California’s investment wines are enjoying a golden era and the US West Coast is now home to the second most expensive fine wines in the world after Burgundy. We look at one of the region’s iconic ‘cult wines’ – the product of a marriage between Bordeaux aristocracy and New World talent – Opus One.
- The Liv-ex California 50 index hit an all-time high in August 2021
- Californian investment wines account for 7% of trade share on Liv-ex in 2021
- UK remains the largest overseas market for Californian investment wines
- The Opus One index is up 33% in the last 5 years
California’s famous Opus One is the product of the shared vision of two of the most influential winemakers of all time, Chateau Mouton Rothschild’s Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Napa Valley’s Robert Mondavi. Sadly no longer with us, they have both been responsible for great innovation which will continue to shape the fine wine industry for the foreseeable future. They originally established Opus One to combine the best of Old and New World wine making expertise in one of the most sought after plots in the Napa Valley.
It all started in Hawaii at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel in 1970, where Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi met for the first time. Following years of planning, they formed a joint venture in 1980, to which Mondavi sold 35 acres from his famous To Kalon vineyard in Oakville, Napa.
The launch of Opus One, located close to the Robert Mondavi Winery, was a very significant development for the Californian fine wine industry and the first of a few landmark strategic alliances between top Bordeaux chateaux owners and a Napa Valley estate.
Chateau Mouton Rothschild’s esteemed winemaker, Lucien Sionneau, worked with Mondavi’s son, Timothy to create the first 1979 vintage with a blend of 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Merlot. This first vintage was released at the same time as the 1980 vintage and still ranks as one of the most highly prized Californian fine wine.
Opus One plants its vines densely resulting in smaller berries which the team believes heightens the intensity of aromas and flavours. Grapes are hand-harvested and then macerated for long periods in stainless steel tanks. The wine is then barrel-aged for 18 months in French oak and aged further in bottle for another 18 months.
In 1989, the iconic limestone winery was built on the estate from which it produced its first vintage in 1991, which was released onto the market in 1994. They launched their second wine, Overture in 1993.
Opus One quickly established itself as the iconic Californian ‘cult wine’ and sold widely in Europe and Asia, along with a strong US domestic market. It has taken the extraordinary step, for a Californian investment wine, to distribute via La Place de Bordeaux negociants, another initiative introduced by Baron Philippe. This has meant Opus One has been sold into broader markets earlier than the other Californian investment wines.
In 2004 Constellation Brands acquired the Robert Mondavi winery and its stake in Opus One. Following which, it was agreed that Opus One should be managed independently from the two original JV partners with winemaking, sales and administration done locally, further establishing the unique personality of Opus One, whilst remaining true to the founders’ vision.
David Pearson, CEO of Opus One explained in an interview with Liv-ex in 2016 that developments at the estate have been done in keeping with the original aims and have included replanting of vines and integrating new farming practices, including irrigation techniques. When asked his opinion on the increasing prices achieved by Californian fine wines, he stated that “there is a great recognition and appreciation for the quality of the wines of California and Napa” and that when asked about the sustainability of pricing levels, he explained that this is “because it is based on the market’s and customers’ true assessment of quality”.
Opus One wines are consistently highly scored by international critics and, with the potential to enjoy similar fine wine investment performance to Bordeaux First Growths, many collectors look to diversify their fine wine portfolios with the wines created by the legendary partnership of the late great Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi.
“Wine to me is passion. It’s family and friends. It’s warmth of heart and generosity of spirit.” – Robert Mondavi.