Volume 14
An Online Literary Magazine
January 30, 2020


The Place Made the Wine


Nick O’Connell


Michael Silacci


t's 5:30 a.m. at Opus One and the sky is dark and filled with stars. I punch the gate code. Engines whir and the designer metal gate creaks open, allowing me to enter one of the most prestigious wineries in Napa. I pass rows of carefully pruned olive trees and manicured lawns. An immense circular building rises out of the vineyard, combining classical European and contemporary California architecture. Olive trees and limestone colonnades frame the big wooden door at the official entrance. California redwood, stainless-steel, and cream-colored Texas limestone blend to create a structure that looks like a contemporary French chateau. The façade is elegant, refined, and classical, just like the wine made here.


But I won’t be entering by the front door. I’m here to work and learn about wine making from the ground up. I keep driving and find a parking lot out back behind a cinder block wall, industrial form and function replacing the refined façade. This is the back end of the winery, where the physical work takes place.


In the course of the day, I’ll have the chance to observe workers picking the fruit in the early morning for optimal treatment, take a detailed tour of the inner workings of the winery, and see the techniques used to grow its celebrated grapes. All the techniques help to create a wine that expresses a powerful sense of place.


After the tour, I head back to the lab or “fish bowl,” an enclosed windowed lab where we’ll taste some recent vintages to enjoy the results of all the care lavished on the fruit.


Winemaker Michael Silacci takes out wine glasses and small covers for them. He uncorks a bottle of the 2010 Opus and pours it into the glasses. He places the cover over the glass and swirls the liquid around to release its aromas. “What does this remind you of?” he says, taking off the cover. I sniff the liquid.


“I’m getting dark fruits and spice,” he says.


“Yes,” I say. “I’m getting chocolate, too.”


We put the covers back on and swirl the glasses again. When we sniff again, we get an even stronger whiff of the wine.


“Taste is smell,” he says, taking a sip. “I’m getting some dark bitter chocolate with a long-lasting finish like church bells at the Vatican.”


I laugh at the exactness of the image. I take a sip and swirl it around in my mouth. The wine fulfills the promise of the aroma—deep, rich, bursting with dark fruits, chocolate, crushed herbs, and a pleasing minerality in the finish that lingers like the tintinnabulations of church bells.


Next, Silacci pours the 2012. We cover the glasses and swirl the wine. When we take off the covers, we sniff. Dark fruit seems more dominant in this vintage, with a similar aroma and taste profile to the 2010, but with its own distinctive mix of elements.


“Just one word,” Silacci says. “Yummy!”


I nod and continue to smell, swirl, and sample, caught up in the magic unfolding in the glass. The wine reveals the care, work, and planning I’ve witnessed today. I compliment him on the wine.


“Thank you,” he says. “But it’s not about me or the team. It’s about the place. It’s about the vineyard.”


Taking one last sip, I get ready to leave. This has been one of the most detailed and comprehensive visits I’ve experienced, including ones to first-growth French wineries like Château Mouton Rothschild, Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Latour, and Château d’Yquem. There’s an energy, vitality, and, yes, “joie de vivre” at Opus that reflects his leadership. When I mention this, he deflects the praise. “Whenever I feel cocky, I remind myself that 80 percent of the wine quality comes from the vineyard,” he says, swirling the wine around in the glass. “I think about the 1945 Bordeaux, one of the greatest vintages.”


With everyone else at war then, the young and old pitched in to pick the grapes and stem and crush the fruit. With such minimal intervention, the wine might have been forgettable but since the grapes came from Bordeaux, the results were fantastic. As Silacci says, “The place made the wine.”



Nicholas O’Connell, M.F.A, Ph.D., is the author of The Storms of Denali (University of Alaska Press, 2012), On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature (U.W. Press, 2003), At the Field’s End: Interviews with 22 Pacific Northwest Writers (U.W. Press, 1998), Contemporary Ecofiction (Charles Scribner’s, 1996) and Beyond Risk: Conversations with Climbers (Mountaineers, 1993). He contributes to Newsweek, Gourmet, Saveur, Outside, GO, National Geographic Adventure, Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sierra, The Wine Spectator, Commonweal, Image, Rock + Ice and many other places. He is the publisher/editor of The Writer’s Workshop Review and the founder of the online and Seattle-based writing program,( http://www.thewritersworkshop.net)




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