OAKVILLE — In these austere times, it might seem strange that a brand-new multimillion-dollar winery, devoted to the production of a single, very expensive wine, should have opened here two weeks ago. Opus One sells for $63 a bottle. That's $63 for one bottle--and not a rare old bottle, but the most recent vintage.
A lot of people have a hard time understanding how any wine could be worth more than $10. Those who have discovered the attractions of great wine, however, live to get their hands on it--no matter what the price. A lot of them are not even wealthy, merely mildly insane and prepared to spend their money on wine instead of, say, shoes.
For these big spenders, Opus One has been a wine to covet since it was announced 12 years ago. The price has been startlingly high right from the first day it was offered. Call it the grandest gimmick wine of all time if you want, but Opus One is quite unlike anything in the history of the Napa Valley, perhaps in the history of wine itself.
For one thing, it's the product of two immense egos, Robert Mondavi and the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Considering that winemakers rarely agree on anything, accord between these two would seem to be a monument to harmony and perhaps even world peace.
Opus One also adds an element of history and heritage to California winemaking--a melding of California grapes and French tradition. Cabernets such as Beaulieu Vineyard's Georges de Latour Private Reserve, Ridge Monte Bello, Heitz Martha's Vineyard, Beringer Reserve and Caymus Special Selection are beginning to accumulate a certain heritage. But only Opus has Bob and the Baron.
It's been a big hit. Restaurateurs say that many Cabernets, including those of Beaulieu, Ridge, Heitz and Phelps, sell to wine lovers. Opus, though, sells across the board, to people who know wine and to those who know only labels and names.
Opus One came about in early 1979 when the Baron, owner of the famed Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in the Medoc region of Bordeaux, asked Mondavi whether he'd like to make a Napa Valley wine similar to Mouton as a joint project. Mondavi, never one to pass up a bold marketing idea, loved this one.
That autumn, Mondavi's son, Tim, and Patrick Leon of Mouton assembled a Cabernet-based wine from the stocks at the Mondavi winery, across the road from what is now the Opus One winery. At the time the wine was unnamed and referred to in house simply as "Napamedoc."
Opus One, bearing a label with silhouettes of both men, was released in 1984 and won awe-struck critical praise. From the first it has been viewed as a sublime and complex wine and--unlike a lot of other expensive Cabernets--always among the top wines of the vintage.
If anything was ever criticized, it was the price. Of course, with the prestigious names of Mondavi and Rothschild behind it, no one had seriously expected the wine would be cheap. The initial pricing of the first Opus One--at $50--was not shocking to those who realized that this price was partly set to gain attention.
It appears that the price, which at first seemed to have been put arbitrarily high, was a brilliant marketing move. At the time it was the most expensive California wine available (though it no longer is). The high price made Opus One stand out, and it gained a cachet few California wines have ever been able to attain.
Others have tried. For example, after years of making headlines with his Stag's Leap Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon, Warren Winiarksi put a $75 price tag on the 1985 vintage. The market didn't go for it, though, and a year later he meekly released his 1986 at $50.
In the beginning Opus One did have to weather some market resistance. A few years back it was moving so slowly it was sold to discount warehouses, which marketed it at $35.99. Today, though, it's selling all of its production (12,000 cases of the 1988) without much trouble, and you rarely find it discounted much below $58. Recently a Bay Area wine shop hung out a joking sign that read, "Opus One, regularly $63, now $62.99."
The wine itself has always been good. In the early years, because the wine was not tied to a specific vineyard site, the winemakers blended grapes from various regions to make a wine that hewed to an unwavering style.
The wine, always made at Mondavi by winemakers from both partners in the 50-50 project, was rarely as powerful as some "reserve" wines of other wineries. However, the grace and complexity of Opus One have always made it drinkable when young, unlike many of the reserves, and it has turned out to have the staying power for cellaring too. All vintages appear to be aging nicely.
Now, with a facility in which to make the wine and a vineyard of its own, Opus is no longer a wine looking for a home--it's a real winery. The striking facility cost $15 million, says project manager Stuart Harrison, but with all the equipment in place, the expenditure must have gone well over $20 million.