How a California Winemaker Shaped America’s Love for Cabernet Sauvignon


Head to San Francisco’s Chase Center’s new Splash Wine Bar in search of Cabernet, and you’ll find the most prominent release offered under custom labels designed specifically for the Golden State Warriors. When the NBA team was ready for a winery partner to join them in their new home, it was iconic silver oak they turned to, and commemorative bottles celebrate the collaboration. It wasn’t a random choice – trainer Steve Kerr reportedly called wine his “girlfriend”. And he’s not alone in the world of athletes and celebrities. LeBron James tweets about Silver Oak; Peyton Manning hands out cases; Oprah calls it her favorite. We even have it on the best authority that Carlos Santana and Matthew McConaughey are super fans.

Silver Oak isn’t the only celebrity favorite wine, of course, but as a staple of the wider drinking culture in this country, it’s nearly unrivalled. Check the tables at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where more than a few families gather to celebrate the younger generation’s 21st birthday, and not only will you spot bottles of Silver Oak on many of those tables, but those bottles are likely to go down. to be magnums, a party-sized vessel if ever there was one. So how was a winery able to gain such a viral fanbase (before the virus was even a thing) and retain fierce loyalty across multiple generations? This year would be a good time to ask, as Silver Oak celebrates its 50th anniversary, with a look back at the brand’s seemingly jarring (but actually brilliant) consistency of style amid constant innovation.

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Silver Oak was built on California wine legends. On the one hand, Ray Duncan was introduced and drawn into viticulture around 1970 (when the modern wine industry in Northern California was booming) by his longtime friend Jack Novak of Spottswoode fame. On the other hand, Justin Meyer – a Christian Brothers monk and apprentice winemaker to legendary Father Timothy – left the Christian Brothers’ St. Helena operation at Greystone Cellars around this time, and with a handful of hand, joined Duncan to found Silver Oak, with the 1972 vintage. The first brand could have been founded in Alexander Valley (and later Napa Valley, with the former 258-acre Oakville Dairy Farm that Duncan had purchased), but with AVA status yet to be formalized, the bottles could only say “North Shore”. Anyway, when this 1972 Cabernet came out, it won a gold medal at the California State Fair, in 1977 (yes, that’s an unusually long time frame, and a pattern that Silver Oak still follows , to give their wine time in both barrel and bottle to resolve into a luxurious sip upon release), propelling the wine to the top of the wave of pioneering wineries overcoming American wine drinkers’ taste for ubiquitous and anonymous red and white blends favored in the 1960s.

1972 Silver Oak 750ml - Credit: Silver Oak Winery

1972 Silver Oak 750ml – Credit: Silver Oak Winery

Silver Oak Wine Estate

The choices Duncan and Meyer made for Silver Oak would come to define – and influence – both the industry and that taste across the country. First, they chose to make a single wine: Cabernet Sauvignon. It was downright Bordeaux in a region of the New World where producers played with all kinds of varieties. Then, too, they priced it at $6 a bottle—unheard of when most wines are $3 or less—creating arguably Napa’s first “cult cabernet” (although it’s true, even adjusted for inflation, $6 was a far cry from the astronomical sums so-called cult wines to order today). Bold too, at a time when renowned California winemakers were adopting the oak traditions of French coopers, the duo decided to age their Cabernet only in American oak, for its finer grain and slightly more subtle tannic influence on the barrel. wine. Fifty years later, American is still the Silver Oak diet; now, however, they own their own cooperage in Missouri and have refined barrel production for even finer nuances in wine. And 50 years later, American oak is becoming cool again among winemakers.

Another particular style decision that Duncan and Meyer made was, at first, ahead of his day, then a bit behind, and finally just on the dominating mark: their decision on when to pick the fruit. as current winemaker Nate Weis (only the third in the history of the brand, after Meyer then the mythical – again this word – Daniel Baron, the only American at the time to have done an internship at Château Pétrus) describes him, they picked a little later than most times, for an edge of maturity that would yield slightly softer tannins and a little more chewiness than was the norm. (No wonder the wine found a ready audience.) It wasn’t long, however, before Napa Valley winemakers began letting their Bordeaux reds hang longer and longer, accumulating sugar levels (and thus of alcohol) higher for an ever more hedonistic profile. , but losing complexity and character of place in the process. Silver Oak didn’t go there. They have held on, with a balance that combines terroir and delights, and it turns out that this is land that a quorum of winemakers are happy to occupy with them again.

The decades brought firsts, innovations, acclaim – in 1979, the first Silver Oak Cabernet officially labeled Napa Valley; in the mid-1980s, one of the first taxis called Alexander Valley; in 1990, the tradition of “Release Day”. Almost more of a festival than a tradition, in fact, Silver Oak’s release day attracted legions of fans who literally camped outside the winery for the first crack at what had become their signature magnums. As Weis puts it, “a magnum turns out to be the sweet spot for our wine.” And he probably fills more full-size bottles than any other winemaker in NorCal.

The Silver Oak Alexander Valley Winery - Credit: Silver Oak Winery

The Silver Oak Alexander Valley Winery – Credit: Silver Oak Winery

Silver Oak Wine Estate

Over the past decade, Silver Oak, now run by Ray’s sons, David and Tim Duncan, has taken the opportunity to build two spectacular new wineries, to lead on another critical front in the wine industry: environmentally friendly construction. The imposing new Napa stone facility, rebuilt after the old winery was razed by fire in 2006 (an experience the team had no wish to pioneer for their valley colleagues, but to others followed later, devastating fires), became the first LEED-Platinum certified winery in the world. And in 2018, the new Silver Oak Alexander Valley winery also achieved LEED Platinum certification and, in 2020, Living Building certification. The materials used have been recovered, the energy consumption is minimal, enough water is recycled in an elaborate system to serve a small town. And quietly, Silver Oak is making its paths blazed on the sustainable front available to others in the industry.

It’s unclear if this younger generation drinking Silver Oak in Vegas is even aware of the wine’s enduring credibility, but the producer’s rigorous innovation is reason enough to be its brand of choice, according to Vanessa Conlin, Master of Wine. and Chief Wine Officer for wineaccess.com. “With a winery as established and iconic as Silver Oak, it can seem like nothing really changes much from vintage to vintage in their approach,” she says. “But something that has always impressed me is the family’s massive economic and intellectual investment in innovation. The technology they use in the vineyards is among the most advanced in the world: saving water, ensuring the health of the vineyards and promoting the quality of their wines.

With such distinctive style and innovation marking 50 years of Silver Oak, there will be a party! Some of the country’s top chefs are lined up for a series of exciting dinners (just to remind you that Silver Oak is one of the most ordered Cabernets in high end restaurants). Release day, on August 6, will be unlike any other. And to mark the occasion, Silver Oak has created a 50th Anniversary Commemorative Magnum (of course, it’s a magnum).

This is the latest vintage from the camp of nothing that never changes, a style of wine balanced between freshness and elegance, without any display of raw power. A recent tasting of crucial vintages shows a continuous line, even with significant variations between seasons. The 1989 Napa Valley Cab is consistently gorgeous with chewy dried fruit and flavorful graphite. The 1995 Napa Valley Cab – juicy, textured and spicy – shows just a hint of that American oak, vanilla and coconut, “an extra dimension,” Weis calls it. The 2005 Anderson Valley Cabernet (now with touches of other Bordeaux varietals blended in) is complex and spicy, its dark cherry underlined with crushed stone and signature black olive. The 2008 Anderson Valley may have been bottled yesterday, its dark fruit edged with typical grassiness and hints of oak and licorice spice. And the 2014 Anderson Valley has it all: spice, floral, heather fruit, savory olive, graphite and earth.

Silver Oak 2014 Anderson Valley Cabernet - Credit: Courtesy of Silver Oak

Silver Oak 2014 Anderson Valley Cabernet – Credit: Courtesy of Silver Oak

Courtesy of Silver Oak

And the Silver Oak 2018 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the wine of the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Magnum ($500, drops Aug. 6), opens with a lovely sweet-salty dance of violets and earth, graphite and citrus. black olive mingling with blackcurrant and black cherry. aromas, with hints of anise and warm spices. Chewy tannins and lush textures are a backdrop for generous dark flavors of heather berry and cherry edged with savory herbs and crushed stone – bright, structured and lush all at once, the balance of a season’s Loop Golden.

There’s a lot to celebrate in 50 years of an American original (oak barrels and all). And David Duncan honors the past. “I cherish the shoulders we stand on,” he says. “But I’m much more interested in the next 50 years. We are excited !

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