by Fred McMillin
for October 9, 1998


Winery of the Week

Opus: There's Only One

Opus One Prologue

"Cabernet-based Opus One is the most celebrated wine in California history."

...James Laube, California's Great Cabernets

Let's see how it was created by two of the 20th century's greatest wine advocates, Bordeaux's Baron Philippe de Rothschild and California's Robert Gerald Mondavi.

The Roots

1820—The vineyard was known as Mouton, derived from the French "motte de terra," i.e., elevated land. Baron Hector de Brane buys Mouton, and with a neighbor introduces a variety new to the Medoc. It's called Cabernet Sauvignon.

1853—Baron Nathaniel de Rothschild, of the English branch of the family, buys Mouton, thus creating Mouton-Rothschild. (Incidentally, 15 years later his cousin, James, bought Lafite, creating Lafite-Rothschild.)

1865—Ohioan Henry Walker Crabb comes to the Napa Valley, founds Oakville, and develops a great, 360-acre vineyard. He names it To-Kalon, (tow), explaining it is taken from the Greek to indicate "the highest" or the "boss vineyard."

1902—Baron Philippe is born into wealth in Paris, destined to inherit one of the world's great vineyard-wineries.

1913—Robert Mondavi is born in Ely, Minn. ,five years after his parents arrived from Italy. His father, Cesare, is working with pick and shovel in an iron-ore mine. The odds that Robert and Philippe will some day join in creating a $20 million winery were at least 20 million to 1. But it happened. Let's fast-forward to 1966.

1966—Robert Mondavi establishes his own winery in Oakville and buys the To-Kalon vineyard.

1978—Philippe invites Robert to Bordeaux to discuss a joint winery in the Napa Valley. Robert: "In 25 minutes we agreed on a plan."

1981—They want prime Cabernet land, so they purchase 35 acres of the Mondavi To-Kalonvineyard.

1992—Outsider Australian critic James Halliday summarizes what's been achieved. About the design of the winery, "any winemaker in the world would acknowledge that working conditions are perfect." As to the results, "Opus One is one of California's truly great Cabernets." The 1995 is about $100.


Whence the name? To avoid deciding between French and English, Philippe proposed the Latin noun for "a work," OPUS, such as a musical composition. When Robert wanted a bit more pizzaz, Philippe added "ONE," as in a composer's first work. That did it.

Note—If you have questions, phone Cathy Ebbeson at (707) 944-9442.

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.



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