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Silver Oak: Reappraising a California Cabernet Icon

2012 June 5

Silver Oak's iconic water tower in Oakville

When I talk to people who say they really like California Cabernet, but who don’t otherwise seem all that knowledgeable about wine, nine times out of ten they tell me Silver Oak is one of their favorites and/or the one they collect. Silver Oak has also long been among the top selling wines at restaurants, and was number two again in 2012 on Wine & Spirits Magazine’s Restaurant Top 50 list of top selling Cabernets. For wine geeks, on the other hand, few major labels are more regularly derided than Silver Oak. Many in the highly knowledgeable wine crowd have taken to referring to the wine as “Silver Joke.”

Why does this brand, whose origins date back to the early 1970s, so sharply split casual wine lovers from ardent wine geeks?

I recently attended a retrospective tasting for the media on the occasion of Silver Oak’s 40th anniversary, with the President and CEO of Silver Oak, David Duncan. David is the son of the winery’s founder and original co-owner, Raymond Duncan, who founded the winery in 1972 with partner Justin Meyer.

5/22/12 Silver Oak Retrospective
Silver Oak President & CEO David Duncan

The publicist who invited me to the event remembered I’d previously told her I wasn’t a big fan of Silver Oak, but asked if I might be interested in coming nonetheless. Since it had been many years since I last tasted a vertical of Silver Oak, and because I was very curious about the direction the winery was currently taking, I said yes.

I’m glad I did. I found the tasting fascinating, and it very much made me re-evaluate my take on the wines, which had originally been formulated in the early years of my burgeoning wine obsession. I would like to think I know a lot more about wine and its history than I did then, and that I have a better basis for appreciating Silver Oak as a phenomenon than I did nine years or so ago, when I last participated in a major vertical of the wines.

In talking with friends and new acquaintances since the tasting, I’ve gathered that there are many common misperceptions about Silver Oak. Many people seem to think it was sold to new owners in the ‘90s who greatly expanded production. Others seem to think there was a major stylistic change at some point in the last decade. Still others are under the impression the wines don’t age very well.

The facts are that Silver Oak was founded in 1972 by Raymond Twomey Duncan–a Coloradan in the oil and gas business who had started buying Sonoma and Napa vineyards following visits to wine country in the late ‘60s–and Justin Meyer, who had recently left as a winemaker at Christian Brothers. The two decided to produce only Cabernet Sauvignon (becoming only the second major producer, following Diamond Creek, to focus only on Cabernet); to use exclusively American oak barrels; and to age the wines sufficiently in oak and bottle prior so they would be drinkable on release.

These remain the guiding principles behind Silver Oak’s wines, which are remarkable for their consistency over the past 40 years. Where other Cabernet producers went for greater ripeness, and higher alcohols starting in the mid-1980s, seeking to appeal to Robert Parker’s palate once he became the leading critic, Silver Oak maintained the balanced, relatively low alcohol levels of the wines that first gained them attention and a loyal consumer following. Parker himself did give some strong scores to Silver Oak—including a couple of 94s and 95s to the Napa bottling–until the 1998 vintage, which he rated 88 points, as he did the 2000. Parker stopped rating the wines at all after the 2002 vintage.

5/22/12 Silver Oak Retrospective
Silver Oak Napa vertical

Justin Meyer died in 2002 after having picked his successor as winemaker, Daniel Baron, in 1994, and having worked alongside Baron until 2001. That year, Justin and his wife Bonny sold their half interest in Silver Oak to their partner, Raymond Duncan.

Daniel Baron obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in viticulture and enology at U.C. Davis, followed by stints at Navarro Vineyards, Chateau Petrus and Dominus. He was general manager at Dominus, where he’d worked since 1982, when he took the position Justin offered at Silver Oak.

Silver Oak has produced an Alexander Valley bottling since the 1972 vintage, based largely on estate owned vineyards, and a Napa Valley bottling—a blend of estate and purchased fruit—since the ’79 vintage. They also offered a single vineyard bottling, Bonny’s, from a four-acre vineyard planted by Justin Meyer in 1974, from 1979 through 1991. The Alexander Valley is always 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Since 1994, the Napa bottling has been a blend of Bordeaux varieties, dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon.

5/22/12 Silver Oak Retrospective
Alexander Valley vertical

The wines are aged for about 25 months in American oak. The Alexander Valley sees one half new and one half once-used barrels, and spends another 14 months in bottle before release. The Napa version gets about 20 months in bottle after oak aging.

Although the wines are released about four and a half years after the vintage, with the intention of being readily drinkable, the wines also have the capacity to age for a good 15 years or so after that (i.e., less than more structured Cabernet-based wines like Dunn and Ridge Monte Bello, but respectably ageworthy nonetheless). My favorite of the 13 Silver Oaks we sampled during the retrospective tasting was the oldest, the 1978 Alexander Valley. The 1985 Alexander Valley was also still showing well, and the 1985 Napa Valley has another ten or more years left to go.

The American oak character, which includes dill and vanilla flavors, comes through strongly on these wines. Those who are not fans of American oak, which includes a lot of wine geeks I know, tend to dismiss Silver Oak for these characteristics. American oak also tends to impart less tannin than French oak, which promotes Silver Oak’s goal to release wines with softer, more approachable tannins on release. With the exception of Ridge, few other major American Cabernets are still made using all or predominantly American oak.

Having become a fan of aged Rioja, which traditionally spends two or more years in American oak, I don’t at all mind the American oak characteristics of Silver Oak. In fact, this tasting brought home to me that Silver Oak is the most like traditional Rioja of any California Cabernet.

I also give Silver Oak points for investing in the barrel and bottle aging necessary for these Cabs to be approachable on release. With Chateau Latour’s announcement last week that they are going this direction too, following the 2012 vintage, maybe this old Spanish tradition is going to start to become the wave of the future. If so, I think consumers will greatly benefit.

Other interesting facts that I learned about Silver Oak at this tasting: They became partners with a Missouri barrel producer in 2000, A&K Cooperage, so as to assure a consistent source for fine Missouri white oak barrels that they feel give the right balance of spice and vanilla flavors that enhance the black-fruit characteristics of their wines. The winery for the Napa wines they rebuilt in Oakville, following the destruction of their prior winery by fire in 2006, is designed for maximum energy efficiency, including 11-inch thick walls and over 1400 solar panels, which generate more energy than they use.

Are these among California’s greatest Cabernets, worthy of the current $100 price tag for the Napa and $70 for the Alexander Valley? For my money, no. I like the way they remind me of mature Riojas, and suggest traditional, 1970s Cabernet by way of Rioja, but I’d personally rather have a Rioja that costs a lot less, or a more complex and structured California Cabernet that gives me more to think about than a Silver Oak. On the other hand, they are very stylistically consistent wines. So for those looking for a reliable Cabernet on a restaurant wine list that will be drinkable with dinner, Silver Oak is certainly a sensible choice. On that basis, I can totally see why Silver Oak has stayed high on Wine & Spirits’ Restaurant Top 50 list all these years.

Further, I admire the fact that Silver Oak bucked the super ripe, concentrated, high alcohol Parkerization of California Cabernet. The Duncan family, and winemaker Daniel Baron, are clearly very focused and serious about what they’re producing, and I respect that commitment too. It is interesting, though, that in their latest project together—Twomey Wines, which started with a 1999 Merlot, and is now also offering appellation and vineyard designate Pinot Noirs and a Sauvignon Blanc—the Duncans and Baron are going with exclusively French oak.

Bottom line—I think it’s time that misconceptions about Silver Oak, and the knee-jerk derision of the label by my fellow wine geeks, deserve to be put to rest. These are wines with a point of view—one that won’t appeal to all tastes, but that does make them reliable choices for drinking upon release. Forty years on, the vision guiding these wines has remained remarkably consistent, and consumers know what they’re going to get. These are admirable qualities in the often confusing and chaotic wine marketplace.

For my complete tasting notes on the 13 Silver Oaks we tasted spanning four decades, and four of the Twomey wines, see below:

SIVER OAK RETROSPECTIVE – Wayfare Tavern, San Francisco, California (5/22/2012)

5/22/12 Silver Oak Retrospective

Alexander Valley Flight

  • 1978 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley
    Bricked medium dark red violet color; appealing, redolent, maturing, ripe cassis, baked cherry, raspberry, cedar, plum sauce nose; tasty, maturing but with signs of youth yet, tart cassis, tart currant, tart cherry, cedar palate; medium-plus finish (12% alcohol) (93 pts.)
  • 1985 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley
    Bricking medium dark red violet color; lifted, maturing, herbal, dried cherry, lightly herbaceous, tobacco, cedar nose; mature, poised, tart cassis, ripe currant, dill palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (13.2% alcohol) (92 pts.)
  • 1990 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley
    Bricking dark red violet color; mature, tobacco, olive, tart currant nose; herbaceous, olive, tobacco, tart currant, mineral palate wtih grip; medium-plus finish (13.3% alcohol) (91 pts.)
  • 1996 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley
    Bricking dark red violet color; redolent, oak, walnut, tart currant nose; tight yet, olive, tart currant, cedar, tart plum palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (should go 15 more years; 13.% alcohol) (91 pts.)
  • 2000 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley
    Dark red violet color; tart currant, olive, green olive nose with a little VA; maturing, olive, tart currant, tart cassis palate with medium acidity; should go up to 15 years; medium-plus finish (12.8% alcohol) (90 pts.)
  • 2007 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Alexander Valley
    Dark red violet color; appealing, ripe berry, black currant, black fruit, berry nose; tasty, tight, tart black fruit, tart plum, ripe black currant palate; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (showing more black fruit than earlier vintages) (91 pts.)

Napa Valley Flight

  • 1985 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Bricking medium dark red violet color; mature, tart green olive, black tobacco, tart plum nose; tart plum, tart currant, olive, cedar palate with medium acidity; should go 10-12 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (13.1% alcohol) (91 pts.)
  • 1987 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Bricking very dark red violet color; herbaceous, tart currant, olive nose; tart currant, olive, green olive palate with integrated American oak and medium acidity; medium-plus finish 91+ points (13% alcohol) (91 pts.)
  • 1992 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Dark red violet color; tart cassis, cedar, ripe currant nose; tasty, poised, tart cassis, tart cherry, cedar palate; should go 20-plus years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (12.5% alcohol) (92 pts.)
  • 1997 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Very dark red violet color; ripe berry, plum, cassis nose; youthful, plush, ripe plum, cassis, black fruit palate; needs 2 years and should go 12-15; medium-plus finish (93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot; 13.9% alcohol) (92 pts.)
  • 2001 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Very dark red violet color; ripe cassis, plum, ripe black fruit, cedar nose; tart plum, cedar, tart berry, black fruit palate; needs 3 years and should go 15 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot; 13.6% alcohol) (91 pts.)
  • 2005 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Dark ruby color; dill, herb, tobacco nose; tight, herbaceous, olive, dill palate; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot; 13.5% alcohol) (88 pts.)
  • 2007 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Very dark ruby color; ripe blackberry, black currant, boysenberry, vanilla nose; tight, ripe black currant, cassis, berry, blackberry palate with sweet, firm tannins; needs 3-4 years and should go 20-plus; medium-plus finish 92+ points (90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot; 13.9% alcohol) (92 pts.)

Twomey

5/22/12 Silver Oak Retrospective

  • 2011 Twomey Sauvignon Blanc – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Light yellow color; tart citrus, lime nose; tart lime, tart citrus, mineral, chalk, coconut palate; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
  • 2010 Twomey Pinot Noir Anderson Valley – USA, California, North Coast, Anderson Valley
    Medium dark cherry red color; appealing, tart cherry, raspberry, spice, black cherry nose; tasty, silky textured, poised, tart black cherry, spice, black raspberry palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (blend of fruit from Savoy, Ferrington and Monument Tree vineyards) (91 pts.)
  • 2010 Twomey Pinot Noir Russian River Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
    Dark cherry red color; tart red fruit, hibiscus, tart cherry nose; tasty, tight, cherry, black cherry, baking spice, hibsicus palate; needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
  • 2007 Twomey Merlot Napa Valley – USA, California, Napa Valley
    Very dark ruby color; tart plum, tart blackberry, cedar nose; tight, tart plum, berry, black currant palate; with good acidity; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (with 4% Cabernet Franc, 1% Cabernet Sauvignon) (91 pts.)
m4s0n501
9 Responses leave one →
  1. J.R. Young permalink
    June 6, 2012

    Richard, I did not know that Riojas used American oak. When did this begin (since you note that aged Riojas used AO)?

    I guess my question is more of a trade based question and when did the Riojan winemakers discover American oak and how quickly was it adopted?

    Cheers,
    J.R.

    • Richard Jennings permalink*
      June 6, 2012

      J.R.,
      Thanks for the question. It was the Bordelais, who came to Rioja in droves in the 1870s and 1880s for juice to sell (when their own vineyards were decimated by phylloxera), who introduced the 225-liter barriques to Rioja. Very early on, however, Rioja producers opted for American oak barriques instead of the significantly more expensive French ones. This appears to have become standard in Rioja by about 1900.
      I’ve written about the origin of Rioja winemaking traditions here.
      –Richard

  2. June 7, 2012

    Nicely done. I’ve only had occasion to taste Silver Oak once. It was a trade tasting in Atlanta a few years back- probably the 2005 vintage. I found the wines to be much as you describe- balanced and elegant with very nice if not particularly complex flavors. I did enjoy tasting the wines- especially after several highly concentrated and non-oak-integrated Cabs in the same tasting.

    To me Silver Oak is a lot like Jordan. They make a consistently very good wine and probably deserve a little more credit for what they do. I do like Jordan’s price point much better :)

  3. June 7, 2012

    One more thing- Smith Madrone is another producer of note who uses American Oak on Cabernet, albeit a more esoteric producer than Ridge or Silver Oak.

  4. Shane Pearson permalink
    July 10, 2012

    Thanks for the revisit. I really liked Silver Oak in the late 80s and 90s and still will pick up the older vintages when I see them, but I think my palate changed over the years and I have not found that the newer vintages always do it for me. In comparison, I have followed Spottswoode just also long but find the new and older vintages equally as enjoyable. I do think some of the newer Silver Oak vintages drink well, but not as well as the 85′, 90′ and 95′ vintages from Napa.

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