WineInk: A wine for Independence Day should include Silver Oak’s American brand
2014 Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet SauvignonThis wine was the first release with Nate Weis at the helm as winemaker. A product of an excellent 2014 Napa vintage, in Silver Oak fashion the wine was aged for 24 months in American oak from Silver Oak’s Missouri-based cooperage, The Oak, and then aged for an additional 20 months in bottle before being released at the winery’s epic release party in February of this year. At one time considered a high-priced expenditure, the asking price on the Silver Oak website of $125 a bottle now seems like a bargain for Napa cab. Winemaker Weis notes the density and depth of the wine while also extolling the acid-driven mid palate and the freshness of the fruit.
Normally in a Fourth of July column, I suggest folks drink American wines and then recommend a few that might work with the festivities. But this year I got to thinking about wineries that don’t just make great American wine, but also embody traits that characterize our nation. If one winery could be called quintessentially American, which would it be?
An argument can be made that for nearly half a century Silver Oak Cellars has been an exemplar, both for the American wine industry specifically, and for the American business experience in general.
“American wine, American family, American oak” is how second-generation California vintner and current Silver Oak winemaker Nate Weis nutshells the Silver Oak story when asked to define the brand. And that troika, on its own, makes for a compelling and patriotic story.
But if you also consider attributes like entrepreneurship, environmental stewardship, resilience and independence, qualities that define the American ethos, Silver Oak has stories to tell that hit each note.
Let’s start with entrepreneurship. In 1972, an oil wildcatter and Coloradan named Ray Duncan and a former Christian Brothers monk named Justin Meyer teamed to found a winery in what is now the Oakville AVA of Napa Valley. They were determined to make just one wine, cabernet sauvignon. And the pair steadfastly declared that they would then, and forever more, age their cabernet exclusively in American oak.
Combining the names of the Silverado Trail and the Oakville Cross Road, precisely where Duncan had purchased an old dairy farm to house the operation, they dubbed their winery Silver Oak. The first release saw about 1,100 cases of wine from fruit sourced on “the north coast” that sold for around six bucks a bottle.
At the time there were fewer than 50 wineries in the Napa Valley and there was no such thing as the Oakville AVA. The Judgment of Paris, where Napa wines first gained international acclaim by beating the French in a blind tasting, was still four years in the future. But 1972 was perhaps the most pivotal year in the history of California wine as 18 wineries put down roots for the first time. Names that today are synonymous with California wine, such as Caymus, Stags Leap Wine Cellars and Jordan, are just a few of those to have debuted in ’72.
Forty-seven years on, both Duncan and Meyer live posthumously in halls of fame. Duncan is in the Colorado Ski Hall for having founded the Purgatory Ski resort, and Meyer in the Napa Vintners Hall of Fame in the Culinary Institute of America. Today, Silver Oak produces around 100,000 cases of cabernet sauvignon in two releases, one made from Napa Valley fruit and a second from their vineyards in the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County. And they sell every last bottle.
Silver Oak remains in the Duncan family with Ray’s son, David, as the president and CEO and other family members playing key roles. Just over a year ago the company opened a second winery to complement its “green” Oakville facility. The first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum-certified production winery sits outside Healdsburg in Sonoma County and it is as stunning in its design as it is in its energy efficiency. (More on this in a future column.) Oh, and they own the company in Missouri that produces the American oak barrels that are the signature ingredient in the Silver Oak style.
The family-owned winery has been a model of consistency, with Weis in 2014 becoming just the third winemaker in the company’s history. But consistency is exactly what Silver Oak’s critics have occasionally criticized. Much like chardonnay fell out of favor at one time with some “in the know” wine critics and sommeliers, so too did the bottles of Silver Oak cabernet that have become ubiquitous on the high end of steakhouse and restaurant wine lists.
“Too sweet, too much oak, not enough vintage variation,” was the minority refrain. But more often than not the complaints were more about the people purchasing the wines than the wines themselves. A perception was created that Silver Oak had become symbolic of a brand that was as much about money and status as it was about fine wine. As is the case with some successful sports franchises, a cult of ill will evolved in some pockets of the wine community. The result? They still sell every bottle.
“We want to make wines that reflect vintages but we also respect what our customers want,” Weis says with conviction. “Silver Oak doesn’t follow trends or seek external validation, we make wines for our customers. If there is a word to describe our business, it would be ‘independence.’”
A good word for a great day.
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In the fields and vineyards from Palisade to Paonia to McElmo Canyon, grapes are still ripening on the vines and farmers are now picking with high hopes that the wines of 2020 will rise above the tenor of the times.