25th Winemakers Seminar
Winemaking in Two Worlds: Napa Valley and France—Burgundy and Bordeaux
Saturday, May9, 2015
Eco-Lab Theatre, CIA-Greystone and Raymond Vineyards, Saint Helena
We are indebted to Advisory Board member and former NVWLA president Bob Long for his initial seminar concept of comparing contemporary wines of Napa Valley with those of France. Although Bob envisioned a day devoted exclusively to Cabernet Sauvignon, we like to think, had he been able to attend, that he would have been satisfied with how the wine seminar turned out.
NVWLA president Carolyn Martini began by thanking those who funded a dozen scholarships for graduate students to attend from the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. She then thanked our panelists for taking part and sharing their wines, moderator Gilles de Chambure for his time putting together the seminar and now moderating it, and Jane Skeels and your editor for coordinating the event.
Gilles de Chambure
Gilles reached Napa Valley from France via New York in 1993 when Bob Mondavi hired him as the senior wine educator at Robert Mondavi Winery. Gilles became a Master Sommelier in 2000 and began teaching classes a dozen years ago for the Court of Master Sommeliers as well as for Bill Harlan at Meadowood. He has since formed his own company, MS Wine Consulting, and is now the president and general manager for a new venture in Napa Valley, Alejandro Bulgheroni Estate.
Gilles introduced the seminar by saying it would give us a chance to discover the influences, the cross-pollinations and experiences our panelists have had working both in California and France, illustrating some of the practices that they have brought to and taken from each country. We would touch on four regions in France: Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux—both its banks: right (Saint-Émilion) and left (Médoc), because Opus One is a Napa Valley and Médoc joint venture.
First, Gilles gave a quick overview of the influence of France on California: among individuals, the first European plantings were brought to California in the 1830‘s by fittingly named Jean-Louis Vignes from Bordeaux. Another Bordelais, Charles Carpy, came to Napa Valley in the 1870‘s. In the 1890‘s this entrepreneur acquired Greystone. Burgundian Paul Masson was involved with phylloxera research. Among local wineries were the Franco-Swiss Winery of 1876, Brun & Chaix in 1877, and Beaulieu in 1900 begun by Bordelais Georges de Latour who came to the United States in 1882 and with Beaulieu became a bridge between California and France. Our panelist Michael Silacci actually worked with Georges de Latour‘s celebrated winemaker, André Tchelistcheff, who had studied at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
Now, our modern era is the result of an increasing number of land restrictions in France spurring investment in the New World. Clos du Val was founded by John Goelet with Bernard Portet in 1972 [the same year as Warren Winiarski‘s Stag‘s Leap Wine Cellars] and in 1973, Domaine Chandon by Moët et Chandon; in 1976, California wines won the Paris Tasting and French investment in California followed. In 1979, the first joint effort between France and California was begun with Opus One between Bob Mondavi and the Baron Philippe de Rothschild; Christian Moueix‘s Dominus was founded in1982, Mumm Napa in 1986, St. Supéry in 1987, and Claude Taittinger‘s Domaine Carneros in 1988. More recently, in 2013 Araujo Estate was sold to the owners of Chåteau LaTour.
In addition to wineries, there is a very long list of consulting winemakers, Michel Rolland from the Pomerol and Stéphane Derenoncourt of St-Émilion, to name two. There have also been ampelographers, soil scientists like Philippe Melka, viticulturists as well enologists like the Morlet brothers, and the new winemaker for Inglenook, Philippe Bascaules from Château Margaux. Former NVWLA Board of Directors member Chris Howell of Cain Vineyards was educated in Bordeaux; winemaker Daniel Baron at Silver Oak came from working at Château Pétrus. All provide opportunity for cross-pollination.
Gilles introduced Dawnine by telling us that she had come to Napa Valley in 1974 from UC Davis and went to work at Robert Mondavi Winery with Zelma Long. She then joined Domaine Chandon (Chandon), which had bought 350 acres in Yountville when an acre of such land cost $1,100. Chandon‘s first wines were made at Trefethen. Dawnine became Chandon‘s head winemaker in 1978 and remained so for 25 years. Épernay was her model for quality control. In 1996, Dawnine planted her own vineyard with her husband, Bill, on Diamond Mountain. She retired from Chandon in 2000 to devote time to Dyer Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon. In 2005 she began a partnership with Meteor Vineyard. The wines she poured were:
Domaine Chandon; Tom Tiburzi, winemaker
NV Blanc de Noirs, California
Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier
96,000 cases; 12.5% alcohol
2004 étoile Tête de Cuvée, California
62% Sonoma County, 38% Napa County
61% Chardonnay, 34% Pinot Noir, 5% Pinot Meunier
1,035 cases; 13% alcohol
2013 Pinot Meunier, Carneros
100% Pinot Meunier
3,800 cases; 14% alcohol
Dawnine began by saying it was a great honor to part of a seminar put on by such a great organization! In fact, NVWLA began about the time Moët et Chandon started to have a conversation on a wine venture in California. It had had success in South America with a winery in Argentina. Now it decided to export its expertise.
Dawnine called this a critical part of the evolution of California market expansion. The results are subtle, and sometimes come back to bite us, but at the time, the doors were completely open in the sparkling wine world with a willingness to exchange information that was unprecedented.
The brand-new Chandon was launched in 1976 before a Moët Champagne market was well established in the West. New York was Moët et Chandon‘s biggest market when still wine was receiving the most effort in promotion. Parent company Moët Hennessey was still family-held, though, so it was more flexible in making decisions. The company learned to come to California like explorers and support local staff development.
For 20 of the 25 years Dawnine was at Chandon, Mordier was its Chef de Cave. A WW II veteran, she said Mordier was well aware of the world as a bigger place than Champagne. He was always curious—about grape varieties, techniques in farming, methods of harvesting. And there are lots of ways one can explore these without the limitations of France‘s restrictive appellation system.
One of the hallmarks of process has been the addition of Pinot Meunier to Pinot Noir, with its Eye of the Partridge (Œil de Perdrix) quality in the Blanc de Noirs. This wine picked up a little color being made in California. Initially, Chandon was limited to the grape varieties already in California. The American regulation of importation was very restrictive and the alternative of “suitcased” (brought in about one‘s person or in one‘s brief- or suitcase) budwood wasn‘t practical for planting the 600 acres Chandon had bought for $400 an acre in Los Carneros. Today there is a wider range in style at Chandon. It is Dawnine‘s observation that grapes in warmer growing areas have a little pinker fruit, adding a bit of color to the Blanc de Noirs. Dawnine finds the Blanc de Noirs a bit fruit forward. There is a higher sugar level in the fruit from Carneros, not so much in Mendocino or Anderson Valley. When is the fruit ripe? As soon as there are no green, bitter, hard tastes.
Chandon‘s grapes were first picked by hand and pressed right in the vineyard. It used small picking bins—1/2-ton in size when big 5-ton gondolas were the norm in 1972. And then came machine night picking. Chandon was probably the first in California to pick so, to avoid polyphenols in the wine, maintaining cool fruit temperatures in order to keep the characteristics of the variety. These picking machines were made in France and took the fruit direct to press.
Louis M. Martini was one of the first wineries to plant vineyard in Los Carneros, followed by Rene di Rosa. The soils are very different from those in France as well as the climate. The soils are shallow, and there is clay rather than the chalk of France. The temperatures are cool to cold from the cold ocean nearby making for bright, bold fruit flavors even at lower sugars. Martini planted Pinot Blanc, a Cognac variety that is thick-skinned. Bitterness in the wine was a problem, initially, solved by blending to keep neutrality.
The Tête de Cuvée is made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier – a more traditional blend. Pinot Meunier is a naturally occurring mutation in Champagne. It is what is called a “sport,” and is known as the short-growing cousin, often planted in the worst areas in Champagne. It has a very red stone-fruit flavor, also of leather. It is like a compact Pinot Noir, a little more dialed back, and important to the Tête de Cuvée development.
The Blanc de Noirs is made from multiple vintages. The Tête is yeastier; it spends seven years on the lees–important for its complexity. About 15% to 20% is reserved from each vintage for the Tête. Its blending combines multiple elements, marrying or maintaining different lots for accents. The regions where the fruit was grown, the ages of the lots, and the house style affect the blend, as the winemaker seeks excellence and consistency overall.
Dawnine avers that it all starts in the vineyard: the wine‘s complexity begins from there—in different regions, in different soils, with different levels of complexity. What was the virtue in Chandon‘s exporting experts? It wished to apply the very best of techniques from its 200-year history in France. And the sparkling wine community was supportive of the ideals of winemaking rather than competitive. It was a unique circumstance. The experts had to meet such challenges as a maritime climate in California. The greatest challenge overall being, as Dawnine phrased it: “How do we find our own voice?”
Gilles next summarized a few of the influences of Burgundy on California as an introduction to Jean-Charles Boisset. First, Gilles noted the improvement in Pinot Noir after Chardonnay, which came with a new focus in quality in California. He next cited certain wine merchants in the United States: Frank Schoonmaker, Alexis Lichine, and Kermit Lynch, and their bringing in the influence of imported wine and the encouragement of unique bottlings; Becky Wasserman in Burgundy choosing the best of its wines to export; Maison Louis Jadot owned by the Kopf family of Kobrand; Ann Colgin, of Colgin Cellars and a consultant to Sotheby‘s Wine Department now with an interest in Maison Camille Giroud in Burgundy; HdV–the venture between the de Villaine family of Burgundy and the Hyde Family of Napa; and, of course, Hospice de Beaune inspiring Auction Napa Valley.
Jean-Charles began by thanking the panel and saying it was a pleasure and honor to be introduced by Gilles. He thanked him for all his work over the years bringing two worlds together which has meant his bringing more people to Napa Valley. The wines Jean-Charles poured were:
Maison Jean-Claude Boisset, Grégory Patriat, winemaker
2011 Chambolle-Musigny Les Chardannes, Côte de Nuits, Bourgogne, France
100% Pinot Noir
DeLoach Vineyards, Brian Mahoney, winemaker
2012 Estate Pinot Noir Olivet Bench, Russian River Valley
100% Pinot Noir
500 cases, 14.5% alcohol
JCB, Brian Mahoney and Grégory Patriat, winemakers; Jean-Charles Boisset, consulting
2011 № 3, Russian River Valley and Côte de Nuits, Bourgogne, France
60% Pinot Noir from three vineyards in the Sebastopol Hills
40% Pinot Noir from three vineyards in Côte de Nuits
269 cases; 13% alcohol
Jean-Charles‘ father, Jean-Claude, began the Boissets‘ company in the 1960‘s with his Maison Vougeot. Jean-Charles says with aplomb that he was born in a winery and had set his career compass needle to winemaking when, at age 11, he came to the wine country of California with his father and grandfather. When they visited Sonoma‘s Buena Vista Winery, Jean-Charles thought to himself, “I‘ll be back,” he liked the feel of it so.
He and his sister Nathalie began to experiment in wine production as they took over their father‘s business. They sought to break out of tradition, acquiring property in the 1990‘s in Canada with a portfolio that included ice wine. Next, they added California‘s Lyeth Estate, De Loach Vineyards and Raymond Vineyards to their holdings.
Jean-Charles also wished to thank his membership in La Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin; he considers its membership his brothers and sisters, and their love of wine and of life most important to him. The organization began in the 1930‘s and is now centered in his hometown of Vougeot.
Next, Jean-Charles had everyone warm up à la Bourgogne by singing and clapping twice through: Lalala-lalala-la-la.
And then Jean-Charles returned us to his boyhood visit to Buena Vista. His grandparents were both schoolteachers, anxious for Jean-Charles to discover the United States–there were just 176 people in their hometown of Vougeot. And so the Boissets came to see the missions of Old California—from Monterey to Sonoma, and Jean-Charles fell in love with the energy, dynamism, sense of place, and possibility here as he thought of Thomas Jefferson‘s joining one ocean to another.
In 2011, the Boisset acquisition of Buena Vista, the oldest winery in California, was a dream come true for Jean-Charles. Charles Krug had been at Buena Vista 150 years earlier, working for Baron Agusthon Haraszthy, who gave him a wine press and vine cuttings. Jean-Charles called the Baron a father of modern viticulture. This has been the inspiration for the just-opened Historical Wine Tool Museum at Buena Vista.
The seminar, Jean-Charles said, isn‘t just the French influencing California, but California bringing its practices to France. Just think of Warren Winiarski and the Paris Tasting: the importance of our senses rather than purely the label. There are 22 other wineries in the Boisset Collection and 27 winemakers on the Boisset family team, which makes for a lot of cross-energy. Today, there are 50,000 acres of vineyard in Burgundy and 4,000 acres planted in Napa Valley.
There are 745 kinds of wines in Burgundy, according to Jean-Charles. Of Burgundy‘s 32 Grand Cru appellations, 24 are in the Côte de Nuits, which is about 11 miles long, and Chambolle has nine of its vineyard designates. The region is known for its stratification, the geology: its soft rocks, concave from the passage of water (one of Jean-Charles‘ favorite characteristics). In the 11th century, [Cistercian] monks brought Pinot Noir to the area. Vougeot is nested among Échezeaux, Chambertin, Chambolle-Musigny, and its wine is very feminine–Jean-Charles‘ mother‘s favorite. Jean-Charles called Le Musigny the second most valuable. It is 11 hectares and adjacent to Chambolle-Musigny.
Jean-Charles believes earth defines the wine: soil first, then the plant, climate, passion, and people. The Chambolle-Musigny Les Chardannes vineyard belongs to childhood friends. Its 45 and 95 year-old vines grow in calcareous soil and their roots go deep, 6 to 7 meters deep (20 feet). The wine is aromatic with finesse on the palate. The fruit is picked into little 15-kilo cases; from the sorting tables whole clusters are de-stemmed and fermented in oval, open top, cold fermenters. Maceration is long—28 to 30 days. Jean-Charles thinks the warmth from fermentation is an energy from the monks. “We guide the expression,” he says. The wine is moved by gravity flow; there is no filtration; fining is with one and a half egg whites per barrel, and bottled without any intervention. It is aged in 15% to 25% new oak for a true expression of terroir. The stave wood is chosen within the forest, and staves air-dried. Only four barrels of the 2011 Les Chardannes were made. Jean-Charles calls the wine “very delicate.”
DeLoach was acquired in 2003 from the Canadian venture, VinCor. VinCor had assembled its rootstocks and clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. When Boisset Family Estates decided to come to California, it was faced with Napa or Sonoma? Its intent was to have a little Pinot Noir. DeLoach is next to Kistler, Merry Edwards, the Pellegrini Wine Company; it is on the Rodeo Drive of Pinot! There are 400 acres under contract. The previous vineyard was pulled in 2004 and replanted biodynamically. The vineyard is certified organic, as is Raymond. Jean-Charles is always very proud to present the DeLoach Pinot Noir. He says in blind tastings it is always in the top five. The wine is from fruit grown on three rootstocks from eight different clones.
Next came the inspiration to compare, contrast and blend the French with the California wine. The winemaker is the same for the DeLoach as the JCB. The winemaking methods are identical. Jean-Charles likens its richness to la “Big Mac”—with its layers of whole cluster, destemmed, in the vat, and some remontage (pumping over). He says there are lots of natural tannins. The wine is aged in a minimum of new oak—35%-40%. Jean-Charles and his winemaker want the terroir to express itself. Think of Burgundy‘s 32 Grand Cru designates, versus Russian River Valley Pinot; the difference of 1,000 years to 150; map signs of Burgundy to those of the Russian River and its 8 vineyards of Chardonnay and 9 of Zinfandel. He characterized the Pinot fruit of the Russian River as not too ripe, with fantastic spices.
For the JCB No. 3 blend, Jean-Charles wanted the best of both; both would be fruity. Should he choose Cote de Nuits or Cote de Beaune? Totally crazy! And from California—the Russian River—then mix. When you taste a young Pinot from Russian River what you love is the flamboyance of the aromatics. While Pinot Noir is France—austerity, long-lasting terroir. Initially, Boisset blended Beaune and Russian River. That blend was good but not great. Next came a new winemaker and a new trial with 2009. That blend was from Nuits St. George—powerful and Gevrey Chambertin—feminine, and three vineyards from Russian River. The French fruit was air freighted in and blended at DeLoach. The 2010 JCB No. 3 was a great success. The 2011 was an illumination moment: another vineyard must be added!. To add length, Chambolle-Musigny was included. Three magical favorite parallel lines: 3 key vineyards from France and California, and three key descriptors of the blend: Graceful, Honoris, Maritus for the marriage of California and French Pinot Noir fruit, Jean-Charles‘ marriage to Gina, and their young twin daughters, Honoré and Grace.
Jean-Charles says the limit of the blend is endless. California can participate to a great world blend and improve it.
Gilles said we would now focus on Bordeaux and Napa Valley, with its legacies of Crabb, ToKalon, Beaulieu, Larkmead, and Beringer; that Bordeaux has a spiritual home here in Napa Valley. The next two panelists make wine from divers sources. We know Bordeaux keenly felt a British influence when Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, took an English king for her husband and Gilles noted that Aaron Pott has an English wife.
Gilles next mentioned Thomas Jefferson‘s requesting Claret made from a first classification of Bordeaux; this was a wine made just for him rather than a négociant. Our third president also imported the first documented wines from a first growth classified vineyard in the United States—Château Haut-Brion (owned by an American family, the Dillons, since 1935). Gilles also called attention to the significant numbers of American media reporting on wine, wine critics, and the promotion of wine.
Aaron introduced himself as an “extreme user” of the Napa Valley Wine Library, calling it “an important resource for us all.” The wines Aaron poured were:
Pott Wine; Aaron Pott, winemaker
number of cases made of each: about
75 cases annually
alcohol 14.8% for all wines
2010 La Carte et Le Territoire Young Inglewood Vineyard, Saint Helena
proprietary red blend of Merlot 70% and Cabernet Franc 30%
2011 La Carte et Le Territoire Young Inglewood Vineyard, Saint Helena
proprietary red blend of Merlot 70% and Cabernet Franc 30%
2012 La Carte et Le Territoire Young Inglewood Vineyard, Saint Helena
proprietary red blend of Merlot 70% and Cabernet Franc 30%
Aaron grew up in Eugene, Oregon. When he was ten years old, he was taken to Paris by what he called his over-exuberant family and at dinner Aaron learned from the waiter, “Meelk is for babies.” He was brought wine and he thought, ’So, this is what is going to make one adult.‘ He and his family later moved to Davis, California where Aaron went to college, graduating from UC Davis with a degree in Enology.
After a stint at Robert Mondavi Winery, Aaron worked with John Kongsgaard at Newton Vineyards (and is sure the Mahler blasting out from his vehicle‘s stereo had clinched his interview with John) and also with Newton‘s consulting winemaker, Michel Rolland. In the course of working at Newton, Aaron asked Michel for suggestions of where to work in France and in 1993 found himself on the Right Bank at Chåteau Troplong Mondot and a year later at his second premier cru château of Saint-Émilion, Chåteau La Tour Figeac.
Aaron experienced wines of great quality in different vintages there because of different ripenings and poorer, even catastrophic wines in hot vintages. He characterized harvest in France as short: ten days! At La Tour Figeac: merely four days. Aaron says that in Saint-Émilion when Château Cheval Blanc gets out and begins to polish its tractors, everyone starts harvesting. In the winter, if one digs a hole in Cheval Blanc, at one meter the hole fills up with water, the water table is so high, and active. The water all goes away in the summer. In Napa we can water vines, while in France, one can only hope and pray.
Wanting to learn more about vineyards, Aaron also enrolled at the University of Burgundy for a degree in viticulture. He chose Burgundy because he thought Pinot Noir, being such a little b*s*a*d of a grapevine, was much better to learn on than Cabernet Sauvignon. Aaron says while the differences in terroir in France are complex, they are nothing like Napa Valley with its 33 distinct soil types, the nearness of the ocean and the narrowness of our Valley. Napa terroir is very complex.
For Aaron, Terroir shows especially in Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc is not a recent variety; it has rarely changed in over 1,000 years (although in 1700 it crossed with Sauvignon Blanc to beget Cabernet Sauvignon). It is from the 13th century and Aaron finds that its close relationship to its wild origins shows more terroir. He says the variety is difficult to site in Napa Valley; it needs volcanic ash soils that are well drained. In such soils, its vines produce small berries that hold its aromatic characteristics. Aaron particularly likes intense orange volcanic soils and alluvial bench lands for this variety. He also says a cool climate–weather is key.
In 1998, Aaron was ready to return to Napa Valley where now, in addition to being a consulting winemaker for a number of wineries, Aaron and his wife, Claire, have vineyard on Mount Veeder. Their Pott Wine also makes wine from several other vineyards including its La Carte et Le Territoire from two rows of Merlot and one of Cabernet Franc growing in the Young Vineyard at the end of Inglewood Lane, Saint Helena. The soil here is rocky; it is an alluvial fan vineyard.
Aaron calls Merlot a very humid-loving grape and observes that we live in a very, very dry climate–France is much more hot and humid than California. Aaron feels that lower humidity diminishes Merlot characteristics but cooler weather benefits them. He doesn‘t mind floral characters, especially in Cabernet Franc, with its notes of violet, cedar, blueberry. He admits to not being a big leaf-puller (to manage canopy) and judges ripeness by the taste of the berries in the field. Napa Valley rain and fog give a softness to the varieties, and his experiences in France and here enable Aaron to advise on widely different vintages. The Merlot is picked two weeks ahead of the Cabernet Franc. The 2010 vintage reminds him of France; 2011 was equal to his worst Bordeaux experiences; the 2012 is an ideal vintage for this area, especially for Cabernet Franc with its cooler vintage–there was absolutely no raisining. Aaron says Merlot and Cabernet Franc are his two most favorite varieties: “my loves, easy-going Bordeaux varieties that practically grow themselves.” In 2012, Food and Wine Magazine named Aaron its “Winemaker of the Year.
Gilles then commented on Saint-Émilion and Pomerol garagistes who we may have thought of as making do, but were full of experimentation: plastic tarps between rows to prevent dilution by rain of the grapes‘ juice–wines from which were later excluded from the AOC system. (Our own “garagistes” even used leaf blowers as well as helicopters to dry the grapes after late rains.)
A hallmark of innovation came with Opus One in 1979: the first official joint venture between Napa and France. Gilles says it brought much in the way of innovation to the Valley: changes in vine density, over-the-row tractors. The venture, between Mouton Rothschild and Robert Mondavi Winery (RMW) was a true blend of winegrowing and winemaking techniques. The first Chef de Caves, the third generation in his family, for instance, worked half the time in France, half the time in Oakville. Gilles then introduced Michael Silacci.
Michael says proudly that he grew up in Gilroy–a real farming community. His grandparents were from Switzerland and he has worked harvest in the Loire Valley—meaning Michael‘s international approach to understanding the world began at an early age. He took an undergraduate degree in enology from UC Davis and the University of Bordeaux and a graduate degree in viticulture from UC Davis. After a Bordelais apprenticeship, Michael was at Beaulieu Vineyards for six years, three with André Tchelistcheff, its then consulting winemaker. Michael spent the next year as winemaker at the King Estate in Oregon and then six years as winemaker at Stag‘s Leap Wine Cellars. In 2001, Michael joined Opus One (OO) as a team leader–its director of viticulture and enology. The wines Michael poured were:
Opus One; Michael Silacci, winemaker
2005 Opus One, Napa Valley
proprietary red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon 88%, Merlot 5%, Petit Verdot 3%, Cabernet Franc 3%, Malbec 1%
22,500 cases; 14% alcohol
2007 Opus One, Napa Valley
proprietary red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon 79%, Merlot 8%, Petit Verdot 6%, Cabernet Franc 6%, Malbec 1%
17,500 cases; 14.7% alcohol
2011 Opus One, Napa Valley
proprietary red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon 71%, Merlot 11%, Petit Verdot 9%, Cabernet Franc 8%, Malbec 1%
23,300 cases; 14% alcohol
Part of terroir is also people, affirms Michael. He recalled Gilles, as head of wine education for Meadowood Resort, bringing people to OO. On one occasion he told Michael, ’My guests are in their 80s; could we have a brief tour? One is a museum director.‘ The brief tour included an assistant‘s office where artwork for a label for olive oil was hanging, submitted by the children of OO employees. Michael said the guests all felt like they were with Ponce de Leon at the Fountain of Youth!
At OO Michael says they make wine so it gives a sense of time (with its season, flavor, aroma) and place (by its structure). This had come home to him in spending time in the vineyards of Stags Leap, of Fay.
The joint venture of Opus One came about from Baron Philippe de Rothschild‘s interest in making a new wine that was most expressive of place. He had visited California and met Robert Mondavi in Santa Barbara. In 1970 they met again in Maui. The Baron thought they would be ideal partners and in 1978 invited Robert to Pauillac. The American entrepreneur had worried he had been forgotten, but not at all. The two spent time tasting and visiting at the château (bought by the family in 1853), for the Baron needed to know if the two could get along. After dinner the Baron asked that Robert to come to his office–which was his bedroom, and he was in bed!
Robert and the Baron agreed to grow the classic Bordeaux red varieties to reflect Pauillac and Oakville and a wine that would bring what was unique and different from the two partners. The wine was to be made by Mouton Rothschild‘s winemaker Lucien Sionneau and that of RMW, Robert‘s son Tim Mondavi. Their first vintage was the 1979. In 1984 Lucien Sionneau retired and Patrick Léon took Lucien‘s place. After the death of the Baron in 1988, his daughter, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild
took over the family‘s wine interests. Under her leadership the Opus One winery was opened in 1991. In 2001, Michael was invited to join OO as its director of viticulture and viniculture. He says he decided “yes” beneath his hat, smoking a cigar, floating down a river in an inner tube. In 2004, he was made winemaker at OO—singly responsible for all its vines and wines
When Michael joined Opus One, he very much joined everyone as part of a team. He says he was the dove between viticulture and viniculture both here and in France, as there was tension between the two estates‘ practices. But he says there was and is a lot of cross-pollination–between Pauillac and Napa, and among OO and RMW. Opus used five-year aged staves one year and the next, all of Robert Mondavi Winery followed suit. The “T-5” barrel from Tarransaud was a similar innovation. And Michael and his vineyard workers spent so much time discussing and identifying powdered mildew, they were able to write a handbook. Each worker continues to be rewarded for finding evidence of mildew or botrytis in the vineyard—here and in France.
When RMW was sold to Constellation Brands, Inc., the Baroness did not exercise her right of first refusal and in 2005, Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA reached an accord with Constellation Brands, Inc. Each would own 50% of OO. Michael called the accord and its resultant reorganization a catalyst for independence. Public relations, marketing–many aspects were improved. It has been a rewarding partnership. Certain traditions are unchanged, however: Tuesday is still doughnut day, à la RMW.
Opus One is dedicated to the concept of wine giving one a sense of time and place. There are four estate vineyards, two at OO. “North,” the Q block of ToKalon came from RMW in 1981 (densely replanted in 1995), “River” in 1983, “Ballestra” in 1984, and “South,” the ToKalon K Block in 2008. Michael asked a soils scientist from Cheval Blanc to test the soils and he turned the vineyards into Swiss cheese as he mapped vineyard soil types.
Irrigation is a very big deal in Napa. In 2002 Michael‘s team asked themselves: how can we approach the rainfall of Bordeaux in Napa Valley? And, what is an expression of place? Michael‘s work with Warren at Stag‘s Leap Wine Cellars taught him the responsibility of adding back. OO extended the time between irrigations, but with more water at each time. Michael says the vine roots went deeper and OO used 40% less water! The team does add water just before bud break, and compost. The vineyards are farmed organically, ToKalon “South” biodynamically. Extensive clonal trials have also been held to find the optimum vines for Opus One as well as careful yeast culturing with a French microbiologist to find the best strains on the fruit for native yeast fermentation.
Michael is very aware of seasonal change and what he calls “vineyard-centricity.” Each of the blocks has its own character and, for Michael, regality. He laughingly recalled a harvest at Stag‘s Leap Wine Cellar when all the tanks to hold small lots of wine were full and some must had to be fermented in a cubic tank. Warren was worried; Michael thought, ’Why? The queen is still the queen even when she‘s riding in a clunker.‘
The best you can put in the vineyard, counsels Michael, is your own two feet. You need to spend a lot of time in the vineyard, a steady amount each day. At veraison, you move through the fresh fruit stage to a neutrality and then finally ripe fruit. Blending, which he looks forward to, is done in February and March. It brings layering, complexity, harmony to the finished wine.
Michael characterizes the 2005 as a most classic vintage; the 2007 as very California: a warm growing season with lower yields at harvest. OO let remaining berries ripen; the 2007 has a freshness akin to the stems of roses and their petals; the 2011 came from a cooler, wetter vintage—similar to a French Bordelais harvest.
Q & A‘s
There was time for only one question from the audience:
Warren Winiarski asked, ’As psychologists, thinking of an end, registered in the soul of the folks who drink your wine, is there a different image of this soul for the blend, for the ones who buy and taste this wine?
Aaron: I‘m about terroir, not souls
Dawnine: I think of style versus single vineyard, the soul of the place, centuries of experience.
Jean-Charles: First is to play at the generic level and then further refinements. Since 52% of our wine is sold out of the United States we are talking about a global soul.
In conclusion, Gilles reminded us that wine is one of the few products that connect you to a time and place. Making it requires energy, and cannot be standardized. We all must step back and learn to appreciate wine‘s diversity.
We all then repaired to Raymond Vineyards for a splendid al fresco lunch beneath the plane trees of The Grove. Jean-Charles gave us a very warm welcome and led us in another go at “Tra-la-la.” Executive chef Michel Cornu then introduced each course and spent time at each table discussing his superlative dishes. The gardens and hencoop of Raymond Vineyards provided most of the produce; the cheeses concluding our lunch, however, were Burgundian.