Winemaker Q&A: Cooper Evaluations

We are debuting new feature on the Barrel Blog—up-close and personal Q&A’s with winemakers. These will be mostly winemaking questions, with somewhat of an emphasis on oak, though we can’t resist the occasional fun fact.

Our first correspondent is from a winery that has held cooper evaluations since the 1980s. Who better to comment on barrel trials?

He is also allergic to chocolate and sneezes after a first bite of it (quelle horreur!), though the wines he crafts with his team do express some chocolate notes.

Winemaker Michael Silacci has been at Opus One for twelve years. At Opus One, he continues the work of founders Baron Phillippine de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi, harmonizing the connection between viticulture and winemaking.

Michael Silacci

Silacci previously was winemaker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, King Estate in Oregon, and Beaulieu Vineyard. Additional winemaking details can be found on the Opus One site.

Seguin Moreau: Why are new barrels important to the winemaking process and wine quality?

Michael Silacci: Barrels have the second biggest impact on wine quality after grape quality. It is important that barrels impact the wine at the nuance level. Oak should be a pedestal upon which the wine is placed and expresses the site and the grape varieties.

Seguin Moreau: Please describe your current system of cooper evaluation.

Michael Silacci: We meet with each of our 12 coopers from February to May each year one-by-one to evaluate the impact of their barrels on the current wine in barrel. The Cooper Evaluation Tasting is a blind tasting of the Opus One blend in barrels from each of the 12 coopers with two additional samples. One is a blend of all 12, and it is clearly labeled and placed at the end of the lineup. The second is the blend aged in a once-used barrel.

Seguin Moreau: Why do you do it this way and how did you develop this process?

Michael Silacci: It is a great opportunity to nurture and strengthen our relationships with each cooper. The coopers are able to see how well their barrels are performing in the current vintage and to reflect upon how they have done in the past. The timing of the tastings allows us to observe how the wine is aging in barrel and to determine when to remove it from the barrel for final blending. The Cooper Evaluation has been in place since the 1980’s.

Seguin Moreau: What have you learned during your years of cooper evaluation?

Michael Silacci: The coopers are key members of our team. The understanding they have of Opus One is critical to our success. Most coopers provide us with barrels which truly blend into and support the wine. A few make barrels that accentuate specific characteristics of French oak in the wine. These barrels are usually ordered in smaller quantities. They are essential to wine quality and their use impacts at the nuance level. Coopers pay the same amount of attention to detail as we do in viticulture and winemaking. We share the same passion and focus.

Seguin Moreau: How does the process help you work with the individual coopers?

Michael Silacci: The process helps the individual coopers align with our objectives. We make just one wine, and the coopers taste the expression of time and place that each vintage brings. Our focus allows each cooper to focus and pay attention to the details of their craftsmanship and how it supports our wine, much like the aforementioned pedestal.

Seguin Moreau: How does the process help you to match specific barrels to vineyard blocks or varietals?

Michael Silacci: Although we farm as if each block was going into a vineyard-designated wine, Opus One is a proprietary blend. The blend is made during February and March after the harvest. We blend whenever we have the opportunity for integration and complexity. We blend Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from each of our four estate vineyards in tank. We co-ferment Petit Verdot with our best Cabernet Sauvignon. In essence, the cooper evaluation process helps us with the sum, not simply the components.

Merci beaucoup, Michael!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *