Of the great European wine families, the Rothschilds are perhaps the best known. And Baron Philippe de Rothschild is perhaps the best known of this great family. At the age of 20, Baron Philippe took on the management of Château Mouton Rothschild from his father Baron Henri.
Philippe’s vision changed the world of wine: he invented Château bottling, commissioned great artists to illustrate his wine labels – and, in partnership with Robert Mondavi in 1979, created Opus One.
In the 1980s, after her father’s death, Baroness Philippine de Rothschild left a stage career that included the Comédie Française and the Renault-Barrault Theatre Company, bringing her own exquisite style and creativity to the design, construction, and operation of Opus One.
Among great New World wine pioneers, Robert Mondavi is an international icon. Bringing a passion for excellence to everything he did, Robert Mondavi led a renaissance in California fine wine for over six decades. Among other accomplishments, he introduced temperature-controlled fermentation, French oak barrel aging, and high-density viticulture to a fledgling American wine industry. But life was not only wine for Robert Mondavi: he broadened the American cultural palate by marrying fine wine to food, music, and the arts. One of few Americans to have received the French medal of the Legion of Honor, Robert Mondavi showed extraordinary vision as co-founder of Opus One.
Château Mouton Rothschild winemaker Lucien Sionneau and Robert Mondavi’s son Timothy made the partnership’s first vintage at the Robert Mondavi Winery in 1979. The following year the partners officially announced their joint venture.
In 1981 a single case of the joint venture wine sold for $24,000 at the first Napa Valley Wine Auction – the highest price ever paid for a California wine. In 1982 Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild began label design. The partners agreed to choose a name of Latin origin for the joint venture, allowing for easy recognition in both English and French.
Baron Philippe announced his choice, “Opus,” a musical expression denoting the first masterwork of a composer. Two days later he proposed an additional word: “Opus One”.
The 1979 and 1980 vintages were simultaneously unveiled in 1984 as Opus One’s first release. Opus One then became known as America’s first ultra-premium wine, establishing a category of wine priced by the bottle at $50 and above.
Following Lucien Sionneau’s retirement in 1985, Patrick Léon joined Château Mouton Rothschild as winemaker and Timothy Mondavi as co-winemaker of Opus One.
Three years later, Baron Philippe de Rothschild died in France at the age of 85; and Baroness Philippine de Rothschild took the reins of the family wine business.
This same year Opus One exported a share of its 1985 vintage – and became the first ultra-premium California wine to be sold in France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland. International demand for the wine continued, and in 1999 Opus One celebrated its 20th anniversary by holding vertical tastings and gala dinners in Oakville, New York, Paris and London. In 2001 the release of its 20th vintage – the 1998 – was met with gala events in Tokyo and Hong Kong.
The winery’s board of directors appointed David Pearson CEO in 2004, the first person singly responsible for Opus One. Michael Silacci was thereafter named winemaker, the first to assume full responsibility for viticulture and winemaking.
Constellation Brands, Inc. purchased Robert Mondavi Corporation and assumed 50% ownership of Opus One in 2005. Baroness Philippine de Rothschild and then Constellation Brands President and COO Robert Sands announced the Opus One Accord between Baron Philippe de Rothschild, S.A. and Constellation Brands, Inc. Opus One assumed operating independence in three key areas: vineyard management, domestic and international sales, and administration.
In 1984, Baron Philippe, his daughter Philippine and Robert Mondavi selected Scott Johnson of Johnson, Fain & Pereira as design architect for the Opus One winery. In July of 1989, groundbreaking for the new winery took place; and the construction of the facility was completed in 1991. That year Baroness Philippine de Rothschild and the Robert Mondavi family gathered to celebrate their first harvest at Opus One. A wine of subtlety and grace, Opus One doesn’t rush to reveal itself; and neither does the winery. The building literally rises out of the earth, and through a mix of classical European and contemporary Californian elements, gradually discloses its distinctive beauty.
Defined by colonnades on either side, a central courtyard introduces an architectural motif found throughout the building. The winery, like the wine, joins New World and Old World aesthetics. Modern materials – California redwood and stainless steel – are juxtaposed against cream-colored Texas limestone.
The quiet profile of Opus One blends with the natural surroundings – the vineyards and rolling hills of the Napa Valley. And just as it honors the land, it honors the light.
In the Salon, the winery’s most formal space, eighteenth-century Italian opera chairs face contemporary chenille sofas and suede seating. Brightly-glazed, modern ceramics line a fifteenth-century limestone mantel. A room furnished with seeming contradictions, the Salon is a deft merging of Old and New World sensibilities. As elsewhere in Opus One, hand-plastered walls and ceilings are finished with a gesso of pale yet luminous yellow.
The Eastern perspective that an object and the space around it are of equal importance is reflected in the balustrade of the spiral stairway. The balusters are “cast” in negative space. Similarly, the winery itself is integrated into the land around it. The building’s architect, Scott Johnson, refers to Opus One as being “introverted, like a jewel box.” Its hemispheric form nestles in the earth and is surrounded by a grassy berm.
The Rotunda, with its glazed yellow interior, has an inviting, comfortable ambiance. At its center, softly dappled light pours through a pyramidal skylight, illuminating the spiral stairway that leads down to the Gallery — the main entry to the cellar level of Opus One.
The stairwell, like the upper level of the winery, has a formal feeling, even though contemporary, light and understated. One element of style that helps create this elegant mood is the use of mirror images – a device consistently used in classical European architecture.
The descent from the naturally lit Rotunda to the dimly lit subterranean level is dramatic – and purposeful. The wine is aged on the lower level in the cool of the winery’s cellars. At the foot of the bright stairwell, a faint scent of oak greets the senses for the first time.
A lush orchid is in bloom on a round table at the center of the stairwell. Scentless orchids are placed throughout Opus One. These exquisite flowers complement the winery without interfering with the winemaking.
On the lower level of Opus One, classic metal sconces focus parabolas of light against the stark walls of the Gallery. Just on the other side of those walls, the wine begins its second year of barrel aging in ideal cellar conditions.
An allée leads out from the Gallery, and the architecture ushers guests toward the heart of the winery – the Opus One Tasting Room. Beyond its glass walls an entire vintage of Opus One rests in the Grand Chai, the cool, semi-circular cellar that lies directly under the sheltering earthen berm.
One thousand barrels are arranged side by side in the Grand Chai, where the wine is nurtured and aged in new French oak during the first year of its life. Seen from its center, the Grand Chai appears to curve into infinity. The room is actually a semicircle, like the courtyard above it.