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Silver Oak's Golden Rules

The Napa- and Sonoma-based Cabernets have maintained a legion of cult-like fans for nearly 40 years with a consistent, drinkable style
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Dec 7, 2011 12:30pm ET

Silver Oak is one of the most recognizable names in wine. You can spot a bottle on a dining table from 50 paces.

It is also one of California's most successful wineries for a variety of reasons. It has become a textbook example of how to do it right, from wine and style and image to sales and marketing.

The name is easy to pronounce and remember, and it evokes a strong image. It's easily identified with its iconic arched silver label graced with a water tower and oak tree (neither of which has anything to do with the name).

It has maintained a distinct style that hasn't wavered much over the years. It has, rather amazingly, retained a cult-like following, which might shock most people considering the term cult today means high-quality, high-priced, hard-go-get wines and Silver Oak is practically a factory. You can find it in multitudes of retailing and fine-dining establishments.

The winery sells nearly 100,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon a year from its two facilities, one in Oakville, in Napa Valley, the other in Sonoma's Alexander Valley. The Napa bottling is 30,000 cases for $100 a bottle; the Alexander Valley 70,000 for $70. Nice round figures that are easy for calculation purposes.

From the outside, Silver Oak looks to be a purely brilliant winemaking and marketing operation, and it is. But it didn't start that way. It began as many wineries in the 1970s did and still do today, part desire to be a vintner in the most romantic of endeavors, part impulse, part luck, but also dedication and determination and strong fiscal backing and management.

Neither Justin Meyer nor Raymond Duncan envisioned Silver Oak being where it is today. The two met in the early 1970s and quickly struck a deal to make wine. Their first home: an old dairy building off Oakville Cross Road.

The name was less a stroke of genius than a last-second decision. As Meyer and his wife, Bonny, were filling out paperwork to register the winery, they needed a name. They considered Justin Cellars, then Meyer Duncan (but not Duncan Meyer). Then Bonny came up with Silver Oak. Bonny's reasoning, according to Duncan: "We sit on a site between Silverado Trail and Oakville."

Duncan recalled thinking, "that's the stupidest name I've ever heard of," to which the Meyers replied, "then come up with something better in the next couple of hours."

Meyer was the winemaker and he created the style. He disliked tannic wines and liked American oak. He wanted his wines to be supple in texture and aged them for five years, a mix of oak and bottle time; he died in 2002 after leaving the winery. Current director of winemaking Daniel Baron joined the team in 1994 and, since Meyer stepped aside, has overseen the winemaking with a steady hand.

The style is as distinctive as any. Even novices with a little coaching can readily identify both Silver Oak Cabernets with their signature dill-laced, mocha, coconut-infused aroma. It is admittedly a trait some love and others don't. said Duncan, "It may not have been the greatest wine ever conceived, but it's a very drinkable wine. Justin didn't want to make a wine that needed age."

Instead, he created a style of wine that has legions of fans that are so crazed about the wine that the winery has been forced to change one thing: the aging regime.

Demand is such that "We can't age it five years anymore," said Duncan. "It's more like four."

Brian Peters
Broomfield, CO —  December 7, 2011 8:40pm ET
Your timing is ironic...just the other day my wife and i were having a discussion about Silver Oak and how little we drink of it these days. I remember how it used to be our "celebration wine"...now our palates have changed and it just doesn't have the same appeal that it used to, especially at the price. Rudius, for example, is a better option at a similar price point...just harder to get!
Josh Moser
Sunnyvale, CA —  December 8, 2011 1:32pm ET
My father-in-law opened up a magnum of the 1975 Silver Oak Alexander Valley at my wedding in Napa in October 2003. My wife was born in 1975. It is hands down one of the best wines I have ever had in my entire life. That being said, I have had a number of SO AV recent vintages (2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005) and the wines seem okay but not great. Great name and the SO AV bottle still looks great.

Josh Moser
Founder of VinoServant
Breaking Down Restaurant Wine Lists | The Right Bottle at the Right Price

Donald C Young
Des Moines,IA,USA —  December 8, 2011 1:48pm ET
I have bought Silver Oak since the 1983 vintage although I stopped from 2000-2006 vintages. I purchased the 2007 after opening some older vintages from my cellar and being shocked at how well they have aged--the 84-87s are still beautiful wines, granted they were made by Justin Meyer, but perfectly drinkable even though no one thought they were long term agers. I am back as a Silver Oak customer.
David Stalder
Las Vegas, NV —  December 8, 2011 3:45pm ET
Nice update James. Interesting factoids on how the name came about. On a recent trip to Napa, the 6 year vertical tasting at Silver Oak was one of the trip highlights. Agree with the previous comment that I don't seem to drink as much Silver Oak as I used to, though I still have a bottle of 2001 Napa in the cellar. Probably should drink that soon :)
Louis Robichaux
Highland Village, Texas —  December 9, 2011 1:00pm ET
Jim -- I'm usually 100% with you on your blog posts and other writings; but, I just don't understand such high praise for Silver Oak. From my vantage point, here are some objective observations:

* only 7 of the 35 WS-rated bottlings from 1990 forward were awarded 90 pts or more (avg score = 87 pts);

* only 2 of the 15 WS-rated bottlings from 2000 forward were awarded 90 pts or more;

* current release prices for Alexander Valley & Napa are $70 & $100, respectively;

* compared with other widely-available offerings, Silver Oak's QPR is not competitive; and,

* in the past several years, I've noticed Silver Oak being offered at a significant discount and available through on-line "wine basket" clubs.

From where I sit, Silver Oak does not have anything near a "cult following," and cannot be accused of being brilliant winemakers. I will say that the marketing folks at Silver Oak evidently are brilliant, as nobody can deny that they: (i) successully sell 100,00 cases of 85-89 pt wine anually at above-market prices, and (ii) have successfully maintained the ruse of being at the high-end of the market.

Mr. Peters mentioned Rudius as having a superior QPR ... indeed Napa and Sonoma are full of other such examples.

Dallas, Texas, USA —  December 9, 2011 5:47pm ET
Silver Oak is an over rated overpriced watered down cabernet.
Odmar Almeida Filho
Sao Paulo, Brazil —  December 11, 2011 4:40pm ET
The mystique of this brand is built from so much more than what's inside the bottle. It almost doesn't matter any more what the product and its ratings are. Many of Silver Oak's followers come for a bigger meaning, I think.

I first tried it with my wife a quarter century ago - poor starving students celebrating our big break as I'd just been offered and accepted a really nice and lucrative job offer (of which one of the greater benefits, we later rejoiced, was being able to afford more Silver Oak...).
Twenty-five years later, and my wife now owns and runs Brazil's top California wine import & trade business - and guess who her showcase wine is...?
Carrie Bowman
Napa, CA —  December 11, 2011 10:01pm ET
We had a group at our store one night and one of the guests wanted to buy a S.O. Alexander Vly '89 magnum to have with the rest of the guests. I expressed reservations because of the vintage but they insisted. I was sure glad they did. Absolutley stunning, so much so I sent a note to the winery to let them know how well it showed. The cork was inky black and in perfect condition. Beautiful color, rich fruit and still had so much life.. Everyone that was partaking raved about it and I was really blown away by the youth and vibrancy that this wine still had.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  December 12, 2011 2:13pm ET
The recent vintages I've tasted just haven't been interesting at all, particularly at the prices. Seems to me case in point of resting on laurels. QPR just isn't there.
Robert Lapolla
san diego, CA USA —  December 12, 2011 6:03pm ET
we drank a 2005 Silver oak sonoma right after a 2005 shafer one-point-five. if we had drank (drunk?) them in the other order (silver oak first) all would have been fine. but the silver oak tasted like nothing after the shafer. i still bought two bottles of the 2007 silver oak sonoma at Vons for $38 per bottle after the 30% + 10% discount . At that price I can afford to buy and wont drink after shafer, plumpjack, pahlmeyer, orin Swift, etc. Its a super nice wine with food. almost boreaux like.
David R Duncan
Oakville, CA —  December 12, 2011 7:05pm ET
Thanks for posting this article about Silver Oak and we are proud to be celebrating our 40th anniversary next year – 2012.

There are a couple of inaccuracies in the article I want to clarify:

• The “first name” actually was Duncan Meyer and you can see the evolution of our label on our website here: http://silveroak.com/ Look in the upper right hand corner of our History Gallery.
• Director of Winemaking Daniel Baron, came to Silver Oak, after working for Christian Moueix for 13 years, in 1994 (not 2002). Daniel and Justin spent 6 vintages working closely together, crafting the future of Silver Oak.
• We have not changed our aging regime in any significant way. Our 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet will be released on February 4th, 2012. We see ‘08, and even ‘09 Cabernets in the market today from other producers, yet we have not even released our 2007 Napa yet. We age our wine for this extended period so that it is “drinkable upon release”, yet will improve for years in our customers’ cellars.

Silver Oak strives to produce wines that are meant to be consumed with food. Our distinctive style, barrel and bottle aging, consistency and age-ability has earned us trust with our fans over a long period of time - something we do not take for granted and work hard every day to achieve. Now in the second generation of family ownership, we are more committed than ever.

Our commitment to excellence is evident in every bottle we produce. While we are consistent, we constantly evaluate everything we do. Our viticulture practices, our grape sourcing, our state of the art Napa winery (completely rebuilt in 2008), and our friendly and open approach to wine make us who we are. Furthermore, we have every tool available to our team to pursue excellence at every turn. While we are not the smallest producer, we don’t have to cut any corners either.

Finally, regarding the 12/9/11 post about “wine scores”, we do not produce wines for sipping and assigning a numerical value. Wine changes over time. Wine is meant to consume with food, at table with friends and family. Much like one might feel it a challenge assigning a number ranking to a song (is a Rolling Stones song a 93 and a Mozart symphony an 89?) or to a piece of art (Jeffery Koons – 95, Picasso – 87, Rembrandt - 91?), we do not consider this an effective way to consider wine. We acknowledge, however, it has become a part of the fabric of our industry, good or not so good. Nonetheless, we produce wines to be enjoyed. Like any art form, most people love it and some people may not.

Read the book on the failure of New Coke and the science between the “sip test” and the “drink test”. A nice summary of this may be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Coke Scroll down to “Taste-test issues”. That is what Silver Oak makes wine for - to enjoy, not to evaluate 30 at a time. We make wines to drink. Enjoy!
Mark Lyon
Sonoma, CA; USA —  December 12, 2011 10:14pm ET
At their volumes, particularly the AV bottling; it's difficult to have enough concentration of fruit. I do believe they created a California Classic by not changing the label and style of wine. In short, they are an economic and marketing success. Many wine companies would love to have their business!

Justin Meyer was an amazing man who did so much for viticulture and enology research in California. Truly, a man who should be lauded.

I am glad that James Laube gives credit to producers who DON'T always have pinnacle scores; rather their track record.

Finally, I bought 6 bottles of their 2007 AV Cabernet; knowing that the region was outstanding in that vintage.
Doug Jeffirs
Pluto (the old one) —  December 13, 2011 9:48pm ET
If you like it it's great stuff.
If you don't, it's not.

C'est La Vie.
Anthony C Comito
Hillsborough, NJ —  December 15, 2011 1:19pm ET
My wife and I still have very fond memories of Release Day parties at the winery 15 or more years ago, before the accountants and attorneys forced a more conservative approach by the winery. Lot's of fun that added to the enjoyment of the wine.
Jerry Lindstrom
Parker, CO —  January 7, 2012 12:46am ET
I love it when the wine producer responds directly to a wine spectator article. Without discounting either, the different perspectives are so very valuable to us drinkers.

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