Wine Tasting on the Road: Silver Oak Cellars

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Before there was Opus One, Screaming Eagle, and Kistler, there was Silver Oak: Chic. Sleek. Modern. Bold. American. Silver Oak Cellars Napa Valley Winery was the final tour on our recent trip to California Wine Country.

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After visiting wineries that use only French oak in their production of Old World-inspired wines, it was an interesting contrast to tour Silver Oak and develop an appreciation for the techniques they use to craft their two New World Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Silver Oak is considered a cult Cabernet, so it was nice to have the opportunity to visit before concluding our tour of Wine Country.

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Our host, Chip Sellarole, greeted us in the Tasting Room with a sample of the current release of Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon:

* 2009 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – made of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and aged in American oak for 25 months – half new oak barrels and half barrels used for one prior vintage. The wine was then blended, bottled, and left to age in the bottle for 15 months before release. It had a dark red color and nose of cherries and spice.

Silver Oak has its roots in Colorado. Raymond Duncan – founder of Duncan Oil Inc., and the Durango Mountain “Purgatory” Ski Resort – visited Napa Valley in the 1960s and started investing in the Napa and Alexander valleys in the 1970s. He hired Justin Meyer to manage the vineyards and develop a winery. In 1972 Silver Oak Cellars was formed, named for the nearby Silverado Trail and town of Oakville. The winery remains family-owned. Today son David Duncan manages the winery’s operations and son Tim Duncan manages sales.

Silver Oak Cellars has two vineyards. The Alexander Valley vineyard was the source of the first vintage of Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon. Duncan purchased a second vineyard in Napa Valley near the town of Oakville. Duncan and Meyer founded two wineries, one on each property. The winery in Geyserville produces the Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, while the winery in Oakville produces the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are made from grapes grown in the estate vineyards (75%), as well as from grapes grown by neighbors of both wineries (25%).

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Silver Oak Cabernets are New World in style, which means lower acid and tannin, with a starring role for fruit. The wines are crafted to offer a balance between the elements and are drinkable today or in 20 years. They are delicious straight from the bottle. It was time for our second taste:

* 2009 Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – made from 87% Cabernet Sauvignon; the remaining 13% was composed of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. This Bordeaux blend was a bigger, bolder wine, with lots of dark fruit, baking spice, chocolate, and coffee. It was smooth with a nice finish. While the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ages, every three months it is taken out of the new oak barrels and pumped into the large steel tanks to allow for the sediment to be cleaned out of the barrels. The wine is then returned to the oak barrels to continue aging. Talk about winecraft!

Sellarole described wine as an art. When asked about Silver Oak’s preference for American oak over French oak, he spoke to the winemaker’s preference for American oak because of its low tannic acid. The cooper ages the staves outside for three to eight years before building the barrels, so a lot happens with a new oak barrel before it ever reaches the winery. Sellarole addressed the question of American oak versus French oak, where one is a blues band and the other an orchestra – different, with individual complexities. And that’s before the fermented grape juice meets any of the oak.

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As we walked around the winery, Sellarole pointed out black and white photographs decorating the walls. The pictures were portraits of Silver Oak employees at work. On our tour of the Tank Room, Sellarole drew our attention to Bose speakers overhead playing classic rock. During harvest the winery operates 24/7. The staff appreciates listening to music while they work, and the high-quality sound contributes to the employees’ quality of life. Sellarole said once the skins on the grapes break, the hard work begins. In the same way they want the grapes to ripen slowly, they want the grape juice to ferment slowly.

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Note Bose speakers hanging overhead.

The free run juice, or the juice that collects in the bottom of the tank due to gravity, is pulled from the tank and sprayed over the top of the “cap” or layer of floating grape skins. The tanks are jacketed to control their temperature during this process. The large whisks on the equipment board are used to stir bacteria into each tank to promote malolactic fermentation. Sometimes this happens naturally with bacteria that are already present on the grape skins, but typically the winemaker wants to control this process by inoculating the fermenting grape juice at the right moment to trigger the process that makes the wine taste creamier and richer.

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Silver Oak makes 100,000 cases annually. About 70,000 are Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and 30,000 are Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Sellarole described the differences between the two wines, starting with their terroir. The Napa Valley Cabernet is made from fruit grown in a cooler, foggier climate. The vines produce smaller fruit that have less juice. The result is an earthier, leaner, more astringent wine that tastes of blackberry and tobacco. The goal is to produce a Bordeaux blend in the same style every year. He said the wines are heritage wines, built to last 100 or more years, although most are consumed within 17 to 25 years.

We walked through the winery and appreciated seeing the event space for private parties. The furniture was made from barrel staves with a Western flair. The winery is fairly new, having been rebuilt after a fire damaged the property in 2006. The new construction features reclaimed stone and wood, as well as solar power.

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Ah, the Barrel Room! A stop at every winery requires a pause to inhale the heavenly smell of aging wine. Simply one of the best smells ever. The Barrel Room was temperature controlled with large racks of barrels filling the warehouse-type space. It was immaculate.

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Our last stop was the Glass House, or temperature-controlled adega that housed the library wine. The taste:

* 2006 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – it was nice to taste this older, mellower wine and compare it to the current (2009) release. The extra aging contributes to a sophisticated wine that offers deliciousness from the first smell to the last drop.

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Sellarole said this is the time to figure out what to pair with the wine: smell the empty glass to identify one element to put into the food. Pulling out one flavor will enhance the food-wine pairing experience.

Tours at both the Napa Valley Winery in Oakville and Alexander Valley Winery in Geyserville are available by reservation. Tastings do not require a reservation. Silver Oak Cellars Cabernets are available in wine stores and restaurants across Colorado and the country.

Special thanks to Chip Sellarole, who was an excellent host!

Until our next adventure in wine and food back home in Colorado…

Silver Oak Cellars Napa Valley Winery
915 Oakville Crossroad
Oakville, CA 94562

Napa Valley

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