“You know, I could not have envisioned this. A winemaker is just a glorified farmer. I just thought I’d make great wine and make a decent living, and work hard, I never saw things going like this. Like the old saying goes, I believe in luck: the harder I work the luckier I get.” —Justin Meyer
My infatuation with Silver Oak Cellars has less to do with the beautiful winery, vineyards, or even the delicious wine, which I’ve collected for years, and everything to do with the winery’s founders.
Bakersfield’s Justin Meyer and Denver oilman Ray Duncan founded Silver Oak on a handshake in 1972. That handshake lasted until Meyer sold his half interest in the winery to Duncan in 2001.
Their vision and commitment never wavered. They set out to make one wine, cabernet sauvignon, and to make it the best they possibly could. Their first vintage, 1972, was from their Alexander Valley vineyards. Seven years later, the winery added a Napa Valley cabernet to its portfolio. Those two wines are the only wines Silver Oak has ever made. And they were their best effort every year.
I was recently reminded of their vision and commitment when I revisited Silver Oak Cellars for the first time in some years.
Meyer and Duncan are both gone; Meyer died in 2002 and Duncan in 2015. Duncan’s sons Tim and David run the winery now. And while the torch may have passed, the legacy lives on.
Ian Leggat, director of marketing and public relations for Silver Oak, greeted me warmly in the new tasting room. The winery was completely rebuilt beginning in 2006 after a fire destroyed the former winery structure. The new building’s elegance and simplicity are at once welcoming and comfortable.
The new structure includes solar panels that provide 50 percent of the winery’s power needs, the crush pad on the east side so as to minimize sun exposure, and state-of-the-art winemaking equipment to handle the grapes and wine as carefully as possible.
Silver Oak is the only winery with its own cooperage, Leggat said. It uses white oak from central Missouri for its barrels. “We think Missouri oak is the best,” he said. “It has the flavor profile sweet-spot that we’re looking for.”
And as Meyer did with Silver Oak’s current winemaker, Daniel Barron—bringing him in and mentoring him (Meyer’s last vintage was 2000)—Barron has done the same with new winemaker Nate Weis. “Daniel is mentoring Nate just like Justin mentored Daniel,” Leggat said.
I stumbled upon my notes of my last interview with Meyer, and they tell much about not only Meyer but also the path the winery remains on today.
“Someone once asked me,” he said, “what to do with that last glass or two of wine in an open bottle that sits out overnight. I said, I don’t know, I never had that problem.” Once he was asked why he waited so long before releasing his wines. The Alexander Valley cabernet is released almost four years after harvest and the Napa Valley almost five. The wines spend more time in oak than most cabernets and more than a year in bottle before release. It’s to soften the tannins, he said: “I like harsh tannins about as well as I like tough steak.”
Meyer has never played the ratings game. He just happened to make exceptional wine. Likewise, he never entered Silver Oak in wine competitions. He believed that if you work hard and make the best wine you possibly can, it will sell.
There were skeptics. Craig Goldwyn was one of them, and he decided to put Meyer and Silver Oak to the test.
Goldwyn ran the American Wine Competition in Chicago, a wine competition where I judged. In 1989, he decided that a wine competition billing itself as the American Wine Competition would be incomplete without all the big names. He decided to purchase brands that didn’t enter off the shelf.
Unbeknownst to Meyer, Silver Oak was one of the wines Goldwyn purchased. Meyer found out about it when Goldwyn called him to tell him that not only had Meyer won two gold medals at a competition he didn’t know he had entered, but also the Silver Oak Napa had been judged best cabernet in America.
Thinking that it might be a fluke, Goldwyn did the same thing in 1990. And the results were almost the same. The only difference was that this time the Silver Oak Alexander Valley was named best cabernet in America. Goldwyn tried again in 1991, and again both wines won gold medals. He stopped after that.
Meyer was always amazed by Silver Oak’s enormous success and iconic status: “You know, I could not have envisioned this. A winemaker is just a glorified farmer. I just thought I’d make great wine and make a decent living, and work hard, I never saw things going like this. Like the old saying goes, I believe in luck: the harder I work the luckier I get.
“To make exceptional cabernets was my dream for many years,” Meyer said. “When Ray and I founded Silver Oak in 1972, my dream began to materialize. The success of Silver Oak Cellars is based first and foremost upon the persistent dedication to making the finest cabernet sauvignon in California each year without compromise.”
It was true then. It’s still true today. CHEERS!