15 Versus 95,000: Silver Oak and the Question of Tastemaker Opinion
“Well,” I said, slapping my hand playfully on the side of a brand new American oak barrel in the heart of Silver Oak’s nearly-as-new Napa Valley barrel room, the thump resonating through a state-of-the-art stone and steel structure that’s been built to withstand movement from California’s not-infrequent seismic events; “this is the scene of the crime right here, isn’t it?”
Whoops. My internal censor had taken an ill-timed break, and I’d hit Silver Oak where it hurts. You name the wine cognoscenti wisecrack, and chances are good that the Silver Oak staff have already heard it: “Silver Joke;” “the Oak’s on you;” “Sliver Choke.” The echo in the barrel room had died down, but my words were still resonating through Silver Oak CEO David Duncan’s head; winemaker Daniel Baron looked on pensively, and in those few pregnant seconds my mind was also busy, imagining roughly four dozen potential reactions to my ill-conceived statement, most of them ending with me having my ass kicked and being thrown face-first onto Route 29.
But David is a keen businessman, and after a brief moment a calm came over his face. “We have way more people who love it than who hate it,” he said with a half smile.
After spending the better part of two days with Duncan and Baron (as part of a Sonoma-area press trip), I learned that Duncan’s unapologetic reaction to my offhanded comment could be taken as a compendium of Silver Oak’s approach to just about everything that they do. According to Duncan, Silver Oak saw “ninety-five thousand visitors to our four tasting rooms last year; who are we going to make wine for – them, or fifteen wine writers?”
Silver Oak’s Cabernet-based wines are nothing if not consistent, which at production levels of about one hundred thousand cases a year from fruit sourced over multiple vineyard locations in the Napa and Alexander Valleys, isn’t easy to do. Baron – Silver Oak’s second winemaker in forty years, whose pedigree includes Petrus and Dominus – walked me through Silver Oak’s production techniques, which are best described as focused-bordering-on-obsessive when it comes to achieving consistency while maintaining a standard quality level at high production volumes.
After a fire destroyed their Napa Valley wine cellar in 2006, the winery was rebuilt to indulge the obsessive focus on consistency, and now “nothing enters the winery that isn’t built here,” according to Baron. For example, hose ends have been cut off as a sterilization measure. Tanks are housed in metal buildings to minimize the possibility of spreading any cork taint. Berry sensory analysis is done via a complicated tasting process that is calibrated across the staff for identifying target ripeness levels. ABVs are targeted at under 14%, and if the brix gets too high in any vineyard row for three consecutive vintages, that row “gets cut from the program.” Blending trials have turned into travails, with the 2011 vintage going through seventy iterations before the final blend was decided by Baron. And they own the cooperage and forests that produce the 100% American oak in which their Cabernets are aged for 24 months before bottling.
It’s that last bit that seems to get the wine cognoscenti in a tizzy. Early vintages of Silver Oak were lauded, given mid-90s scores and in Duncan’s words made them “the first real ‘cult’ wine.” But the wine world has not been kind to Silver Oak lately. While it’s widely believed that the general quality of American oak has steadily improved over the last two decades, Silver Oak’s insistence on sticking with it in favor of the more refined wine styles achievable under French oak hasn’t won them many recent critical converts. The likes of Gary Vaynerchuk have attacked them in blind tastings, calling their 2003 Alexander Valley Cabernet “very average-esque, run-of-the-mill red wine from California” and a “$20 Cab.”
And it seems that none of it really matters.
Boatloads of people pay upwards of $70 for Silver Oak’s Alexander Valley release, and $100 for its Napa Valley Cabernet every year. Their clientele includes collectors of modest means who may only ever get to visit Napa once or twice in their lives, to famous movie and country rock stars. And yet, there are no shortage of critics or sommeliers who would write that clientele off as simply not understanding what good value for money is when it comes to fine wine. High prices for Silver Oak releases have been maintained, despite the fact that there usually aren’t high scores to go along with them, nor is there anything exclusive about their production volumes. It’s a wine situation that Vaynerchuk has said “continues to baffle me.” But what might be more baffling is why tastemakers seem so off the mark versus public opinion when it comes to these wines.
I got the sense that Silver Oak is a slightly conflicted bunch over all of this – on the one hand, wanting to be recognized for their high standards of production quality and for pleasing so many people; on the other, wanting to have critical acclaim for external validation. “We wondered if we were doing the right thing,” Duncan confessed to me when we toured Silver Oak’s “Jump Rock” Soda Canyon vineyard location. “But we make Silver Oak because so many people love the way it tastes.”
So how does it taste?
I sampled both the Alexander Valley and Napa Valley Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignons, including vintages from the 1990s and 2000s, and found a lot of interesting common threads woven between the releases from each location. Generally, the Napa selections are riper, with darker fruits, a lot of oak spices and developing more savory notes over time. The Alexander Valley wines were more herbal, earthy, and plumy, with tea and tobacco notes.
None of the wines were tired out, even after over a decade in bottle. And while the telltale signs of American oak – toasted vanilla and sweet spices – were there, they didn’t dominate any of the wines. If the goal has been to provide consistent, long-lived, food-friendly wines, there’s little doubt in my mind that Silver Oak has achieved it.
Value for money is another matter. While I saw the Alexander Valley offerings as offering better value than their Napa Valley wines, I wouldn’t call any of them profound. Long-lived and consistent? Definitely. Tasty and complex? Both words that showed up in most of my Silver Oak tasting notes. Food-friendly? For sure, with ABVs generally under 14% and a nice core of tangy red fruits and acidic lift. “Worth” the price tags? Probably not, when you consider how much Cabernet competition is out there.
But then, I know of almost one hundred thousand people who’d disagree with me on that last part.