David Pearson, Opus One CEO

Since 2004 David Pearson has acted as CEO of Opus One, the iconic Californian estate founded as a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. Liv-ex recently caught up with Pearson to discuss his experience in the wine industry and with Opus, the distribution and market for his wines, the recently released 2013 vintage and his views on the role of Liv-ex.     

What triggered your interest in the wine industry – and what led you to Opus One? 

In the summer of 1980 during summer travels through Europe, I met a most genial French Burgundian winemaker, Armand Cottin.  When he later came to visit me at UC Davis, he told me that when I finished my degree in enology, he would invite me to come to France to learn French winemaking.  He was good to his word; I began to learn about French winemaking.  But from M. Cottin I learned mostly about the warmth and conviviality of our industry.  My road to Opus One surely was a result of the fortunate chain of events whereby through the years I worked for both Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi Winery.  Ironically, I worked for Rothschild out of New York and for Robert Mondavi based primarily in France.

What major changes have been made since your appointment to Opus in 2004?

Everything at Opus One has evolved and changed, while we have at the same time stayed true to the original vision of our founders, Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi.  We began a major replant program for our vineyards and implemented new farming practices – irrigation techniques, pruning and canopy management – while bringing new technology into the cellar – optical sorting, use of indigenous yeast cultures.  Our marketing strategy has blossomed as we began to focus on the international markets.

How have production methods changed over the past ten years? How does the quality of the wine produced now compare to the Opus of the 90s? 

We have focused on each Opus One vintage working to authentically express place and time.  Greater attention to detail in the vineyards with regard to the timing and precision of our work coupled with changes in our pruning and irrigation practices have produced earlier ripening fruit at higher quality.  Opus One wines today share the same profile and character of those of the ‘90’s, while having greater concentration.

Do you have a favourite Opus One vintage? 

No, and yes…  We always say that we love all of our children; and I do love all of the vintages of Opus One.  Yet, I can’t help but admitting to have a special feeling for the more recent vintages.  I do believe that we are making some of the finest Opus One wines these days.  And yet, I have had unforgettable experiences with the older vintages, 1980, 1981, 1987, 1996 and even the 1998 from a very challenging year.

Prices for top Californian wines have been skyrocketing over the past decade. Which factors do you believe have contributed to this? 

Quality and demand.  I am aware through my travels around the world that there is a great recognition and appreciation for the quality of the wines of California and Napa.

Do you think that pricing at the current level is sustainable?

Yes, because it is based on the market’s and consumers’ true assessment of quality.

Do you think people are buying Opus One for speculative reasons?

No, not too much.  It is clear that our older vintages have been appreciating nicely in value over the past years.  But I am particularly pleased that people are drinking and enjoying Opus One.

Opus One 2013 has been recently released. There has been considerable excitement about the quality of the vintage overall. How is Opus showing?

The 2013 Opus One has all the hallmark characteristics of a great vintage: complex and attractive character, great concentration, integration and length.  The 2013 Opus One can be enjoyed now, but looks to be able to age beautifully for a very long time.

How was the price of the 2013 determined?

We take many factors into consideration.  But most importantly we look closely at current market conditions all around the world.  Exchange rate variations have played a significant factor in our eventual market pricing over the past few years.

Who do you position Opus against? Mainly Californian producers, or premium producers globally?

We honestly do not position Opus One against any particular set of wines, Californian or global.

You were pioneering in your decision to distribute via the La Place de Bordeaux. What inspired this decision, and what are the advantages of it?

Baron Philippe de Rothschild, of course, understood the potential value of La Place de Bordeaux to Opus One and drove the decision for Opus One to make the move.  The Negociants of La Place give us a broader visibility in markets around the world.  The result is a more truly market demand driven distribution of our wine.

Opus historically had a strong following in Japan. Have your key international markets changed since moving to La Place?

Japan remains a wonderful market for Opus One.  We have so many very close friends in Japan.  However we have also increased our presence around the world.  Today we are in more than 90 countries.

What are your key strategies in promoting Opus One around the world?

It is very simple: we travel to the markets and tell the story of Opus One.  We share the passion, pride and joy that our founders felt – and today we feel – for Opus One.  Also we invite our friends to come visit us at Opus One.  The wines do the rest.

From the perspective of a producer, what is your view on the role of Liv-ex, the fine wine market?

Intelligent markets are good markets.  Informed markets create sophisticated buyers who make purchase decisions based on real and relevant data.  Markets can only be intelligent with good access to reliable information.  Liv-ex plays a central and vital role in this process.

Wine critics have and continue to provide an important source of information for wine buyers. Do you see their roles changing with the increased presence of social media?

Yes.  Social media has allowed wine consumers to communicate their opinions on wine more readily and directly with each other.  Wine critics will continue to play a central role in creating and leading the conversation on wine quality.  But today and going forward the conversation will be much more dynamic and free-flowing between the media and consumers.

The second wine of Opus One, Overture, was originally only available at the winery but is now available through retail outlets and restaurants. What led you to decide to distribute it more widely?

We have produced our second wine, Overture, since 1993 – over the years only available at the winery.  With time the reputation of the wine grew by word of mouth around the world.  Significant parallel and grey markets developed for Overture, sometimes selling the wine in ways and in places that were not ideal.  The best way for us to ensure that Overture was made available to our best customers around the world was to do it ourselves.

Opus One is run as a joint venture between Constellation Brands and Philippine de Rothschild. Where does it sit within the Constellation empire, and what has been the secret to the success of this collaboration?

The secret to the success is simple.  When Constellation acquired Robert Mondavi in 2004, they agreed with Baron Philippe de Rothschild that Opus One should be managed independently from both partners.  Winemaking, sales and administration of Opus One are all done locally and independently from each.  This has allowed Opus One to remain true to the founding partners’ vision, while further establishing the unique personality of Opus One.