Tuesday 27 March 2012

At the Velodrome

The British - and especially Londoners  - have taken the Olympic Velodrome to their hearts. It’s been given a nickname, the Pringle, which hardly describes the excellence of the building but shows how affectionately we feel towards it. Approaching in the half dark of a winter’s evening everyone gets their camera out as the handsome wooden curve of the roof looms out of the dusk, with the deep blue-black sky behind it. It’s much bigger than you expect; the roof, formed of thin slats of maple, looks like the hull of a boat, like an artist’s impression of the ark.

In the distance behind us (we’ve just been bussed across the Olympic park), is the square bulk of the Westfield shopping centre with its 320 retail units. Each one’s size and shape and orientation is calculated to receive the optimum footfall, to make the most money most efficiently. Westfield is all about profit – the idea that any imagination should come into the design of it is laughable. It’s garish, crowded and noisy, and even though it’s huge, it feels claustrophobic.

The escalators, which could have been soaring aerial stairways from the top of which you could survey the whole domain (Westminster underground station, designed by Hopkins Architects, builders of the Velodrome, incidentally, is criss-crossed with escalators which give views of the cavernous underground halls they traverse) are mean utilitarian affairs, designed to deliver shoppers efficiently to their destination. Shoppers gawping at the view aren’t opening their wallets, after all.

Westfield is about making money, the Park is about spending it, they say, but that doesn’t make it any more awful, full of pointless noise and discord; even though you’re constantly moving and constantly jostled, all this activity seems quite aimlesss.

I think that’s why everyone loves the Velodrome. While Westfield shows the ugly side of 21st century mega-projects like the Olympics, the Velodrome embodies what everyone wants to believe, that behind all the bombast there’s still a type of nobility behind the idea of the greatest show on earth.

Westfield is boxy and disproportionate, the Velodrome is all satisfying curves, from that great hulled crisp-shaped top and its mirror image, the asymmetic wooden track with its vertiginous looping ends.  The banked rows of spectators mimic the swoop of the track, and above it all there’s the undulating line of that famous roof. It’s like sitting inside a Mobius strip.

Movement too is the defining feature of the Velodrome. The whole place is fluid – you step through the door and whoosh, there’s the track with a dozen cyclists on a warm-up round (if you lean on the rail you feel the vibration of tyre on sprung wood as they pass). Wherever  you stand your eye is drawn to that exhilarating noiseless motion.

The bikes may be soundless but  but if I’ve given the impression the Velodrome  on World Cup night is a quiet place, not at all. The 5000 spectators are vocal and partisan. Next to me is an entire family draped in a union jack. When Chris Hoy takes gold on the Keirin the roar is shattering, everyone on their feet shouting their heads off. Mike Taylor, the Hopkins senior partner who designed the Velodrome – my brother-in-law as it happens – is hoarse after three days of the World Cup.

Even the normal annoyances of any big British sporting event seem to be neutralised here. There are cordoned-off areas and officious types in high-viz vests telling you you can’t go here, or must go there, but they do it in good humour. Outside we’re herded into queues for the buses to take us back to Stratford, and we stand around in the cold drizzle for half an hour. In the distance you can see the huge green neon ‘Casino’ sign on the side of the Stratford complex, and the lights of the 5000-space car park, and the truly hideous 120m Anish Kapoor sculpture, charmingly named  the ArcelorMittal Orbit, whose only purpose was apparently to use up lots and lots of Mittal steel, which indeed it does.

But everyone’s looking back and up, where the Velodrome roof looms benignly over us.

Monday 19 March 2012

A visit to Opus One

Along with the Bordeaux first growths, Grange, Petrus, Sassicaia, and a handful of others, Opus One is part of that select club of wines that have true global cachet. This classic Bordeaux blend, produced from 139 acres (56.2ha) of some of the finest vineland in the Napa Valley, is only just over 30 years old, yet it is sought after from Hamburg to Hong Kong.
Halloween at Opus: Michael Silacci, me, Roger Asleson. The pumpkin is real

Opus, as everyone knows, is the brainchild of Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild. As it was for the first vintage in 1979, it is still very much a California-Bordeaux joint venture: it is the only California wine, for example, whose exports are handled entirely by the Bordeaux Place.

But, public relations chief Roger Asleson makes clear, while Mouton’s winemaker Philippe Dhalluin and technical director Eric Tourbier have a consulting role and visit Opus at least three times a year, ‘we have only one winemaker, and that of course is Michael Silacci, whose decisions are final.’

I meet Silacci and Asleson on a superb early autumn day, just as the Cabernet is coming in and being fed into the mighty Bucher-Vaslin optic sorter. Silacci is bounding around the spacious winery like a teenager, studying the grapes rejected by the US$100,000 machine, which can sort grapes at a rate of ten tonnes an hour, introducing me to staff, demanding I climb a rickety gantry to see how the destalker works. Asleson the indulgent elder. You won't catch him clambering on the scaffolding but he's certainly amused by life in general.

Opus is in a constant state of self-discovery. Every aspect of the operation, from the barrel racks to cork research, is tirelessly examined. They have recently spent US$300,000 on a new Oxo-Line barrel rack system, in which each barrel can be racked, filled, cleaned and rotated independently of its fellows. ‘We produce 300,000 bottles so it works out at a dollar a bottle,’ Silacci says.

In his phrase, this fine-tuning of operations is ‘polishing the sphere’. In the realm of corks, for example, he is ‘obsessed with’ achieving nothing short of ‘99.999%’ success rate. What is his failure rate for corks at the moment? ‘One tenth of a percent. How do I know this?’

Because, he says, they open more bottles of Opus at the winery than anywhere else in the world, and every cork pulled is monitored. They even have a machine to measure the force used in the extraction: they had discovered that corks ‘whose integrity was compromised’ were more difficult to pull.

When it comes to selling the wine, prices and markets are monitored in as much detail. Around 20,000 cases are produced (the 2010 vintage was one of the biggest at 24,000, and there is no other wine apart from a tiny cuvee called Overture, of which about 3000 cases are made to be sold only at the winery). With markets to service from London to Jakarta and points in between, allocations can become stretched, and prices fluctuate wildly.

They don’t want Opus to be a trophy wine that never gets opened. ‘One of our projects is to try to equalise or stabilise price discrepancy between international and domestic wines,’ Asleson says, noting that the US$210 suggested retail price can reach US$8-900 in Brazil or in top Chinese hotels.

So prices have to be monitored and allocations juggled. They are selling less wine in the US than they did a few years ago, Asleson says – ‘but comfortably so’ – although one of the biggest markets, Las Vegas, only gets ‘perhaps 20% of what they really want’.

China is important – Opus opened a Hong Kong office in April last year – but they are aware of the danger not only of missing emerging markets like Korea, Vietnam or Singapore, but also forgetting traditional markets. Asleson reels off a list of European centres he will be visiting this year: London, Hamburg, Berlin, the Rheingau, Austria, Switzerland. ‘It is truly important to get back to Europe and the people who brought us to the dance, so to speak’.

The best way of controlling prices and servicing these markets is through good relations with the negociants, Asleson says. He believes negociants are more  transparent with Opus than with their own long-term French producers, with whom they have a more ‘inimical, more contentious relationship.’

Is that true, I asked Mathieu Chadronnier, the head of major negociant CVBG Grands Crus. It’s not a better relationship but a different one, he said, mainly because of the crucial fact that ‘Opus chose to go to Bordeaux, whereas most chateaux have no choice.’ So there is ‘mutual transparency. We sit down a few times a year to assign objectives to our partnership. We have never had a disagreement.’

Chadronnier said he looks forward every year to the release of Opus. ‘It’s a great story and a great success.’ But he can’t be making much money out of it. We’ve been discussing the importance of the Chinese market for instance, one that only amounts to a few hundred cases a year.
It is almost a study in miniature. In the last 30 years, little has changed, and improvements amount to no more than fine-tuning – an tweak in cork technology here, an adjustment to the sorting process there. As Silacci says, it’s a question of giving a further polish to the sphere.

This article first appeared in Meiningers