I should begin by stating that while I love a fine wine, I am not a wine connoisseur—one of those people who can swirl wine around in a glass to aerate it, announce that it has “good legs” or a “great nose”. Nor can I pretend to be able to smell a wine and announce with certainty that it has the aroma of currant, black berries, and vanilla. In fact, I have a hard time knowing, like more than 90% of the wine drinkers in America, if I’m drinking a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Merlot. So, while hardly being an expert, I do know a good wine from an inferior one, and I know an exceptional wine when I taste it.
When asked by my wife what I would like to do to celebrate my sixty-fourth birthday, I said I wanted to go to wine country and taste one of its best and most renowned Cabernet Sauvignons. And so it was that we arranged for a private tour and tasting at Silver Oak Cellars in Oakville, California.
In the late 1960s, Raymond Twomey Duncan visited the Napa Valley and was taken by the valley’s natural beauty and weather conducive to wine making. As a result, he bought lands there and also in the Alexander Valley, which is farther north and closer to the coast. Since he lived in Colorado and had no wine-making experience of his own, he hired Justin Meyer, an expert wine maker who was then working at Christian Brothers Winery, to plant vines and manage the vineyards. Meyer agreed, but only on the condition that their goal would be to elevate the quality of California wine. To do this, in 1972 they became partners, created Silver Oak Cellars, and developed a bold vision to achieve their mutual goal: Rather than making several varietals, they would concentrate on making only one variety of wine—Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a wine much like the celebrated red wines produced in the Bordeaux region of France. Cabernets are a full-bodied wine with a high tannin content, which lends structure and produces rich flavors such as vanilla, plum, black cherry, chocolate, and tobacco. But Duncan and Meyer didn’t want their wine to be just another Cabernet Sauvignon like those being produced by other local vintners; they wanted their wine to be richer, more complex, wonderfully drinkable when released, and still enjoyable (in fact even better if cellared properly) for decades to come.
To reach this lofty goal, Silver Oak distinguishes itself in several ways:
- It uses only the highest quality grapes of several varietals from their own vineyards and from top independent growers.
- After crushing and fermenting, the best vineyard lots are assessed and expertly blended by winemaker Dan Baron, Director of Wine Making, who earned degrees in viticulture and enology from the highly respected University of California at Davis, before he went to the Bordeaux region of France where he mastered his craft at the legendary Chateau Petrus.
- After fermentation, the wine is aged for a longer-than-usual 25 months in select American oak barrels of recent manufacture from A & K Cooperage of Higbee, Missouri, and then is cellared for 15–20 months in the bottle.
- The corks used are carefully selected by Associate Winemaker Christiane Schleussner, so as to avoid producing wine that is “corked”, or spoiled by the presence of a chemical called trichloroanisole. A corked wine, we were told, can have the unsavory smell of dirty socks.
The result of the meticulous care and expertise of Silver Oak is a consistently outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon, which, for the Napa Valley version, is a mixture of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, 6% Merlot grapes, 3% Petit Verdot grapes, and 1% Cabernet Franc grapes.
Our two-hour tour began in a refreshingly cool tasting room, and was conducted by Tom Walsh, the VIP Tour Program Manager, and a most congenial host. Tom has worked for Silver Oak for eighteen years, and it was readily apparent by his unbridled enthusiasm that he loves working for the winery.
As Tom was describing the company’s history and philosophy to us, he poured a refreshingly crisp 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, which was straw colored and had, in my opinion, a melon flavor. The wine was made by Twomey Cellars, also owned by the Duncan family, and created to produce varietals in addition to the Cabernet Sauvignons. Twomey has the same goal as Silver Oak—to make extraordinary, food-friendly wines that are entirely drinkable upon release. The Twomey wineries in Calistoga (Napa Valley) and Healdsburg (Sonoma County) produce a Merlot, a Pinot Noir, and a Sauvignon Blanc.
As we continued the tour, we were led into a room with walls festooned with photos of the founders, the original buildings, and told that under the marble floor there is a time capsule containing items from 1972, the year of the winery’s founding. As Tom told us more about the history of the winery, he proudly pointed to a photograph of the two founders wearing Hawaiian luau shirts and flower leis, and told us that for the 25th anniversary of the winery’s founding all of its employees were taken to Maui, Hawaii to celebrate. And this November, to celebrate the 40th anniversary, all employees will again be taken to Hawaii. It was a confirmation of the way Silver Oak treats its employees like family.
Next, we entered the vast rooms where the Cabernet Sauvignons are blended, fermented, and cellared. There, Tom explained the fermenting and cellaring processes while, at the same time, making sure that our glasses of the Sauvignon Blanc never reached empty.
After a most informative tour, we were taken upstairs to an elegant private tasting room where place mats were arranged on a long table, each with four glasses of wine. There was a glass of the 2009 Twomey Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, a 2007 Twomey Merlot, a 2007 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (made entirely of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes), and a glass of 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Tom explained that we should first taste the lighter wines, and then progress to the more full-bodied ones.
As instructed, we first sampled the Pinot Noir, which is produced where the climate is cooler than in the Napa Valley. The ruby-colored wine, unlike the Cabernets, is aged in French Burgundy barrels, rather than in American Oak, and is cellared for a shorter time (15 months). Tom said that the wine has a bouquet of rose petals. Even with my untrained nose, I had to agree, and it was delicious—a wine subtly delicate and yet bold at the same time. I could imagine drinking this wine with everything from salmon to steak, or by itself.
Next, we sampled the 2007 Napa Valley Merlot, a varietal much maligned in the movie, “Sideways”. Why such a versatile and complex wine was scoffed at in the movie remains a mystery to me. As Tom suggested, the dark ruby-colored Twomey Merlot was silky smooth, aromatic (I detected the scent of chocolate and berries), and at four years of age extremely drinkable. This Merlot would be excellent paired with pastas and red meats.
Last, but certainly not least, came the iconic Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignons, which were dark ruby in color with an almost purple or garnet edge. To the nose, (after Tom explained how to properly smell a wine) I did detect the delightful aromas of cedar, plum, black cherry, dark chocolate, and even roasted coffee. The more complex of the two, the Napa Valley Cabernet, seemed a bit richer in flavor than its Alexander Valley cousin. Both wines, however, were utterly superb. We ended up buying a half case of the Napa Valley Silver Oak and had a bottle that very night with a delicious dinner at a nearby restaurant. It was the perfect way to spend a day, and it made my birthday very special.
Silver Oak is an excellent stop for wine lovers and for tourists who want to experience great California wines and learn about the wine-making process. It is open for tastings and for tours:
Monday – Saturday 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Sunday, 11:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Photos: Philip Michaels