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American Beauty

James Laube
Posted: June 20, 2002

Heading into its 30th harvest this fall, Silver Oak Cellars is battling an image of complacency. This comes despite the winery's status as a veritable Cabernet Sauvignon tour de force. Its wines, marked by rich flavors, supple tannins and the vivid scent of American oak, are still feverishly popular, appealing to a wildly diverse crowd.

Few wineries anywhere can put up numbers to match Silver Oak's. It made a total of 68,000 cases in 1997 (the current release), with the 50,000 bottled under the Alexander Valley label selling for $60 and the 18,000 from Napa Valley priced at $100. The two wines are comparable in quality. In some years, the herb- and currant-laced Alexander Valley wine is superior. In others, the denser, more tannic Napa Valley rendition offers more substance.

When Silver Oak brings out its new releases at its Alexander Valley winery each year, die-hard fans arrive in vehicles ranging from stretch limos to Harley Davidsons. The well-heeled shell out thousands of dollars for hefty 6-liter bottles; those with thinner wallets are just as thrilled to leave clutching a bottle or two. Restaurants sell the winery's Cabernet like crazy.

Behind the scenes, though, owner Ray Duncan, 71, and winemaker Daniel Baron, 52, are making changes. They want to make more wine and, more importantly, better wine. They're aware that Silver Oak's wines rarely garner the glowing accolades they used to and that the Cabernet market runneth over with viable competitors. "I feel like at times Silver Oak was coasting and we're not as proud of the wines as perhaps we should be," Baron says of past vintages.

Silver Oak began in 1972 with an Alexander Valley Cabernet. Founder and former co-owner Justin Meyer had the image of Bordeaux's Château Latour in mind. One winery, one wine, 100 percent Cabernet. He had studied Beaulieu Vineyards' success in using American oak and opted for a similar barrel-aging regime. While American oak can have a pronounced dill (or lavender) flavor that's troubling to some, many others find it distinctive and compelling. Moreover, American oak gives off less wood tannins than French oak does, rendering supple-textured wines. Meyer's program of extended barrel (and bottle) aging for five years before release produced a richly flavored wine with a silky-smooth mouthfeel. The winery is so committed to American oak that it owns a 250-acre white-oak forest in Higbee, Mo.

Now the sole owner of Silver Oak, Duncan is shifting the estate into higher gear. While Meyer bowed out of the business a year ago, Duncan has ambitious plans to expand Silver Oak and fill both the Alexander Valley and Napa facilities to capacity. He has also added a new label, Twomey, a Napa Valley Merlot from Soda Canyon Ranch vineyard; the site will double as the centerpiece for the Napa Cabernet.

Duncan wants the Alexander Valley winery to make 70,000 cases, and Twomey, a $70 wine, to reach 10,000 cases in the 2002 vintage. The goal for the Napa Valley bottling is 40,000 cases.

The winery's lack of estate vineyards and control of grape supplies has handicapped Silver Oak in Napa Valley; prior to the acquisition of the 100-acre Soda Canyon Ranch in 1999, Silver Oak Napa was made from purchased grapes.

In Alexander Valley, it's the opposite situation. The winery owns several hundred acres of Cabernet and 90 percent of the grapes it uses. Yet the winery's expansion hinges on its ability to buy grapes from some of Sonoma's top growers. And Baron has found several, including Barelli Creek Vineyard (owned by Gallo Sonoma), Hoot Owl Creek and Belle Terre, a longtime grape source for Chateau St. Jean.

For Baron's part, he's aiming to meet Duncan's goals, but he also wants to make his mark by improving both Cabernets, giving them richer flavors and honing in on the Twomey Merlot's distinctive, rich earthiness. The 1999 Twomey (90 points), for instance, is aged in French oak and released two years earlier than Silver Oak. The major tinkering Baron is doing with the Silver Oak Cabs is adding vineyards to increase volume, but the winery is still adhering to Meyer's wine style and use of American oak.

"When I joined Silver Oak, having worked at Pétrus and Dominus, Justin told me, "Don't even talk to me about French oak,'" Baron recalls. The topic comes up sometimes, then everyone realizes the folly of tinkering with an American wine icon.

James Laube, Wine Spectator's Napa Valley-based senior editor, has been with the magazine since 1983.

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