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Picking at the Peak of Flavor: Opus One’s Michael Silacci on Making Elegant, Balanced Wines

Editor’s Note: This past fall I had the pleasure of participating in the grape harvest in the Napa Valley, one of the most appealing wine regions anywhere. Rather than simply wine touring, I sought to get a deeper understanding of the process of winemaking by participating in the harvest, shadowing Warren Winiarski of Arcadia Vineyard, Michael Silacci of Opus One and Chris Howell of Cain Vineyard and Winery to learn the secrets of making exceptional wine.  It was a fascinating and enlightening experience, learning how they sampled the fruit, made the critical decision to pick, brought in the fruit and carefully crushed and fermented it. In addition, I dined at wonderful restaurants, stayed in lovely hotels and met some fascinating characters. The following stories feature the highlights of the Napa Harvest—the insights, surprises and lessons learned along the way.
Nicholas O’Connell, MFA, Ph.D. is a freelance writer and founder of The Writer’s Workshop. He will teach a Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Tuscany (May 20-26)

After visiting Arcadia Vineyards and seeing how Warren Winiarski picks his grapes, I head for Opus One Winery, one of the most prestigious in the Napa Valley. Opus boasts a remarkable pedigree. It opened in 1991, a joint venture between Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and Robert Mondavi of Robert Mondavi Winery, two of the best-known winemakers in the world. Throughout its history, Opus has sought to produce wines of elegance and grace, a counterweight to some of the bigger, more alcoholic Cabernets coming out of California.
Michael Silacci, the winemaker at Opus, once worked for Warren Winiarski at Stag’s Leap, demonstrating the stylistic connection between them. Both winemakers prefer elegant, balanced wines that pair well with food.
I arrive at Opus at 5:30 a.m., the sky still filled with stars. After parking in the lot behind the winery, I spot Michael Silacci, a genial man wearing a pile vest, blue jeans and hiking boots. Silacci plans to take me and several others on a harvest experience, an extremely detailed, hands on tour of Opus One and its vineyards.
He drives out to the Tu Kalon Vineyard where workers are hand-picking Cabernet grapes. Silacci explains that he strives to treat the grapes gently throughout the harvest, ensuring they produce the highest quality wine.
After a quick trip to nearby Bouchon Bakery to grab pastries and coffee, we head to the next block to see if it’s ready for picking. We head down the rows, plucking berries and popping them into our mouths. We analyze the berries for acidity, seed color, pluckability and flavor. We’re looking for the peak of flavor.
I try to identify the flavors and characteristics that indicate that the grapes are ready to pick. My mouth becomes dry from the grape tannins, but I start to notice some of the qualities he’s looking for. The fruit seems close to its peak, but that decision will be made by Silacci and his team. “It’s like when you’re driving,” he says. “You have a blind spot. I have a great team so they help me avoid blind spots.”
The sun is up by the time we arrive back at Opus to see the grapes being crushed and fermented. The care and attention to the fruit at each stage is impressive. When the grapes come in from the vineyard, they are hand sorted at a shaker table, workers removing any stray leaves and the occasional black widow spider. A conveyor belt sends them up a ramp called “the stairway to heaven” because these delectable berries are close to making the cut for Opus. A machine removes stems and sorts the grapes by size before they are fed into the crusher.
Then they are transported to a stainless steel fermenting tank where they’re transformed into wine, an exciting journey I’ll explore in later posts.

Note: The preceding story is an excerpt from the forthcoming Crush: Apprenticeship in the Wine Trade by Nicholas O’Connell, M.F.A, Ph.D. He is the author of four books and contributes to  Newsweek, Gourmet, Saveur, Outside, GO, National Geographic Adventure, Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sierra, and many other places. He is the founder of the online and Seattle-based writing program,www.thewritersworkshop.net.

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