Producing only two wines, the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Silver Oak has long been a staple on steakhouse wine lists and among expense-account diners. These high-prestige, fashionable wines are generally medium-bodied and smooth, with exotic suggestions of bourbon, cocoa butter and chocolate from the American oak barrels in which they are aged for 30 months or longer. Though Silver Oak's wines were once difficult to obtain, production, especially of the Alexander Valley bottling, is now quite large.
It was owner Ray Duncan and then estate manager Justin Meyer, who decided that Silver Oak would be about concentration and quality instead of breadth and quantity. Each wine is produced independently of the other, from start to finish. The older of the two bottlings, the Alexander Valley Cabernet, was first produced in 1972. Today, fruit comes from three vineyards in the Alexander Valley, all planted to 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. The fruit from the Red Tail Vineyard, located in southern Alexander Valley produces the acidic, and luminescent elements of the wine, while fruit from its neighbor, the Miraval Vineyard provides its backbone and stability. Cabernet Sauvignon from the Geyserville Estate Vineyard, to the northwest, adds spice to balance out the acidity from the Red Tail grapes. Other Bordeaux varietals, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, which are blended with the Cabernet Sauvignon are sourced from neighboring growers in the Alexander Valley.
Soda Canyon Ranch, Jump Rock, and Navone Vineyards, are the sources of Silver Oak's Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Soda Canyon Ranch Vineyard, in the Atlas Peak appellation, is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Jump Rock Vineyard, also in Atlas Peak, is planted exclusively to Cabernet Sauvignon, Jump Rock's fruit is of singular concentration due to the rocky soil and high desert climate of the vineyard. In St. Helena, the Navone Vineyard produces Cabernet responsible for the depth and complexity of the wine.
Beach bum turned wine expert, Daniel Baron, is Director of Winemaking at Silver Oak. He worked alongside original estate manager, Justin Meyer, until Meyer's retirement in 2001 and received the promotion to Director in 2007. A graduate of the winemaking program at UC Davis, Baron came to Silver Oak in 1994 after stints at a number of wineries, including the legendary Château Petrus in Bordeaux.
The Alexander Valley is located at the northern end of Sonoma County and has roughly 15,000 acres under vine. The "Alexander Valley" designation was historically used to label wines produced exclusively within the Russian River's floodplain, but it's now found on Alexander Valley wines that are produced farther afield. Thanks in part to the broader definition of its territory, the Alexander Valley is now home to numerous microclimates and a wide range of varieties, of which Cabernet Sauvignon remains the most widely planted.
During the growing season, cool morning fog rolls up the Russian River Valley and typically burns off by the hot, sunny afternoon. On the warm valley floor, Cabernet Sauvignon has yielded the best Alexander Valley wines. Other Alexander Valley red wines, such as Zinfandel and Merlot, are also planted widely, as are Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and even Gewurztraminer and Riesling. The latter two cool-climate varieties fare best on the hills near Mendocino.
Sonoma Valley is nestled between the Sonoma Mountain Range on the west and the Mayacamas Mountains on the East. North Coast winemaking began here back in 1825 when the missionary fathers established Mission Sonoma. By the 1850s, Sonoma had evolved into California's wine making center, a distinction it gradually ceded to Napa over the next fifty years. In the 1970s, however, Sonoma wines had begun to reclaim the international renown they enjoy today.
With more than 7,000 acres planted to Sonoma Valley wine grapes, the Valley stretches for 40 miles north from the San Pablo Bay to just below Santa Rosa. Although summertime fog enters the valley from both the north and south, Sonoma's cooler regions by far are located in the southern part of the valley, primarily in the Carneros district. In contrast, the climate along the valley floor in the middle of the region can be quite warm.
Though compact, Sonoma Valley hosts a very wide array of vineyard soil types, topographies, and elevations. That said, there are a few rules of thumb: In the southern Valley (between Carneros and the town of Sonoma), the best Sonoma wines come from early-maturing varieties like Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, and, from some producers, Merlot. On the hillsides and along the hilltops, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel fare the best so long as the elevation is above the frost line. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the two most widely cultivated varieties in Sonoma, perform best along the benchlands between Sonoma and Kenwood.
It is remarkable that an industry essentially less than a half-century old could capture the attention of the American wine-buying public to the degree that California has. Powerful consumer interest in California wine is driven by two major factors. The more obvious reason is that California's best wines, which come from grapes grown in a benign climate featuring endless sunshine, very warm summer days, and generally dry harvests, and wonderfully fruity, full, and satisfying, and rarely too austere or tannic to be enjoyed from day one.
California is blessed with an extraordinary range of soils and microclimates, allowing for the successful cultivation of many varieties. In at least three out of four years, the best sites produce healthy, ripe fruits that are the envy of European producers in more marginal climates. The other reason Americans buy so much California wine is that California is the home team. Clearly, a high percentage of domestic wine drinkers are more comfortable buying American wines (and not just wines of California) than imports. Then, too, foreign bottles are generally identified by place name, rather than by the more familiar varieties that American wine drinkers have come to know and enjoy.
Moreover, in much of North America, outside the top 15 or 20 largest metropolitan markets, consumers have limited access to imported wines even if they wanted to buy them.
For many, Napa Valley is California wine, and Cabernet is king in Napa Valley. Meanwhile, the Burgundy varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have gravitated to cooler areas, generally closer to the Pacific, such as the western stretches of Sonoma County, the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, and the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez valleys within Santa Barbara County. Syrah vines have yielded interesting wines in a range of styles all over the state, in regions as disparate as Mendocino County, the Sonoma coast, Carneros, Paso Robles, and Santa Maria Valley. Very good Zinfandel similarly comes from multiple growing areas, although to date the age-of-vines variable has been almost as important as geography. Zinfandel, though its roots are in Europe, is a true California original and the only California wine imitated abroad. It's also a variety of which there are still significant plantings of very old vines, in some cases dating back to the end of the 19th century.
Cabernet Sauvignon Facts
Full, tannic wines with notes of blackcurrant and cassis
Grilled red meats, stews, hard or rich cheeses
Cabernet Sauvignon has been the flagship red grape of the California wine industry for decades, and its popularity shows no sign of abating. Napa Valley is the heart of Cabernet Sauvignon production and is clearly an ideal region for creating world-class wines. If any Cabernet-based wine is capable of giving Bordeaux a run for its money, it's Napa Valley's examples. However, due to the extremely high cost of purchasing and developing vineyards in California, and the cachet of Napa Valley on the label, this has largely become a category for the well-heeled wine lover.
At their best, Napa Valley's Cabernets are characterized by fruit notes of cassis, black cherry, and licorice and sweet oak notes of chocolate, mocha, cedar, and tar. Today, most of the best wines are aged entirely or almost completely in French oak barrels, which tend to produce somewhat more refined wines than do most American barrels. (These latter barrels often introduce exotic and pungent suggestions of scotch, bourbon, tar, coconut, and dill.) But the use of expensive French oak is no guarantee of a good bottle: too many wines today, due to high crop levels or insufficiently ripe fruit, do not have the stuffing to support their oakiness and can quickly be dominated or even dried out by their wood component. The best California Cabernets mellow and soften with five to ten years of bottle aging, developing more complex and less fruit-dominated notes of tobacco, leather, and earth, with mellower wood tones. Compared to the top Bordeaux, however, many California Cabernet Sauvignons merely endure in bottle rather than truly become more interesting. There are no shortage of quality producers, even if these wines are rarely values. And it remains to be seen if today's outsized showstoppers, made from superripe grapes and undeniably impressive on release, will reward extended bottle aging or will turn out to have been best suited for drinking in their youth.
Many wines labeled Cabernet Sauvignon contain small percentages of other so-called Bordeaux varieties -- chiefly Merlot and Cabernet Franc but also Petit Verdot and even Malbec (varietally labeled wines in California must contain at least 75% of the variety named).
Cabernet Sauvignon also flourishes in Washington State, Australia and even Chile. In Washington, prices have been creeping up at the high end, with some producers aiming to compete with cult wines from the Napa Valley. Consider Chateau Ste. Michelle and Woodward Canyon. In Australia, look to the Coonawarra and Margaret River regions. Chile can reveal excellent bargains to those who know where to look: Montes makes a strong range of quality bottlings, as does Casa Lapostolle.
As Cabernet Sauvignon is bold and assertive on the palate, it pairs best with foods like grilled red meats. Taken together, the proteins and fats in the food neutralize some of the stronger tannic qualities of the wine, leading to a harmonic combination that enhances both partners.