Celebrating Tradition at Silver Oak

by Chuck Hayward

Tradition is a word that's frequently bandied about in the wine business. It is a very powerful term with a role in winemaking that clearly cuts both ways. For many, upholding tradition is considered to be a noble thing, a standard to be respected. On the other hand, many find that maintaining tradition can be a straightjacket that prevents innovation and the investigation of new ideas.

Respecting traditions while developing new ones is something that's hard to achieve in the New World and especially in California. Winemaking traditions are developed over time and have been vigorously maintained for centuries in some European regions. California's wineries are relatively young so their winemaking traditions are still in the process of being defined. But as California's wine industry matures, wineries are now developing traditions that are closely linked to their image as well as the wines that they produce.

It's not easy to keep traditions alive. There are temptations aplenty that can cause a winery to cast aside past practices. The need to balance the books can be the most pressing reason for changing directions. And this is often closely related to a winery's wine style. Wineries that make wines perceived to be out of style can see sales slow and inventories increase. As a result the pressures to make wines that appeal to current fashions can be immense.

And so it goes with Silver Oak, one of California's most iconic wineries. Founded in 1972, it can be safely said that after 40 years, the winery has developed a few traditions of their own, many of which have endeared Silver Oak to a large swath of the wine drinking public. Today, each vintage of Silver Oak's two cabernets have little problem selling out. The release day parties are still legendary events requiring a special phlanx of police officers just to control traffic, and their catchphrase "Life is a Cabernet" is seen on license plate holders across the country.

Yet Silver Oak maintains a somewhat controversial reputation. Beloved by the broad market, the winery is also the target of sniping comments by many in the wine business. Critics often complain about the winery's continued use of American oak. Others assume that Silver Oak's popularity means their wines must be of lesser quality. The winery's lengthy history in Napa (relatively speaking) and Silver Oak's laserlike focus on being a cabernet specialist is seen by some as stolid and unchanging in a world that celebrates the latest and newest trends.

To truly understand a winery requires a stepping back from all the criticism made by others and to look at things objectively. A recent tasting of the winery's 2009 Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon showed an insight into what makes Silver Oak so unique in Napa and the role that the winery's continuing respect for tradition plays in how they make wine. With their release day coming up, it seemed like a good opportunity to recognize and even celebrate the traditions of Silver Oak.

American Oak at Silver Oak

Silver Oak is probably most known for their longstanding tradition of aging their wines in American oak. The Napa cuvee sees 100% new American oak for a period of 24 months while the fruit from Alexander Valley is aged in an equal mix of new and one year old oak for the same amount of time. The winery took the precaution of securing their future oak requirements by purchasing a share of the Missouri cooper that has supplied the winery in the past.

It's important to remember the history of American oak in Napa Valley winemaking. Following prohibition through to the 60s, most of Napa's top wineries used American oak since it was readily available. French oak was harder to come by at the time and there were few wineries that understood its contribution to aging wine. As such, it represents one of California's most unique winemaking traditions, one that few wineries continue today.

The not so subtle and disparaging comments towards the use of American oak made by many people in the wine industry is also quite interesting. In Barolo and Barbaresco, Slavonian oak casks have been traditionally used for aging wines. Recently, many producers have chosen to age their wine in new French barriques prompting criticism from some quarters that traditional winemaking practices have been tossed out in the pursuit of a riper, modern style of wine. Interestingly, the calls to maintain the tradition of American oak and Napa cabernet sees few supporters.

Other Silver Oak Traditions

While the use of American oak may be the Silver Oak's signature tradition, there are other customs that have been honored over the past decades which provide an insight to the winery. Probably the most intriguing practice revolves around the ripeness of their cabernets.

The debate about high alcohol levels is a frequent topic of conversation these days. Napa's cabernets have long been chastised by some for wines with alcohols above 15%. Some wineries today are making a pointed effort to reduce alcohol levels in response to this new trend yet Silver Oak has not needed to do so. Their alcohols have ranged between 12-13% in the early years through to the beginning of the new century. Since then, the range has been from 13-13.9%. Holding true to this style while others push the envelope is not easy but it helps to have their philosophy of balanced wines as part of their heritage.

Another long held belief is that their wines should be sold when ready to drink. Traditionally, the wines are released four years after the vintage with two years of bottle aging following the two years the wines spend in barrel. Very few premium cabernets are released so late. As Silver Oak's 2009 cabernet is ready for release, Caymus Vineyards is set to release their 2011. It matters little as to whether releasing a wine early is for stylistic purposes or to improve cash flow. For almost 40 years, Silver Oak has held true to their tradition of holding their wine in the cellar for over 4 years. That's a commitment few wineries can match.

Finally, it's worth noting that in a region that sees some pretty astronomical prices, Silver Oak's pricing is a relative bargain given its location, history and popularity. Prices over the last ten years have been remarkably stable. That's a tradition that we can all admire.

A new tradition?

For Silver Oak, like many of Napa valley's wineries, securing consistent sources of fruit is imperative to maintain or even increase production. That's why many wineries are currently purchasing vineyards at a rapid pace. Silver Oak recently purchased the vineyards attached to the historic Sausal Winery in Alexander Valley. The jewel of the property is not cabernet as one might expect but a ancient plot of zinfandel. Thought to be among the oldest zin vines left in Sonoma, there are no plans to replant them to cabernet sauvignon. Instead, Silver Oak intends to preserve the vines and make wines from this rare fruit. Plans have not been finalized but the wine will not be released under the Silver Oak label. Either way, it's great to see the Duncan family preserve everything that's wrapped up in those old zin vines. Witnessing the birth of a new tradition is something few of us get to experience. Bravo!

The 2009 Alexander Valley cabernet is Silver Oak's Latest release! Check it out here.