Silver Oak was founded in 1972; their story starts with two men, co-founders Justin Meyer and Raymond (Ray) Twomey Duncan (both deceased). Ray was born in South Bend Indiana to parents Walter Sr (a World War I veteran) and Velma Twomey Duncan; he was raised in La Salle, Illinois and graduated in 1952 from Notre Dame University in South Bend. The Duncan family has deep roots in La Salle, tracing their heritage in the region back to a Nicholas Duncan, originally from Ireland who came here in the early 1840s to work on building parts of what would became the 96 mile long Illinois and Michigan Canal, in Illinois connecting La Salle on its western end with Chicago on the north eastern end. Nicholas was also a Justice of the Peace and was on the board of trustees which led to the founding of the city in 1852.
Prominent Duncan family members have been involved in various companies over the years including La Salle State Bank, Marquette Cement (founded 1898) and Walter Sr’s own company he founded in 1913, Duncan Insurance Co and later his multi-state oil and gas business.
Ray was a long time Colorado resident who founded Duncan Oil Inc in Durango in 1958, now headquartered in Denver (at one point maintained an office in Calgary) while still operating a number of leases in select states. The family business, Duncan Oil Properties, Inc. originated in the Illinois Basin in southern Illinois and capitalized on an oil boom there in the 1940s. Ray worked for his father for several years in the 1950s. Ray’s brother Walter’s family still operates Duncan Oil Properties, Inc., based in Oklahoma City.
Ray was very active in the Colorado ski world – in 1966 he founded Purgatory Ski Resort on Durango Mountain and later in his life was inducted into the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and the Rocky Mountain Oil & Gas Hall of Fame.
While at Notre Dame studying for his eventual degree in Philosophy, remarkably Ray met another future Napa Valley vintner, Jack Novak (who founded Spottswoode Winery in St. Helena with his wife Mary). Both Jack and Ray became friends – in 1969 the Novaks invited Ray to Napa and Sonoma (Ray’s first visit to the area). Ray spotted a report put out by Bank of America that forecast a significant increase in the average wine consumption of the American consumer which at the time was around 2 bottles per person per year. Intrigued by this as well as the region, Ray purchased his first land in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley in 1970 in partnership with Jack Novak (called Los Amigos Vineyard located next to Highway 128 about 2 miles north of Jimtown).
In 1972 Ray was told about a 258 acre property (part of the Keig family Oakville Dairy farm) for sale in Oakville containing an old cattle barn. Monk and vintner, Justin Meyer (his birth name was Raymond but he later changed it – being a fortuitous decision which would ultimately help lessen confusion in regards to the two owners) was well-known in the wine making circles at that time. Born and raised in Bakersfield, he was known by friends as ‘spitfire’; he joined the brotherhood right out of high school, eventually apprenticing under Brother Timothy at Greystone Cellars beginning in 1964 (what is now the Culinary Institute of America’s building in St. Helena) where at one point he oversaw approximately 3,000 acres of vines and the production of some 50+ wines.
Much later he was the president of the American Vineyard Foundation, a non-profit organization viticulture and enology research organization founded by winemaker Zelma Long. Justin was also the founder of the still active Napa Valley based men’s only social group composed, mostly of vintners called the Gastronomic Order of the Nonsensical and Dissipatory (GONADS). And in 1989, he wrote an easy to understand book on wine called, Plain Talk about Fine Wine with the forward written by Robert Mondavi.
Justin met his wife Bonny at a dinner party hosted by viticulture professor Dr. Harold Olmo while studying wine making at the University of California at Davis. He graduated from UC Davis with a Bachelor of Science degree in viticulture & enology and a Master of Science degree in horticulture. In 1972, after 15 years, he left Christian Brothers and also married Bonny that same year. Ray heard that Justin had recently left the Christian Brothers. He offered to finance the purchase of the dairy property in Oakville and create a partnership in which both men would have equal ownership and Justin would oversee the wine making.
Justin initially said no to the offer but then the next morning called Ray at 6am where he was staying at the El Bonita Motel (incidentally, this motel is still operating) in St. Helena. He said wanted to meet for breakfast as he had changed his mind on the offer.
The first vintage of Silver Oak was in 1972 and was actually made at Christian Brothers Winery and then later barreled and bottled in the old dairy barn on site of what is the present day Silver Oak Winery. The American oak barrels used to age this first wine were purchased from Beaulieu Vineyard (from winemaker Dick Peterson). Only 1,100 cases were made that year. Interestingly enough, the 1972 vintage was not a Napa Valley wine – it was a blend of fruit from both Napa and Sonoma and was labeled “North Coast” – Napa Valley first appeared on their label with the 1979 vintage. And while Silver Oak is certainly synonymous with using American oak to age their wines, for some of those early vintages, Justin experimented with barrels from other coopers and using some French oak.
And they were on the far forefront in the fact that right from the get go, their focus was on premium Cabernet Sauvignon – the variety that has become most synonymous with the Napa Valley.
Ray Duncan was an integral part of Colorado’s more recent heritage through his entrepreneurial vision and charitable works primarily involving education and arts. He was well respected and a community leader. Some of his contributions or businesses in Colorado were/are the following:
– Diamond Tail Ranch headquarters is located in northern Colorado about 11 miles south of the Wyoming state line – about an hour and 10 minute drive from Laramie. This is a gorgeous part of the state – a mix of high desert sage and forest with rolling hills framed by at times by snow covered peaks in the background and the fast-moving, cold-water Laramie River which flows through both Wyoming and Colorado including on parts of this ranch. Captivating, especially on a clear day, the vistas are expansive.
The Duncan’s purchased Diamond Tale in 1979 – the ranch totals nearly 38,000 contiguous acres – equivalent to some 59 square miles. A number of other private ranches are located nearby. The Duncan’s have raised cattle on the ranch since their purchase and later introduced buffalo. While the ranch is private, access is given to parts of the Laramie River to a select few members of their fishing club (annual dues apply). Limited hunting opportunities are also offered.
As of our latest update to this review, Diamond Tale Ranch is for sale for nearly 45 million dollars.
– Purgatory Ski Resort is located along one of the most incredible picturesque drives in all of the United States, often referred to as The Million Dollar Highway (perhaps referring to the extensive gold riches that were mined in the area or more simply, the million dollar views). The most scenic parts of this drive are from from roughly Durango to Ouray along Highway 550 (the resort is merely 35 minutes from Durango). Visitors coming to the area in the warmer months should take a few extra days to explore this part of the state – including its snow covered high mountains, alpine lodges, hot springs, lakes, mining heritage, waterfalls, and numerous hiking opportunities.
Ray (a ski enthusiast) and his family moved to Durango in 1958 helping his father Walter Sr. explore other oil and gas opportunities (eventually moving to Denver in 1967) and it was during his time living in this part of the state that he founded Purgatory Resort (taking the name of the already nearby Purgatory Creek). The resort opened in late 1965. The base elevation is 8,793 feet up to the summit elevation of 10,822 feet with 1,600+ skiable acres. The lodge offers plenty of rooms – within easy walking distance of Purgatory’s central gathering place, the Village Plaza of Purgatory.
And during the warmer months, parts of the resort are open to mountain bikers. And in addition to seasonal skiing and mountain biking, Purgatory offers the Inferno Mountain Coaster, a hand-brake controlled roller coaster that is 4,000 feet long. These are absolutely thrilling rides – we first experienced a similar mountain coaster during a Napa Valley focused trip to Vietnam at the Datanla Alpine Coaster near Dalat. These rides are great fun for most ages – even one of our Napa Valley vintner friends who was nearing 80 years old at the time thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
While we have visited Purgatory in the summer, we have not yet visited Purgatory in the winter for skiing, but we hope to do so in the next few years. Carving down the black diamond rated Ray’s Ridge carrying a bottle of Silver Oak will be a unique & memorable Napa Valley nirvana moment.
– And Ray was also a strong supporter of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center near Cortez (about an hour drive from Purgatory Resort), the Kent Denver School (the Duncan Center), the Denver Art Museum (the Duncan Pavilion on the first floor inside the Martin Building near downtown Denver), one of the founders of the private gated Castle Pines Golf Club, just south of Denver, he was instrumental in the founding of Music in the Mountains, an annual classical music event held in and around Durango and he used to be a partner in the still open, Claggett/Rey Gallery in Vail.
Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana Heritage
Notre Dame University has educated a number of Duncan family members. This school’s storied history dates back to its founding in 1842 and has also graduated numerous notable alumnus including Condoleezza Rice (former Secretary of State) and several prominent former San Francisco 49ers – Edward J. DeBartolo Jr (DeBartolo Hall on campus is named in his honor), Joe Montana and Carmen Policy of Napa Valley’s Casa Piena Winery, among a handful of other Napa Valley winery owner alumni.
Two prominent buildings on campus are named in honor of Ray and his family, Duncan Hall and the 400,000 square foot Duncan Student Center. Duncan Hall is 68,000+ square feet; it opened in 2008 across from the golf course and houses men’s dormitories and a small but impressive chapel. A prominent photograph of Ray and his wife Sally greets anyone who walks in through the main entrance on the first floor.
One of the most impressive student centers we have ever seen on any campus is Duncan Student Center – prominently housed next to the iconic Notre Dame Stadium (dating from 1930), with of course a statue of Lou Holtz prominently greeting visitors outside of the stadium. This impressive student center opened in 2018 and features 9 floors containing meeting rooms, three restaurants/cafes and a recreational sports facility. Its size visually dominates this part of campus.
And the official hotel on the campus, the Morris Inn features wines at times from alumni owned wineries including Silver Oak.
Duncan Hall, Notre Dame University Indiana
Duncan Student Center, Notre Dame University Indiana
Label Creation & Design
Justin’s wife Bonny was an amateur photographer and had taken photographs of numerous water towers in the Napa Valley. The oak tree that appears on the label was modeled after an oak tree that was on part of their original Oakville property. Bonnie sent photographs of water towers and the oak tree to a designer who had never visited the Napa Valley before with the instructions to add some vines to the label and create a few designs.
The original name of the winery was to have been called Duncan-Meyer but didn’t quite sound right or look appealing on the label. Bonnie and Justin liked the word Silverado and even thought about calling the winery something like Silverado Vineyards (but the winery by this name had already been established by the Disney family). They thought some more and Bonny suggested ‘silver’ from Silverado (an homage to the nearby Silverado Trail) and ‘oak’ based on the prominent tree in Oakville she had photographed. They presented the name to Ray but he initially wasn’t to keen on its sound.
The 1972 vintage was sold for $6 a bottle, an unheard of price in those days as many of the valley’s wines were in the $3/bottle range or less. Perhaps on pricing alone, one could make the argument this was one of Napa’s first ‘cult’ wines – developing a cult like following for sure, but without the pinnacle type feeling of exclusivity that many of the so called cult wineries cultivate today.
In 1975 Ray and Justin purchased the bankrupt Franciscan Winery and made both Silver Oak and the Franciscan wines there for a number of years. David Duncan, Ray’s son and President and CEO of Silver Oak remembers that with the purchase, his father and Justin acquired over 12,000 cases of wine still stacked in the winery. They had the bright idea to liquidate this wine as cheaply as possible. They sold each bottle for $1 which quickly attracted the attention of various restaurateurs from the San Francisco Bay Area who drove up with trucks ready to purchase $12 cases of wine. David jokingly refers to this ‘fire’ sale as the wine industry’s “first one buck chuck”.
By 1979 Silver Oak sold the Franciscan property and their accompanying Napa valley vineyards (holding on to the site of what is the present day Silver Oak Winery) – but continued to make the Silver Oak wines at Franciscan for several years. Silver Oak Winery was built in the early 1980’s and opened in 1982. The iconic water tower was not yet built; based on numerous requests from visitors asking for the whereabouts of the water tower, eventually they built one from scratch next to the winery.
By this time the wines started receiving critical acclaim from wine writers such as Robert Parker and gratifying publicity such as winning a gold medal for their 1974 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition in Sacramento (perhaps the equivalent at the time of earning a 100 point score from Robert Parker). And celebrities started taking notice – the Duncan’s spotted acclaimed photographer Greg Gorman profiled in an issue of American Photo Magazine – highlighting his other passion, wine. He posed holding a bottle of 1982 Silver Oak and a larger format bottle of 1982 Chateau Petrus (the Petrus being a gift from Julio Iglesias after a photo shoot). Somehow Silver Oak spotted the feature and invited Greg to visit the winery. Years later Greg would begin GKG Cellars, based in the Napa Valley. Numerous celebrities have visited over the years – like anyone else, drawn to the winery’s iconic status and premium wines.
From the beginning Justin’s wine making was very focused – highlighting Cabernet Sauvignon and using American oak for the aging (rather then French oak). One has to realize that Napa was not known for Cabernet Sauvignon in these years – for decades other varietals dominated vineyard plantings (called mixed blacks). In fact, Silver Oak was only the second winery in all of the Napa Valley behind Diamond Creek Winery to focus exclusively on Cabernet Sauvignon.
Meyer Family Cellars, Yorkville, Mendocino County
With health problems creeping into his life Justin and Bonny sold their percentage of Silver Oak in 2001. Justin died at age 63 the following year – his family continues to run the small Meyer Family Cellars located in California’s Yorkville Highlands of Mendocino County directly next to Highway 128 (about a 2 hour drive north of Silver Oak Winery in Oakville). They purchased this property in 1999 and opened the winery and tasting room in 2003. Bonny and Justin’s son Matt and his wife Karen oversee the vineyard and winemaking operations and Bonny oversees Meyer Family Enterprises, an impact investment and philanthropy company.
Incidentally, walking into the Meyer Family Cellars tasting room is a bit like walking back through memory lane when Justin was still involved with Silver Oak – photographs from the 1970s in front of Franciscan Winery and other old Napa Valley locations as well as articles about Justin’s time at Silver Oak hang on the wall.
And continuing their long connection with Oakville, Meyer Family Cellars produces Bonny’s Vineyard Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, a 4-acre block from their family vineyard (available only for their wine club members) or sometimes through tastings at their tasting room. Silver Oak produced a very limited production and popular Bonny’s Vineyard designate wine from 1979 through 1991.
And their acclaimed port-style wine. After the sale of Christian Brothers in 1986, Justin’s friend Joseph Ciatti, of the prominent Ciatti Company, a wine brokerage firm informed Justin that some 3,000 gallons of Christian Brothers 1987 produced port-style Touriga Nacional was available for sale. Justin purchased this wine and it became the base for their delicious Solera (non vintage) Meyer Family Port (usually only bottled every 5 years). This was the first wine they produced.
In the spirit of Silver Oak’s heritage and in honor of Justin, Meyer Family Cellars also produces an Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon called Spitfire that is entirely aged in American oak. Every year from the same vineyard, they also produce the same Cabernet Sauvignon called Fluffies Billows, but is aged entirely in French oak.
David grew up in Colorado but would often visit the Napa Valley with his father. While studying for his MBA at the University of Denver in the mid 1990’s, David worked on a project which outlined a financial plan for Silver Oak. However, he didn’t become directly involved in the winery until later. He remembers sitting in his office in 2002 when his father walked in and announced their General Manager, Dave Cofran was thinking about retiring. Ray then said “I have figured out the perfect person to run the winery”, David responded with “who” and his father said “you”. As David says today, without any remorse, “we crumpled up the next 35 years of our lives and moved out to California later that year” – not an easy decision as his wife Kary was the Assistant Chief of Medicine at the University of Denver.
The growth and direction of the company over 40+ years has been no less then on an amazing trajectory. Justin would often say “we have yet to make our best bottle of wine” – with the vision and ongoing commitment to their vineyards, winemaking and consumers, this “ethereal ever moving goal” as David says – is always out of reach but one that incrementally they strive to improve on with every single vintage.
Today the winery is owned by David and his three brothers Mike, Kevin (an avid mountain climber) and Tim who is also actively involved on the sales side of the operations – having joined Silver Oak in 1986.
David was at his favorite gym in St. Helena at 6:20 in the morning on February 2, 2006 when he received a call from his wife. The only words he heard before he quickly hung up the phone was “the winery is on fire”. He raced out of the gym and just so happened to be behind a firetruck that was also speeding to Silver Oak. This was a big deal in the valley and totally unexpected; according to David over 50 firefighters were on scene battling the blaze which continued to smolder and burn for several days after.
The blaze began in a dumpster slightly north of the winery – a strong wind was blowing from the north and quickly spread throughout the winery and also damaged other buildings on site.
In hindsight David says the fire was one of the better things to happen to Silver Oak but at the time it was understandably devastating to all the winery employees and ownership. They quickly convened at Ray’s home; David recalls some of the employees in tears and their CFO Rickie Piña asking everyone, “what are we going to do now?” David quickly said something like, “why, we are going to rebuild the winery”, immediately cutting through the despair of the moment. What do you do after hearing this? Open a bottle of Silver Oak of course, which is what they did to help lighten the mood.
And for the 2007 vintage only, all the Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon was produced at their winery at the time in Sonoma County.
The rebuild provided an opportunity to start from scratch both with the winery and the hospitality center.
Their contractor connected the Duncan’s with an old flour mill located in tiny Coffeyville, Kansas. This 100+ year old building containing locally quarried limestone was slated to be torn down. Arrangements were made to use this stone in the new winery and some 550 tons were ultimately hauled on rail cars to Napa and then transported to the winery site. While some stones remained stacked up after the building was removed, these are now gone and all that is remains on the footprint of this building is now a metal storage shed (see photograph below). The flour mill is still active, today called Bartlett Milling; those who walk near the property will quickly smell the aromas of the milled flour.
Visitors to Coffeyville will want to stop in the quaint old historic part of town and also explore the Dalton Defenders Museum – honoring those who stood up for the town (including those who lost their lives) when the Dalton Gang attempted to simultaneously rob two banks. And also highlighting early Coffeyville history and some of its most prominent citizens.
They were able to salvage two stain glass windows from the fire which had been created by Napa Valley based artist Diane Peterson (the mother of well-known winemaker Heidi Peterson). During the rebuild the Duncans decided to add two more windows and commissioned her again – all four windows representing each season are part of the main winery building.
Flour Mill Site
And in getting to know David, one quickly realizes music is an important part of his life. He keeps a guitar in his office, plays in a band with other Napa vintners, called the Silverado Pickups. This band has performed at charity events and at Bottle Rock Napa Valley. And being a fan of the Eagles, David astutely recognized Coffeyville, Kansas as the site of where the The Dalton Gang met their demise (referenced in the Eagles 1973 album, Desperado).
Fortunately the signature wooden water tower was not damaged in the fire and it was moved to next to the entrance of the hospitality center. Visitors walk by this on their way from the parking lot to the tasting room.
LEED Certified Platinum
LEED refers to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and has become the standard system for green building ratings in the world. David is extremely proud of their LEED Certified Platinum status and rightly so. Their Oakville winery earned this extremely coveted designation in 2016 and in doing so became the world’s first commercial production winery to gain LEED Platinum status. LEED offers several qualification categories; Silver Oak qualified for the LEED certification of Existing Buildings, Operations & Maintenance. The winery has to follow stringent guidelines which led to making select changes on the property including replacing lawn with outdoor turf – saving significant water usage each year.
And during the construction of the Alexander Valley winery, they carefully worked with LEED seeking LEED Platinum status, (a collaborative effort) but for a different category – AP Building Design + Construction.
The LEED Platinum certification plaque is located directly to the right of the entrance to the tasting room.
And incidentally the first winery to achieve LEED Platinum status was the much smaller teaching winery at the University of California, Davis.
The winery is located in the heart of Oakville off of Oakville Cross Road. Their divided driveway is one of the longest winery driveways in Napa leading to decent sized parking lot next to vineyards. If you are being driven by a tour guide or arrive using a ride sharing service, it is common practice to pull into the round about and be dropped curbside – from here it is a short walk to the tasting room.
For a quintessential view of Napa vineyards stand just inside the tasting room and look out through the arches. On a clear day this is a spectacular view especially during the early morning or around sunset time.
Unlike most area wineries that open at 10am, Silver Oak opens at 9am which can make this winery an ideal first stop especially if you are serious about getting an early start to your day of wine tasting. Note the sometimes unusual number of license plate frames in the parking depicting the following phrase: “Life is a Cabernet”. The frames are available for sale online and in the gift shop. This saying has become the winery’s motto and is well used on social media as: #LifeIsACabernet.
A highlight of the hospitality center is the Glass House Library. This contains at least one vintage from every year dating back to their founding year of 1972 (makes a souvenir perfect Instagram ready photo spot) with its elegant and classy feel. Also of note is the hand carved wood paneling directly behind the tasting room. It was created by master wood carver Russian born now American Boris Khechoyan. The tasting counter is lined with welded iron; the counter is small and can fill up quickly at times.
The ‘history room’ is located around the corner from the main tasting room. The original winery doors appropriately open into this room, a rich walk back in time with walls lined with photographs, stories, articles and even the original winery bond (only the 4th in the Napa Valley after Robert Mondavi opened his namesake winery in 1966 – long considered to be the benchmark of modern wineries in the valley). Visitors to this room are often attracted to the photograph of the full rainbow magnificently stretching over the winery. David took this photo the day before demolition was to begin – post fire damage. This was in the early days of digital photography; David remembers he shot this photo with a 2.2 megapixel camera that did not have a panorama feature). With the help of a photographer friend’s son – three separate images were stitched together.
And if one looks closely at the door handle of these original doors you will see the wood directly behind the handle is worn away – from thousands of people over the years entering the winery. And if you look a bit closer at the bottom of the left door you will see a perfectly round but very charred piece of wood. During the fire in 2006, gas powered exhaust fans were setup in what was left of the original winery – keeping the interior well ventilated. One of the fans had vibrated around so that its exhaust pipe was directly against the front door – David noticed it had started to burn into the door and quickly re-positioned the fan.
One glass is included with each tasting and unlike some wineries, a previously wrapped complimentary clean glass is provided after your taste, rather than the spotty, wine stained glass used during your actual tasting. Silver Oak always has older releases available for purchase – many in large format bottles.
While general tastings are by walk-in, tours are offered on an appointment only basis as are food and wine pairings and the vertical tasting of select library wines.
We have driven into the winery or past the driveway at times with cars filling the parking lot and spilling out onto Oakville Cross Road. These are release day events. These events are extremely popular but were not always this way. In the early days when Silver Oak would release their wines, a handful of people would show up for the parties, according to David mostly restaurant owners or employees wanting to purchase large format bottles. He remembers in the early years that approximately 50 people would show up – increasing dramatically during the subsequent years.
David recalls one year walking into the winery in the morning and finding someone already there – with plans to spend the night on the property in anticipation of being at the release party the next day. And for these first events, Silver Oak experienced perhaps what is most reminiscent of early iPhone release mania – people camping out over night to be the first in line to try the new wines. Their release parties are more controlled these days – no one is allowed to camp out overnight on the property – but they are still sizable with often over 2,000 people attending. Their 40th anniversary party was epic with cars parked up and down Oakville Cross Road.
And these events are a great time for friends and family to get together, meet the Silver Oak Family and enjoy the latest wine offerings along with live music and plenty of food. The release of Silver Oak’s Alexander Cabernet Sauvignon is always the first Saturday in August and the release of their Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon is always the first Saturday in February.
Over the years Silver Oak wines have often played prominent roles during special occasions in the lives of their customers. Allowing people to share stories from the emotional attachments created from memories of enjoying Silver Oak wines, Silver Oak encourages people to submit via photographs or videos to what they call “bottle stories”.
This resonated with their customers and with the increase of social media, countless stories have already been submitted.
Some of the more memorable stories include a woman who would drink Silver Oak wines with her father – his untimely passing inspired her to get a prominent tattoo on her arm of the iconic Silver Oak water tower and tree. Another loyal follower faithfully flew out from Nebraska to every release party for several decades and at his 50th party in a row, Silver Oak presented him with a massive 12-liter bottle of their wine.
Visitors to the winery and property view thousands of grapevines in all directions. The views are quintessentially wine country-esqe – but in an ironic twist (considering Oakville is the heart of Cabernet Sauvignon country in the Napa Valley and this is the varietal that Silver Oak built its reputation on), the soils surrounding the winery are not necessarily conducive to growing Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the vines you see looking west from their tasting room and adjacent to parts of the driveway are actually Sauvignon Blanc.
Silver Oak continues to expand their estate portfolio – in the process changing their vineyard model from sourcing much of their fruit to one of owning many of their own vineyards. As of our most recent update, they now own over 550 planted vineyard acres concentrated in Napa Valley and the Alexander Valley in neighboring Sonoma County but the family also owns vineyards in other parts of the state as well as in Oregon. And for vineyards they do not own, they work very closely with growers – many of these sites having been farmed by the same families for multiple generations.
One of the most prominent vineyard sites for the Silver Oak wine is the 150 acre Soda Canyon Ranch on the lower flanks of Soda Canyon Road (just north of the city of Napa). This property is planted to 112 acres – the majority of which is Cabernet Sauvignon but is also planted to several other Bordeaux red varietals including Merlot (which is the source for the Twomey Merlot). This picturesque property is divided into 36 different blocks. And the other Napa Valley vineyard under the Silver Oak ownership is located at about 1500 feet on Atlas Peak – the rugged and rocky Jump Rock Vineyard – planted to Cabernet Sauvignon.
Rather then contract with a vineyard management company, Silver Oak employs their own in-house vineyard management team and has done so since their first vineyard acquisition. Their vineyards are sustainably farmed and several are certified Fish Friendly – a certification provided by the California Land Stewardship Institute, a non-profit organization located in Napa.
And over the years, some of the greatest levels of improvement in quality have taken place in their vineyards. One axiom we have learned while working in the Napa Valley is that each site is different and often farmed for its specific terroir distinctions. Winemaker Nate Weiss calls this “precision farming”. Silver Oak farms for each site’s expression – taking into account the importance of soil health, water usage, temperature differences and various exposures among many other vineyard related nuances.
Silver Oak has employed only three winemakers in their history – founding winemaker Justin Meyer, followed by Daniel Baron (worked in the cellar at Château Pétrus and later was instrumental in the early operations at Dominus Winery) and currently Nate Weiss who joined Silver Oak in 2014. Nate is a Napa native who was formerly winemaker at Antica Napa Valley and whose father Michael was winemaker at nearby Groth Vineyards for many years.
The winery was designed with functionality, aesthetics and flexibility in mind. All three characteristics are extremely important but having the flexibility to adapt to changes in technology over time is is critical. Case in point; over a span of several years, a pump was installed on each tank. Rather then having to physically move pumps between tanks, during harvest each tank’s pumpover can be controlled remotely by one person. This was especially important during the October fires of 2017 when some employees were not able to be on site. And this saves significant time during harvest – allowing employees to focus on other wine making activities.
Or down the line having the flexibility to adapt to having an optical sorter large enough to handle the size of their sorting operations or even eventually being able to handle grapes that were mechanically harvested.
The winery contains two vintages at any one time spread out among four sizable barrel rooms. The rooms were well designed to maximize space and- each row of barrels when removed for racking perfectly fits in an adjacent room.
The wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks ranging in size from 7 to 25 tons. All wines are then blended prior to being barreled. Typically this begins in December and lasts for several months. Once in barrel Silver Oak has an extensive aging process in place for their wines before they even reach the consumer. Not only do they age the wines up to 30 months in the barrels, but then they age them further up to 2 years in the bottle. This is rare – for most wineries, economic reasons usually dictate much earlier releases.
Not all wineries have the luxury of this extensive aging process; this certainly favors the consumer as their wines are generally more approachable upon release.
Silver Oak owns their own bottling line – providing the flexibility to bottle on their own schedule. And with a label that is silk screened they don’t need a label machine.
In 1994 winemaker Daniel Baron made a switch in wine making – up until this point the wines were 100% varietal Cabernet Sauvignon – starting with that vintage the wines were then blended and have been so every vintage since (however, always dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon).
To realize the value in every bottle of Silver Oak wine, it helps to reflect on the remarkable amount of time it takes to produce these wines. It takes 3-4 years for a newly planted grapevine to produce fruit – approximately two years in barrel and another two more years in bottle before the wines are released. In summary – 8 years from vine to bottle from a new vineyard planting. Also take into account their oak barrels are made from trees 80-100 years old with several years for the wood to season before a barrel is finally constructed.
And if one was to summarize their wine making philosophy it would be as Nate says, “freshness over power” – preferring to pick earlier rather then later – opting for a liveliness in the wines rather than more linearly driven higher alcohol wines.
The Oak Cooperage
Silver Oak exclusively ages their wines in American oak; this is fairly unique among Napa wineries where French oak is most commonly used. In 2000 Silver Oak took 50% ownership in A&K Cooperage based in tiny Higbee Missouri buying out 25% ownership from the Meyer Family (with the caveat that the Meyer’s could continue to get access to oak barrels). And taking the control of their oak program to another level, in 2015 they acquired full ownership from the original founding family, the Kirbys and changed the name to The Oak Cooperage. We have visited select wineries internationally that own their own cooperages, but never through a Napa Valley based winery. In fact they are the first North American winery to entirely own their own cooperage.
Higbee, population less then 600 people is located in very rural north central Missouri. One has to make a special effort to go here – the town is not located on any tourist route or major highway. Small but spread out this very tight knit community features one gas station, a post office continuously operating since 1873 and a small man-made lake created to service the steam trains that used to run through here. In early 2018 a major wind storm blew down the tallest building in town – an old brick three story beauty. Our visit was several months after this unfortunate disaster.
The Oak Cooperage is located on the edge of town – like Silver Oak it was founded in 1972. The cooperage also suffered its own fire; the main building burned down in 1977.
Creating a wine barrel is a lesson in patience and is a fascinating process. The typical age of the trees (white oak) are 80 to 100 years old before they are harvested – at which point only a certain height of the tree’s trunk is actually usable for barrels. Silver Oak owns some 300 acres of land in this part of Missouri growing mainly white oak (the type of oak used for making their wine barrels). In addition to using trees from their own land, Silver Oak also buys white oak from other forests in the state.
After the trees are harvested from central and northern Missouri, the trunks are cut into wood staves which are then stacked on top of each other outdoors at The Cooperage. The staves are left to ‘season’ in the elements usually for 24 months but sometimes up to 36 months. One can observe how long the staves have been outside by the color of the wood – becoming more weathered the longer they are exposed to the elements. While focusing their efforts on barrels for Silver Oak and other wineries, The Oak Cooperage also makes oak barrels for the whiskey and bourbon industries.
While the amount of steps needed to create a barrel is significant – the amount of time required to build a single barrel is remarkably quick; Master Cooper Daniel Orton who began working here in 2002 estimates it takes only 2 hours to create a finished barrel beginning with the raw staves. Holding the title of Master Cooper is a rare job description – there are less then 50 such coopers in the United States.
The quality is in the details – every stave is cut to a thickness of 15/16th of an inch – and exactly 32 staves are used to make each barrel – despite the differentiating widths of each stave. It is the job of the Master Cooper to arrange the staves so they fit perfectly – initially lining up each stave at the base of the barrel.
Sometimes old school still works best – layers from dried cattail stalks (grown in the marshes of New York state) are inserted in between each piece of wood used to make the heads of the barrels. Once the rough shape has been determined, these are fed into a machine which cuts out the exact size of the barrel head. One of the most important steps is when the barrels are placed over open fire pits (heat bending) followed by toasting (the Silver Oak barrels are medium to light toasted). And it is at this stage that the barrels smell pretty – this toasted oak can smell like baked bread and vanilla.
Metal hoops are then placed on the barrel (The Cooperage makes their own hoops in-house). Before the heads are adhered to the barrel the edges of the heads are covered in a wax like material and then coated with a putty made from wood powder, flour and water. The barrels are hot water tested for leakage, then sanded and the existing bung hole is quickly heated and shaped with a special metal rod. Finally The Cooperage’s logo is branded on top of one of the heads, the barrels are wrapped in plastic and held in their warehouse until they are shipped across the country.
It is rather remarkable that this small cooperage, located so far from the Napa Valley plays such a prominent role in the making of their wines. And like Justin Meyer’s well-known phrase about not yet having made their best bottle of wine, those at The Cooperage will readily tell you that they have yet to make their best wine barrel.
Silver Oak’s White Oak Forest, MO
The Oak Cooperage, MO
Over the years since we were first introduced to their wines, the alcohol percentages have crept up slightly but are still far less then many Napa wines being produced today. Recent vintages have been in the upper 13% range or low 14%. The wines tend to be approachable in their youth but are also very age worthy (we have personally experienced this in a number of older vintages over the years). The wines are always dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon with varying percentages of other red Bordeaux varietals.
In addition to the current releases being poured at the tasting room (both their Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) visitors also have the opportunity to sample older vintages.
The 2006 Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (tasted 12 years after vintage) smells like the wine has had some age but doesn’t necessary taste as old as its vintage date. Shows a tiny amount of browning on its edges but still is mostly ruby in color. On the bouquet offers pretty aromatics, a sweetness of fruit including red cherry and floral qualities including notes of violets, subtle hints of mocha and a dusty nuance. Holding up extremely well on the palate, still shows lively fruit framed by excellent acidity. The tannins are polished but noticeable – lingering softly. This is a very balanced food friendly wine that still has life ahead of it.
The 2013 Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon reveals gravelly dusty notes on the bouquet with cigar smoke and red licorice and an herbal type influence – perhaps a hint of sage. Shows mostly red fruit on the palate including raspberry, currant and red cherry. Noticeable mouth watering acidity will leave you salivating on the finish. The tannins are well integrated, rounded and not harsh. In comparison, most of the 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines we have tried from this robust vintage have needed more time in the bottle. This wine is very approachable young.
The 2013 Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon shows bright fruit aromatics offering more black then red fruits. There is a gravelly nuance to the bouquet with hints of cigar smoke. This is a big wine that is well layered on the palate – mouth filling flavors include blackberry and black cherry. Fairly robust chewy tannins anchor a long finish. Very good acidity. This wine needs some age and will be a welcome addition to your cellar if you have the patience to age it.
Silver Oak’s culinary program was created in 2008 with founding chef Dominic Orsini. Dominic has come a long way in the culinary world since his first food related job – working at a Burger King at age 14. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York City; prior to working at Silver Oak he worked on a small cruise ship, was sous chef at the acclaimed Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York for several years and was chef at several notable restaurants in the Napa Valley. Surrounded by wine, it is no surprise that Dominic has also passed his Introductory Sommelier Course of the Court of Master Sommeliers.
The focus of Silver Oak’s food and wine pairings is on education and enjoyment. Dominic says, “ingredients can soften and make the wines sing” – these flavor changes on the palate can be rather remarkable. Dominic told us about one of his pairings; a plain risotto with side ingredients including salt, lemon juice and butter. Guests add each of these ingredients one at a time to notice the differences in flavor or mouth feel as they are paired with Silver Oak wines. Salt rounds out the wine, the lemon juice helps heighten the flavors of the wine and butter helps soften tannins.
Dominic sources much of his ingredients from a small garden on the property and raised beds. Not only do they use fresh ingredients but they also make preserves and dry specific products including persimmons and beans. Early on, Dominic harvested Cabernet Sauvignon and used the indigenous yeast on the grape skins to make a bread starter. He continues to maintain this starter weekly and bakes all bread in house.
And then there are the meat offerings – they smoke their own prosciutto, make dry-cured salami and one of their specialty’s is bison meat cured for three months using salt, juniper and rosemary.
Silver Oak’s food & wine pairing is available by reservation daily – this experience lasts about 90 minutes and pairs four wines with four small plates. This sit down tasting is available at either of the Silver Oak properties.
Silver Oak also offers private cooking classes with Dominic on select dates throughout the year.
Corporate groups take note – Silver Oak can customize food and wine pairings based on group size and interest.
And the Silver Oak Cookbook (written by Dominic with a forward by chef Charlie Palmer) features a treasure trove of recipes that all Silver Oak fans with a culinary interest will want to get their hands on. One of the most intriguing recipes from not only from an artistic point of view but from a flavor profile is the Heirloom Tomato Mosaic with fresh Mozzarella and Petite Garden Herbs. Not only does the book feature Dominic’s personal seasonal recipes (all listed with suggested Silver Oak or Twomey wine pairings), but various chapters are sprinkled with notes about their vineyards, wine making, gardens and winery events.
Silver Oak, Alexander Valley
In 2012 Silver Oak purchased Sausal Winery in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley. This property was deeded in 1877 to Cyrus Alexander (Alexander Valley is named for him) and was one of Sonoma County’s earlier vineyards. More recently, the site used to be planted to Zinfandel, but Silver Oak has completely replanted the entire vineyard footprint to 100% varietal Cabernet Sauvignon. The total property is 113 acres of which approximately 75 acres are planted to vines. A state of the art winery was built on site which was operational in time for the 2017 harvest. In April 2018 a contemporary hospitality center opened. Lead architect Daniel Piechota of Sagan Piechota Architecture based in San Francisco was responsible for both the design of the winery and the hospitality center.
The winery is sizable – housing some 80 stainless steel tanks – each one corresponding to a specific vineyard block. Only their Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is made here – Silver Oak currently produces around 70,000 cases of this wine annually and about 30,000 cases of their Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
And the winery is very green. Recycled materials were used in the construction including redwood siding on the outside of the winery building (taken from old wooden tanks dating from the 1930’s). Over 2500 solar panels are installed providing much of the wineries’ electricity needs. In addition to seeking their LEED certification the winery will feature 100% zero net energy and zero net water commercial use. A big part of this is because of the costly Membrane Bioreactor (the small building and setup that houses these can be seen from near the tasting room). This technology recycles water – treats it and filters 100% of the water used in the winery. Purple hoses next to the winery tanks indicate any water recycled using this technology.
And continuing to pursue as environmentally friendly practices as possible, Silver Oak is participating in The Living Building Challenge (LBC) – an organization that sets high standards for green buildings.
A number of raised beds are located near the parking lot and are used to grow a variety of produce (including edible flowers) which are used in their food pairings. A sizable commercial kitchen is also located on site (propane was not able to be used due to Living Building Challenge requirements – instead these are induction cook-tops).
Visitors can taste without needing an appointment. A tour + a tasting requires an appointment as does any of their food + wine offerings. A general tour includes a walk through of their winery and barrel room. The tasting room is spacious with a liberal use of glass so one has excellent views of the vineyards to the west. While the winery and hospitality center are visually dramatically different then Silver Oak’s winery in the Napa Valley, visitors will be comforted by a few similarities between the properties including the long divided driveway, the use of reflecting pools and the iconic wooden water tower.
While threatened by the Kincade Fire in October 2019, fortunately the winery and hospitality center were spared. The fire burned the hills directly behind the winery.
The Duncan family operates four TWOMEY (pronounced two-me) locations with a focus on Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Merlot. The Napa Valley and original TWOMEY tasting room is located just south of Calistoga, a second TWOMEY is near the town of Healdsburg (Sonoma County), a third TWOMEY is in Philo (Anderson Valley) and a fourth TWOMEY is in Dundee, just south of Portland Oregon in the Willamette Valley. All of these properties are open to the public for tastings by walk-in.
And in 2017 the Duncans purchased a majority interest in Ovid Napa Valley on Pritchard Hill – their focus is on limited production premium wines with visits reserved for active members of their allocation list. While under the same ownership, Ovid Napa Valley remains completely separate from Silver Oak. We have additional reviews on this site of both TWOMEY and of Ovid Napa Valley.
And in late 2020, the Duncan family released the first vintage of Timeless Napa Valley, a vineyard designate red blend from their Soda Canyon Ranch created as a tribute to Ray Duncan.
And while the Duncan’s have certainly left their legacy across multiple states and businesses, we will leave you with their simple slogan, one most likely will see on license plate frames in the Silver Oak parking lot: “Life is a Cabernet“. And so it is for thousands of fans of this storied winery.
For more information, to shop for wines (including select Library wines) or to signup for their mailing list, visit: www.silveroak.com
A huge thank you to all the tasting room staff we have met with over the years and interviews or chats with David Duncan, winemaker Nate Weiss, Chef Dominic Orsini, Master Cooper Daniel Orton and Bonny & Justin’s son Matt Meyer.
Silver Oak, Oakville
Silver Oak, Alexander Valley
Old Silver Oak, Alexander Valley
(we keep these photographs here for historical reference)