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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

Silver Oak Winery – Why the Cult Following?

Thursday, September 9, 2010
Silver Oak Winery is famous for its extraordinary “Big Cabs” that draw cult-like crowds which gather at the Winery entrance hours inadvance of their New Release partywhich occurs semiannually in Napa each year. Silver Oak’s name and shiny silver embossed bottle logo may be synonymous with imperious, and even wine novices know the bottles aren’t inexpensive, the tour at the winery itself was down to earth and jovial – you’ll find no skyward pointed noses here. While there’s an Alexander Valley location, I visited the winery in Oakville, which was easy to spot with its famous emblematic white water tower out front - the winery used to be an old dairy farm. Silver Oak Winery was founded by Ray Duncan and Justin Meyer in 1972. Duncan was an entrepreneurfrom Colorado who was lured into the wine business after visiting a friend in Napa Valley and purchasing 750 acres of orchards and vineyards within a year. The current winery is striking and impressive - a beautifully constructed stone building with stain glass grape-themed windows and copper statues adorning the landscape. We entered the winery into the gorgeous tasting room where I couldn’t help but be lured over to the custom glass-encased wine cellar that spans the width of the tasting room and displays Silver Oak’s vintages from 1972 to the present in varying bottle sizes.
From the tasting room, we were met by an ancient, yet youthful guide, Deke, who led us first through a couple of rooms that housed pictures of the winery’s history. Deke provided great insight into the Duncan Family history and illuminated the warm and generous culture they create for their staff (for example, every five years, the Duncan family flies the entire Silver Oak staff- approximately 50 people- to an exotic destination such as Mexico or Hawaii for a week). Deke also offered fun tidbits – there are approximately 589 and a half grapes in each bottle of wine and 300 bottles of wine comprises one barrel. Given that each bottle costs an estimates $100, each barrel of wine costs $30,000! Some interesting history: In 2006, the winery suffered a fateful fire that destroyed 170 barrels of wine - doing the math, that would cost the winery $5,100,000 in wine alone! Given the resulting loss, and the fact that the winery had already suffered 3 floods prior to the fire over the previous decade, the Duncan family formulated a plan to build a new winery. The new winery was built using stones from a Kansas Flour Mill and designed with impressive sustainable features such as the raising of the entire site five feet to be above the flood plain of the Napa River which runs through the property. To eliminate breeding spots for bacterial contamination, no wood is used anywhere in the winery, just stainless steel and corrugated steel, and the building is designed without columns to allow for free access throughout.

Zeke gave a thorough tour, which included the tasting room,event space (which can host up to 100 people, catered by the in-house catering team), the crush pad, barrel room and bottling room, and even out to the vineyard itself. Yet the one thing he didn’t shed much light on was why the wine is so exceptional and so expensive. I prodded him with questions and can only provide my best insight based on his responses. Silver Oak uses American Oak barrels, which are much more cost-effective for the winery ($350 each as opposed to $1400 for French Oak!). The American Oak is toasted and less harshly tannic than French oak, and also imparts a spicy vanilla note that compliments the Silver Oak style of American Cabernet. The winery is also very selective on the juice it uses. Grapes are hand picked, and free run juice is used first - the press juice and lees juice is only added to the blend if the winemaker feels it meets the Silver Oak standards – otherwise it is sold to other wineries. Napa Valley Silver Oak is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot (classic Bordeaux style), while Alexander Valley Cab is 100% Cabernet. The wine is racked for 8 weeks, spends 25 months in the barrel and then finlly is stored another 24 months in the bottle before being released.

On the tour, we tasted three vintages:
the 2006 Alexander Valley Cab, the 2005 Napa Cab, and the 2003Napa Cab. I won’t lie that the 2006
Cab definitelyneeded more time in the cellar and was still young and tannic. The 2005 was similar, though it opened up by the end of the tour, giving off a nice blend of oak, spice and plumy fruit. It was definitely dark and peppery contrasting with the tart red fruit flavors I got from the Alexander Valley Cab. I wasn’t overwhelmed by the wines (which should have

been the main attraction) until I tasted the 2003 Napa Cab, which was rich and concentrated with great balance and length, giving off meaty, juicy flavors, chocolate, tobacco, baked fruit and spice. It was an elegant wine at 7 years and I am sure that all Silver Oak wines do best with ample cellar time. I’d love the opportunity to do a vertical tasting of several older vintages, but I’ll save that for mynext visit! To visit, make advance reservations…and be sure to get your hands on the oldest vintage they re pouring in the tasting room!

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