YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Best of Two Worlds

April 10, 1986|DANIEL P. PUZO | 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.

Los Angeles Times Articles