Silver Oak Founder Justin Meyer Dies

The former Christian Brothers winemaker built up one of California's most successful Cabernet producers.
Aug 8, 2002

Justin Meyer, the mind behind Silver Oak Cellars, one of Napa Valley's most successful Cabernet franchises, died of an apparent heart attack on Tuesday, Aug. 6. He was 63.

Meyer, who was vacationing at Lake Tahoe at the time of his death, reportedly had been battling diabetes and other health problems in recent years. But Bob Little, a spokesman for Silver Oak and the Meyer family, said his previous health concerns were apparently not related to his death.

"We're losing someone who was enormously important to Napa Valley and to the wine industry," said longtime friend Stuart Smith of Smith-Madrone Vineyards. "He was a true larger-than-life kind of guy."

"It really came as a shock. I'm really going to miss him," said Bob Trinchero of Sutter Home Winery, a friend of Meyer for three decades.

To many wine drinkers, Meyer was, as Trinchero called him, "Mr. Cabernet." Silver Oak, founded in 1972, created a huge following with Meyer's distinctive style of Cabernet Sauvignon, starting first with a bottling from Alexander Valley in Sonoma County and later adding a Napa Valley wine. (For a while, the winery also produced a single-vineyard bottling, Bonny's Vineyard, now discontinued.)

The signature characteristics of Meyer's wines were ripe, rich fruit; smooth, supple tannins; and the unmistakable scent of American oak, which gave the wines a dill or lavender aroma.

Silver Oak's popularity could be witnessed firsthand during the winery's semiannual open houses. Customers came from throughout the country and lined up hours ahead of time to buy new releases, even though the wine is available at most high-end restaurants and retail shops in the country. As of the 1997 vintage, its most recent release, Silver Oak was producing more than 60,000 cases of its two wines, with the Alexander Valley bottling selling for $60 and the Napa bottling priced at $100.

Born Justin Raymond Meyer in Bakersfield, Calif., in 1938, Meyer entered the Christian Brothers order after graduating from high school. In 1964, he became the assistant of Brother Timothy, the cellar master at the Christian Brothers Winery in St. Helena. He later received his bachelor's and master's degrees in viticulture at the University of California, Davis.

Meyer left the order in 1972 -- "with only the clothes on his back," as friend Koerner Rombauer of Rombauer Vineyards, said -- and joined forces with Ray Duncan, a Colorado oilman. With Duncan's backing, the partners founded Silver Oak in an old dairy barn in Oakville. They also briefly owned Franciscan Winery in the 1970s, but sold it in 1979 to concentrate on Silver Oak.

Meyer's approach at Silver Oak was unique. First, he focused on a single varietal -- Cabernet Sauvignon -- when most wineries produced up to a dozen. He also insisted on holding the wines and releasing them when they were ready to drink, at a time when many Cabernets were hard and tannic and needed years to come around.

In late 2000, Meyer sold his interest in Silver Oak to Duncan for $120 million and retired to spend more time with his family and a new endeavor in Mendocino County, near Yorkville. Working in tandem with his son Matt, 23, Meyer was developing Meyer Family Vineyards to make Port-style wines.

Meyer also wrote a book, Plain Talk About Fine Wine, which was published in 1989, and was the founder of the G.O.N.A.D.S. (the Gastronomical Order for Nonsensical and Dissipatory Society), a legendary group of Napa vintners that meet once a month at lunch to drink wine and fraternize.

Smith described Meyer as "a no-nonsense but fun guy." Trinchero agreed: "He was very giving, but he could be direct. You could always count on him to tell you the truth."

Added Rombauer, "He was very supportive of people who were sincere about what they were doing. We're losing a huge icon of the business."

Meyer is survived by his wife of 30 years, Bonny, and their children, Matt, Chad and Holly. There will be a private service for friends and family on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 10, at St. Apollinaris Church in Napa, followed by a public memorial service at 5:30 p.m. at Silver Oak winery.

--Tim Fish, with Jim Laube

# # #

Check our recent ratings of Silver Oak wines.

Learn more about Justin Meyer and Silver Oak:

  • June 20, 2002
    American Beauty

  • April 30, 2001
    They're in The Money

  • Dec. 21, 2000
    Silver Oak Co-Founder Justin Meyer Sells His Stake to Partner

  • March 29, 1999
    Silver Oak's Justin Meyer Branches Out to Mendocino County

  • Dec. 15, 1996
    A Calling for Cabernet

  • Dec. 15, 1996
    Silver Oak's Style
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