Silver Oak Winemaking Begins by Handcrafting the Barrel
Several years ago, I was introduced to Silver Oak Cabernet as the guest of a friend at a wine tasting dinner. I instantly fell in love with its bold, black fruit character with notes of spice and vanilla and the wine’s oaky finish that comes from American White Oak barrels that the wine ages in.
I recently had the privilege of visiting one of my favorite winemakers at the source. Silver Oak’s Alexander Valley winemaking facility is just a few miles outside the town of Healdsburg in Sonoma County. I was on a media tour reporting on Sonoma County’s sustainability efforts. The county wants to have all of its wineries certified sustainable by 2020 and is close to reaching that goal with more than 90 percent already certified.
Silver Oak embraces sustainability in its winegrowing practices and winemaking processes and its carbon footprint. The Alexander Valley winery is anchored by a tasting room, a modern glass barn built of recycled materials down to its blue jean insulation. The building earned LEED Platinum certification for Building Design and Construction (BD+C) in 2018 when it opened for tastings and tours.
Silver Oak’s Alexander Valley winery spans 113 acres with 75 acres of grapes and is focused around the production of a single wine, Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Along the tour, our guide shares details of Silver Oak’s sustainable viticulture practices that make it net positive water and net positive energy.
The winery’s state-of-the-art water reclamation technologies include a Membrane Bioreactor (MBR) that treats and filters 100 percent of the water from the cellar with natural biological activity and reduces potable water needs by 37 percent. “The Membrane Bioreactor is the first of its kind so people come from all over to see how it works. We can reuse our water up to 16 times,” says Ian Leggat, my Silver Oak tour guide. The winery is solar powered with 2,595 rooftop solar panels that produce over one megawatt of electricity a year and helps generate 105 percent of its energy needs.
The California winemaker also owns sustainably-managed forests of American White Oak trees in Central and Northern Missouri and its own barrel-making plant in Higbee Missouri, where craftspeople handmake each barrel.
The Oak Cooperage produces 59-gallon wine barrels made of American White Oak from Central and Northern Missouri. Barrel-making is a dying art and Silver Oak is doing its part to keep it alive. A barrel-making craftsman is known as a Master Cooper and Silver Oak estimates there are less than 15 in the entire United States. In Higbee Missouri, there is a small group of Master Coopers who possess the skills required to select ideal staves that will produce intended flavor profiles.
Silver Oak says it takes 80 years to grow an American White Oak tree to maturity so that it’s suitable to be harvested for barrel-making. After the tree is harvested, it remains in the lumber yard for two years to air dry as stave wood before fire blending, a technique that makes the wood more pliable for the Master Cooper. The wood staves are then dehumidified down to 20 percent of water content.
Each barrel is completely toasted over a burning oak fire to “medium taste” so there is no raw oak touching the wine, using mild, slow toasting methods to keep the barrels free of char. Silver Oak winemakers believe the American oak barrels contribute less harsh tannins than French oak barrels giving its wines opulent, well-rounded flavors.
For many wine lovers, the art of enjoyment comes from the ability to decipher and appreciate a wine’s bouquet and taste. Silver Oak achieves its subtle perfection by blending the wines prior to barreling.
“We want to taste the components of the grape right after fermentation and before they are influenced by the oak. This allows us to select those grapes that complement one another and enhance the final blend. By blending our wines before they go into the barrel to age, we get a seamless taste that defines Silver Oak wines,” explains Silver Oak Director of Sales for the Eastern US, Tom Johnson.
Silver Oak celebrates the release of its new wines twice a year. Release Day for the Alexander Valley Cabernet takes place each year on the 1st Saturday in August. Release Day for the Napa Valley Cabernet takes place each year on the 1st Saturday in February.
The winemaker also remains committed to the cork despite the increasing popularity of screw caps. “On release days, we open 150 cases of wine to smell the bottle and cork to check for any issues with bottling and prevent spoilage,” says Johnson.
Silver Oak was founded in 1972 by Raymond Twomey Duncan, a Colorado entrepreneur who began investing in California vineyards in the late 1960s, and Justin Meyer, a winemaker who began in a Napa Valley dairy barn in 1972, producing only 1,100 cases of their inaugural vintage. Today the Duncan family continues to run Silver Oak with David R. Duncan serving as President and CEO and Tim Duncan as Executive Vice President. The Duncan family also owns a sister winery, Twomey Cellars, that produces Pinot Noirs, Sauvignon Blancs and Merlots at Soda Canyon Ranch in southeastern Napa Valley.
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