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Opus One: interview with Michael Silacci

When Opus One – the bold joint venture to create a first-growth Bordeaux wine in California – was criticised for inconsistency, the owners knew they had to act fast. stephen brook meets the man charged with taking this super-cuvée to the next level

Looking back over the 30 years since the first vintage of Opus One, it is hard to appreciate how bold the decision was to create Opus in the firstplace. It may not have been explicitly stated, but the goal of this joint venture between Philippe de Rothschild of Mouton-Rothschild and Robert Mondavi was to create the Californian equivalent of a Bordeaux first growth.

That is why it was not sufficient to produce a Mondavi supercuvée with input from the Mouton team; Opus needed its own vineyards and a grand winery. It took a while for Opus

to find its feet. Grapes were sourced from Mondavi while its own vineyards were

maturing, and the Opus winemakers, whether Tim Mondavi or Patrick Léon, were on loan from their parent wineries.

The wines were mostly excellent, but they had their critics, and not everyone was convinced they merited the very high prices demanded of them. But since a new winemaker, Michael Silacci, arrived in 2001, quality and style have been more consistent.

Silacci certainly had the right background, with degrees in viticulture and oenology from the University of California at Davis and University of Bordeaux, where one of his classmates had been Mouton’s current winemaker, Eric Tourbier. Moreover, his previous job had been at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, whose owner, Warren Winiarski, favoured restraint and elegance over fleshiness and weight.

It was in June 2000 that Opus first made contact with Silacci, when he was still at Stag’s Leap. ‘It was a rigorous process,’ he recalls. ‘As well as repeated screenings by the recruitment company, I had to take a personality test and was sent to France to meet Patrick Léon.

The next step was a meeting with Tim Mondavi in a restaurant, where I’d be asked to taste and discuss certain wines. This alarmed me – meeting in a public place would encourage gossip that I was being hired by Opus. So we met in a private room at the restaurant.

‘None of this fazed me, as I had been through a similar process with Warren. I had many interviews with him, and he’d usually give me some homework, in the form of bottles

of Stag’s Leap that I was to taste and then report on how they could have been improved.

Eventually Opus made a formal offer, and I gave notice to Warren.

On my last day at Stag’s Leap I was still in my office shortly before midnight; the next morning I was behind my desk at Opus.’ Silacci, clean-cut and confident but without any arrogance, seems on top of his game.

As the new but highly qualified winemaker, he was not slow to impose his authority. ‘The first thing I did was to insist that the Opus vineyard team was separated from Mondavi’s. I then gave them more responsibility for taking decisions as a team, rather than just waiting for instructions. This also made them accountable for those decisions, which helped give them pride in their work.’

Single vision, team effort

Silacci admits that it’s not always easy having to report to a joint ownership. ‘If there’s a difficulty at Opus, it is that there’s no single owner, no one at the top you can go to for a decision. There are always two sides that need to reach consensus: Constellation (the world’s largest wine company, which, acquired Mondavi in 2004) and the Mouton team.

Opus is becoming more independent of its owners, which is what they want too. We’re like young adults that have just left home, but still talk to their parents at weekends. I like taking risks, and am happy to make the difficult decisions. Of course there are people from Rothschild and Constellation that have input, but they don’t live here and they know they aren’t as close to the vineyard as the Opus team.

‘There’s a Cabernet clone we have that I don’t like. I discussed this with Eric Tourbier at Mouton, as I knew I could trust him. He recommended a clone he knew well but I didn’t, and we went with that advice. That kind of collaboration works really well here.’

In contrast to Bordeaux first growths, there is no second wine at Opus One (other than a limited-production wine called Overture, which is sold only to visitors). So Silacci has to craft a single great Bordeaux blend each year. ‘Tradition and house style are important here,’ he says, ‘but I don’t feel constrained by them.

My job, and the role of the wine, is to reflect the site and the vintage as best I can, using classic winemaking. Those are the two factors that will dictate what the wine will taste like, and my footprints should not be on it. In Napa there’s a lot of ego, and winemakers often go to extremes to make their name – that’s not something I want or need to do.’

Silacci says his aim is for balance, from vineyard to bottle. ‘The wine needs to be rich enough to withstand ageing in new oak, but I also want complexity, to hear many voices. In Napa there’s a lot of ego and winemakers often go to extremes to make their name – that’s not something I want or need to do.

We want natural winemaking, with no watering or de-alcoholising, and no acid additions. The constraints are very broad, such as the fact that I am working with the five Bordeaux varieties and with French oak. But I can work with those!’

Does he think the wines have changed since he came to Opus? ‘The wine has greater concentration and a longer finish. The wines express the vineyard and the vintage with clarity and purity, and they have fewer fingerprints on them. I believe the wine is more approachable upon release and the core is in balance with its texture and structure.’

With his experience and knowledge, his managerial skills and authority, and a relish for detail, Silacci seems to be the right man in the right place. And although great wines were made in the pre-Silacci era, since 2004 he hasn’t put a foot wrong and has turned out a succession of supremely good wines.

But is it boring making just one wine? ‘I wasn’t sure at first; I did have some doubts. But then I discovered how intense it was, and it has become almost obsessive, making all the pieces of the puzzle come together, especially as we tend to make those pieces ever smaller. Our team here is trained not even to consider taking short cuts where quality is concerned, and I have to set the model for that approach.’

Silacci also brings a human touch to what can seem an imperious organisation. In 2004 he organised the entire Opus staff – secretaries, accountants, lab technicians – into two teams, giving them rows of vines to farm and a tank in which to make their wine. The teams’ wines are compared and judged. If good enough, it goes into Opus. ‘It’s a great way of involving everybody in the winemaking process.’

Opus One, with its restraint and elegance, is far from the stereotype of sumptuous, super-ripe Napa Cabernets. Silacci has no problems with that. ‘I think there will be a reaction again those big jammy oaky wines. People are beginning to realise that they don’t work with food. As for Opus One, we export a third of the wine, and we can’t rely on American tastes alone. We must have international appeal.’

Written by Stephen Brook

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