Opus One At Cheesetique

If you haven’t visited Cheesetique, you’re missing out. While a second location is in Shirlington the OG store is located in Del Ray, part of a row of cute of mom-and-pop restaurants and boutique stores.

One of my favorite evening events are their wine and cheese pairings, which have been on pause since COVID. But while avidly waiting for their return I saw Cheesetique post an event that might be better – the chance to try a flight of Opus One wines.

If you like to drink fancy red wine but never heard of Opus One…you might be living under a rock. For many years an Opus One wine held the record as the most expensive California wine ever sold. Even new releases go for almost $400 a bottle.

So when owner Jill Erber kicked off the event by describing Opus One as “One of the world’s most iconic wines” she wasn’t joking.

While often described as Cabernets Sauvignons, in truth they are left-bank style Bordeaux blends, often using all five noble red grapes. Cab Sauv comprises around 76-86% of the wine, depending on the vintage.

I went in expecting a wine tasting (and some bite-sized snacks). What I didn’t know is that I was getting a full history lesson, as told by one of their brand ambassadors, Emmanuel Padilla.

A Brief History of Opus One

The story of Opus One is really the story of two of the wine industry’s greatest marketers and innovators; Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild.

Both came from famous wine families. Robert was the first person to open a winery in California since prohibition and went on to become known as the ‘father of California wine’. Baron came from the family that owned Château Mouton Rothschild, the only estate to be accepted as a “First Growth” Bordeaux winery after the initial Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855.

But their legacies were cemented by their ability to bring wine to the masses. In an era where it was customary for vineyards to sell to middlemen, both realized they could increase their profitability and control quality by bottling their own wine and selling it directly to the public.

Both also pioneered the use of lower-cost wine brands in conjunction with their premium ones, so people could have a taste of Napa or Bordeaux without breaking the bank. “Luxury should not be unapproachable,” explained Emmanuel.

It was the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” that brought these men together. This event saw a pair of Napa wines take top honors in a blind tasting (beating one of Baron’s own wines), heralding the ‘arrival’ of Napa in the wine world. Baron realized California was a huge business opportunity, so in 1979 he partnered with Robert with the goal of creating an ultra-premium brand.

Opus One was the fruits of their labor, with the first vintage being produced in 1982.

The Difference Between Bordeaux and Napa

After our history lesson, Emmanuel discussed Opus One’s philosophy. This includes being able to drink your wine immediately, not wait years (sometimes decades) for the wine to settle down. “What are we known for in America?” Robert asked the audience. “Impatience!”

Emmanuel spoke about the scores they’ve earned from the fancy wine magazines but he didn’t dwell on them, comparing wine critics with music critics. After all, Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest rock bands of all time. But were they appreciated when they were touring? No!

He also went into detail about wine growing at Opus One and climate change as a whole. Opus One’s vines point true north to minimize the sun exposure, as they want a longer, cooler ripening season than a fast one that will cause their grapes to bake. Listening to this put me in wine-geek heaven.

Fire (and smoke taint) is another growing problem. While Opus One already harvested their grapes before the 2020 Napa fires broke out, they knew the reputation of a ‘smoke vintage’ could damage the brand. While Emmanuel loves their 2020 vintage, he wasn’t optimistic an Opus One flagship wine would be released from it.

It may seem all we did was listen to Emmanuel talk, in truth we were tasting wine the entire time. Four wines were poured over the course of the evening; three of their flagship “Opus One” wines and a wine from their second label, Overture. This being Cheesetique, of course we had small snacks to go with everything.

The wines:

  1. 2012 Opus One. Expressive nose; rich but not overpowering. Lots of dark fruit with a touch of granite. Blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec.
  2. 2017 Opus One. Similar tasting notes but I thought with more complexity. Bottled sold at this particular event were in magnum, which (I didn’t know) increases their age-ability. 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Merlot.
  3. 2019 Opus One. Initially I felt this was an obviously young wine but I quickly changed my mind. Complex but still with a nice fruit profile. Reminded me of what the 2012 would have tasted like in its youth. I later realized it had a similar blend; 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec.
  4. Opus One Overture (NV). More approachable. Rounder. From more ripe fruit. This wine could be aged but is really meant to be enjoyed sooner.

I was really lucky to make this event; it sold out in 2 hours but my name was called from the waiting list. For those who weren’t as lucky there will be another event this summer.

Not only will you have the chance to taste these wines, you’ll be able to buy bottles at a comparative discount (but of course still ridiculously high…because it’s Opus One).

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