I read that you graduated from high school in Gilroy CA, then traveled the world a few years to decide what you wanted to do for a career before starting college. Can you share more about where on these travels you knew winemaking was your dream?
I arrived in Paris able to say “Bon Voyage” in French. Someone told me that if I wanted to learn to speak French, eat well, and earn some money I should pick grapes. I got my hair cut, borrowed a car, and drove just south of Nantes to the Muscadet wine region. I was offered a job picking grapes at the Louis Métaireau Grand Mouton Domain, where I fell in love with two-hour lunches and wine.
What was your first wine job?
My first full-time job was at Beaulieu Vineyard. Although I had four different positions over the six-plus years I was there, they focused mostly on viticulture.
Where have you worked over the years which led to your current role at Opus One?
One of the most fulfilling jobs I had was as an intern working with fellow student Christophe Ollivier under the guidance of Denis Dubourdieu. Since we had just earned our diplomas at the Institute of Enology at the University of Bordeaux, Denis gave us a lot of latitude. I learned how to give opportunities and trust to others and the importance of mentoring from Denis.
I left BV for my first winemaking position at King Estate. From King Estate, I went to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars where I spent time in the vineyard as well as the cellar. My first day at Opus One was on March 5, 2001, where I am getting ready for my twentieth vintage.
Can you share more stylistically about Opus One Wines? For those who haven’t had a chance to enjoy, can you share why they’re so spectacular?
Opus One is a classic red wine made from Bordeaux varieties. Each vintage reflects time and place. Seventy percent of the vineyards are in the To Kalon Vineyard and thirty percent are on the To Kalon Fan. This place is the key to the quality and “style” of our wines. Equally important are the people who tend the vines and address their needs. Other than the fact we strive to follow the vision of Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Mr. Robert Mondavi to make classic wines that can be shared with friends and family and try to leave the place better than we found it, this is not about an expression of personality. It is an expression of place.
Of all the years you’ve made Opus One Wines (since 2001), is there a favorite or most memorable vintage you’ve made and why?
My favorite vintage of Opus One is the one that shows well in the moment at a dinner or at a tasting. The 2010 vintage is my most memorable. It was like being in an Aikido match with Mother Nature. We just tried to diffuse her aggression at every turn.
As a winemaker, you taste (and spit) lots of wine, what wine do you feel bad about spitting because you LOVE it so much?
I feel bad about spitting any wine because someone has made enormous efforts, taken risks, and fretted over it.
What is something you’d like to share about Napa Valley and their wines that the average consumer may not be aware of?
The Napa Valley is a tight-knit community with diverse ethnic, cultural, and environmental groups. Each one is passionate about the place. Although each one believes their perspective is the right one, they know that preserving and protecting Napa Valley is a shared intent. There is a lot of sharing and mutual support amongst viticulturists, winemakers, owners, and associations in Napa Valley. As everyone’s vineyards and wines benefit by sharing knowledge and understanding, their differences are accentuated by individual choices.
Can you share more about how Opus one was inspired between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild who began their collaboration to merge old world and new world wine styles into one grand opus?
Mr. Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild created a vision of a place dedicated to the pursuit of absolute quality, the dream of these two men, and the creation of a single wine of balance, complexity, and power. Through this wine, we share the pride and passion of attaining a rare luxury, and the delight of enjoyment with friends and family. Through the stewardship of the winery and its vineyards, Opus One will endure for generations to come. Opus One is a classic wine that expresses time and place from every vintage.
In 2020, (hopefully, TBD based on the current COVID virus) Opus One will share a new hospitality center with guests. Can you share more about what guests should expect and how this will be different from your current hospitality experience?
There is always a ray of hope in despair, something positive in everything negative. We have spent the last three years creating a new Partners Room to welcome guests. During the last few months, our hospitality team has studied wine and culture in depth. They are excited to share the new space with guests. A space that is comfortable, rich in heritage and has a beautiful view of the Napa Valley. There will be diverse tastings and experiences from which guests can choose.
What was one of the biggest mistakes you have made in your winemaking career?
We had a capital project approved for a much-needed reservoir at Beaulieu. The problem was the fiscal year began on October 1, and it was too late to build the reservoir that late in the year. So, I convinced the contractors to build it in August and September and to bill us in October. Unfortunately, the parent company was having financial problems with Alpo and Pearl Vision, and they eliminated specific, approved capital projects from the budget. Among them was the reservoir. I learned that you should not hatch your chickens before you count them…
Who has been the most influential mentor in your career?
I have two: Andre Tchelistcheff and Warren Winiarski. Both were thoughtful, passionate, intellectual, emotional, tireless leaders in Napa Valley. Both challenged me to the max, and they were very giving and kind to me.
What is your favorite after-work drink?
What is your favorite local spot in Napa?
The Pole Barn on Yount Mill Road
Tell us something that would surprise people about you?
I am allergic to chocolate. When I take that first bite of good chocolate, I sneeze three to five-times depending on the quality. I do not break out in hives nor do I have any other reactions. Just a few good sneezes at first bite, then all is well.