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."