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Q&A: Michael Silacci, Opus One Winery, Napa Valley

Q&A: Michael Silacci, Opus One Winery, Napa Valley
© Opus One
Michael Silacci has been with Napa Valley's Opus One winery for 11 years. Originally brought in as director of viticulture and oenology, Silacci became winemaker three years later, earning a reputation for complex and subtle winemaking that is all about the terroir.

Where did you grow up? 

I grew up in a farming community at the southern end of the Santa Clara Valley, about 80 miles south of San Francisco. Now I live in Napa proper.

How did you become a winemaker? 

I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up, so I went traveling. I went through Asia, ended up in Europe. I stopped in Switzerland, where my grandparents came from, then took off to Paris to look up a French woman I’d met in Tokyo. She told me, ‘If you want to learn French, eat well and earn money, pick some grapes.’

So I borrowed a car, got a haircut and drove out into the countryside – I was in Nantes at the time. The only French I knew was ‘Bon voyage’ and ‘I want to pick grapes.’ They hired me, and I fell in love with two-hour lunches and wine. Later, I went to school at the University of California at Davis and the University of Bordeaux.

What’s your opinion of the big, high-alcohol Napa reds?

I’ve always worked at classic wineries, and the approach is meant to express where the wine comes from and when. I find that when the fruit is picked very ripe, making high-alcohol wines, that mutes the expression of where it’s coming from. It becomes almost monolithic, as if there is just one style. That has been my concern with those wines – although some of them are incredible.

Are you a fan of the Parker system of ranking wines?

He’s done a great job at educating people who are just getting into the wine world. There are those people who need a point of reference. If people have self-confidence, they’ll say, ‘Okay, so that’s what Parker or some other critic thinks is a great wine,' but then they will go on to find what they like.

Whom do you make wine for: critics, the public or yourself?

I make wine for [Opus One founders] Robert Mondavi and Philippe de Rothschild – neither one of whom is alive today – because I believe in this philosophy of making a classic wine that tells you from when and where it came. My whole goal is for the wines I make to fit into the vintages of Opus One from ‘79 to whenever I leave, and for my imprint on the wines to be at the nuance level – where maybe there’s a bit more concentration, maybe the finish is a bit longer, maybe there is more variability. And if I’m really doing my job properly, then there should be that variability from vintage to vintage.

The Opus One winery and vineyards, Napa Valley, California
© Opus One | The Opus One winery and vineyards, Napa Valley, California

Many wineries have started making second wines or second labels as a result of the recession. Does Opus One have similar plans?

We’ve been doing that since 1993 – a very, very quiet project. We make the Opus One blend, and then – with the components left over – make a blend called Overture. It’s not vintage dated, we don’t pour it in the tasting room, but people are welcome to buy a bottle and try it.

What do you listen to when you’re working?

We have music 24/7 at Opus. It’s usually classical music, but when I work I prefer the Stones, or soul music.

Is climate change a concern, and how are you adapting your practices to it?

I adjust my practices according to weather change. There’s nothing I can do about climate change, but we get lots of differences in our weather here, and so we have to adjust. When I first graduated from Davis, my world was numbers; you look at things from an academic perspective. But over my career I’ve relied much less on numbers and used more and more intuition, and it helps a lot with weather. I’m less accurate than a forecaster, but every now and again, if you feel something you just do it.

If you weren’t making wine in Napa, then where?

Probably Burgundy, just because of the incredible expression of each site. Ideally, it would have been nice to have made pinot noir before making cabernet. You almost have to be a poet to make pinot; it’s a whole different approach.

During harvest, whom or what do you pray to?

There are people I think of when harvest begins. You have the five senses, but also the emotional senses, and to me harvest is very intellectual and intuitive and emotional at the same time. So I think of people whom I admire very much, I think about the founders of the winery, I think about all the people with whom I work – I hope we can be in sync. And I think of nature. If I bow to anything, it would be nature.

What brings you the greatest happiness?

When I’m able to live the moment. You know how it is, when you are so absorbed in the present that the moment expands.

Are you afraid of dying?

I don’t think so, and I mean it in this way: We’re doing a long-term redevelopment program at Opus One. I think I’ll probably be here another 10 years, but I know there are vineyards that I’ll develop that I’ll never get to work with the fruit. And I have this idea that when, in 50 or 100 years, people step back and look at all the wines of Opus One, there should be just a subtle difference in the years I was there. Also, mentoring that extends your life. There are things I learned from André Tchelistcheff that I still think about and implement.

What would you like the last wine you taste to be?

That’s a tough one. I’m trying to find the right Champagne … I like Krug very much but that would be too much for the end. Maybe the Perrier-Jouët Fleur de Champagne, the famous painted flower bottle. The one I’ve liked recently is the 2002 vintage.

Any regrets?

Yeah, I have regrets. I have one child; she’s 24 now. When you’re living moments with children, playing with them or teaching them, that’s fine. But there are many times when you come back from work preoccupied. A child lives in the moment, but as adults we live in the past or the future, so those times when I wasn’t in the present with her I regret.

What would make the world a better place?

If we could listen to each other, truly listen without thinking of our answer before we hear the other person, that would make the world a better place. If you truly listen to people you’re more open to their differences, and the more open we are to accepting difference the more peace there would be.

In the end, what really matters?

I think it’s your family, but I also include in family very close friends. I guess I should say relationships.

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