In the early 1970s, while living and writing in Colorado, my article "The Colorado Wine Barons" came out in the Denver city magazine. There was only one winery in Colorado at the time (now there are 80!), so the piece was about the three Colorado businessmen -- Tom Jordan, Joseph Phelps, Ray Duncan -- who had joined the rush to California to become part of a new, at least for America, wine phenomenon.
Ray Duncan, who owned the Colorado-based Duncan Oil, Inc. traveled frequently, including trips to California. He was taken with the beauty of wine country and started buying land in both Napa and Alexander valleys that would eventually be planted to vineyards. In 1972, Duncan and Justin Meyer founded Silver Oak Cellars, producing their first Cabernet Sauvignon from vineyards in Alexander Valley, while planting Silver Oak's first Napa Valley vineyard. Three years later they purchased Franciscan Vineyards, a troubled winery that had gone through numerous owners since its founding in 1973. But by 1979, Duncan and Meyer sold Franciscan to focus on Silver Oak and then, in 1981, they broke ground on the site of an old dairy farm in Oakville for their Silver Oak Cellars Napa Valley winery.
In the heady days of the 1970s, Northern California was chock-a-block with investors from outside the state looking to become part of the expanding wine scene, so opening two new wineries--even in different counties--was not all that unusual. But opening a new winery in the Napa Valley devoted only to making Cabernet Sauvignon…that was unusual.
From the beginning, the idea was to produce a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and age it only in American oak. By the 1994 vintage, the concept changed and the Silver Oak Napa became a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot, but still aged solely in American oak -- a California take on the classic Bordeaux chateau-bottled red wine. Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in a combination of new and once-used American oak barrels -- the quintessence of a California-style Cabernet Sauvignon.
It was Justin Meyer who designed Silver Oak's barrel program and the exclusive use of American oak. He felt that American oak was less harshly tannic than French oak, and that American oak imparted a spicy note that Meyer believed complemented the Silver Oak style. Regarding the switch to the use of the Bordeaux varieties in the Napa wine, winemaker Daniel Baron explained that as the vineyards matured, higher percentages of the supporting grapes were added. 'I started with 1% Petit Verdot but ultimately moved up to 2% because at that level it makes a difference.' Baron likes the high notes, especially ones recalling violets, that Petit Verdot brings to the blend. The 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which will be released on February 7, is 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. When tasting it at the winery, my impression was lots of fresh, ripe berries lifted by a nuance that I couldn't put my finger (or tongue) on, but it might have been that subtle Petit Verdot grace note.
Before long, the now-familiar silver and black Silver Oak label with the water tower and oak tree in the vineyard image became one of California's best known wine icons. The Silver Oak image and popularity soared over the next few decades, and as the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon took on near-cult status, crowds began camping out the night before release day to be the first to get their bottles of the latest release. Viewed by many critics as a regrettable sign that the image of Napa Valley wine was changing, it was also a clear indication of the growing popularity of this new kind of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Things were going along smoothly for Silver Oak until a fateful night in 2006 when the Napa winery was destroyed by a fire. But from the devastating loss, the Duncan family, led by Ray Duncan's two sons David and Tim, with input from Daniel Baron, formulated plans for a new winery that would meld together modern grape processing and winemaking techniques while still honoring the origins of Silver Oak Cellars. The new, recently opened Oakville winery is a beautiful piece of contemporary architecture wrapped around a modern and functional winery designed solely to produce only Cabernet Sauvignon. Among the impressive features incorporated in the new winery was the raising of the entire site five feet to be above the flood plain of the Napa River which runs through the property. To eliminate breeding spots for bacterial contamination, no wood is used anywhere in the winery, just stainless steel and corrugated steel, and the building is designed without columns to allow for free access throughout.
Wherever possible, the Duncans used re-cycled materials, including hand-quarried limestone on the outside and inside of the building that they reclaimed from an old flour mill in Kansas, redwood and stained glass windows salvaged from the original winery, and perhaps most important, the iconic old water tower was moved a few feet from its original site, re-roofed and painted. The newly opened Silver Oak Cellars in Napa is at 915 Oakville Crossroad, Oakville. Tours are available by reservation but the tasting room is open every day but Sunday, and there is range of tasting fees based on several options, from one wine to six consecutive vintages and a special food and wine pairing.
Silver Oak Cellars will release the 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon this month. Select vintages of older Napa Valley and Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, in various formats, are available at the winery tasting rooms in Oakville and Geyserville. I recently had the pleasure of tasting an eight-vintage vertical of Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons at the Oakville winery. The superb 1999 is concentrated and rich with great character and length; the very good 1997 is holding nicely with a lovely hint of dried herbs and warm fruit, while the superb 1995 is a seamless blend of fruit and oak, finished with concentration and elegance. Unfortunately, none of these three wines is available at the tasting room. Many older wines are still for sale, such as the Napa Cabernet from the classic 1985 vintage, showing the elegant cedar-tobacco character of aged Cabernet Sauvignon, available in the 3 liter and 5 liter formats only. Stocks of currently available vintages are available on the Silver Oak web site, www.silveroak.com