vintage, each team supplemented by a couple of Opus One's corporate staff - managers and accountants. Each team is given a row of vines to make their very own Opus One - around 120 cases - and has to make entirely its own decisions on pruning, picking and winemaking. "All I ask is that they feed back something they have learned into improving Opus One," says Michael.
Just before we started tasting through the amazing line-up of wine, I asked Michael Silacci about biodynamic winemaking. So much of what he had said displayed an attention and sensitivity to his vineyards that seemed to me to be close to the ethos of biodynamics. "It's very funny that you ask that," he replied, "From this vintage, 2006, I've switched one of our four vineyards to biodynamic growing - that's quarter of our production. I've been thinking about it for years and decided if I was going to do it, I'd do it with our best vineyard as that's the only way to see where the real potential lies."
Making such a change is perhaps one way that Michael Silacci challenges himself, and gives a renewed "edge" and sense of urgency to the whole Opus One operation. There's seems to be no room for complacency here.