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Final Harvest Update from Winemaker Nate Weis
POSTED 10/19/2015 9:38:58 PM
In 2015, California endured its fourth year of drought. This phenomenon is in large part a municipal issue with groundwater in the North Coast mostly unaffected. Soil profiles were mostly full at the start of the season once again due to some February storms. Grapegrowers may not be getting a lot of precipitation, but we’ve been lucky enough to get it at critical times during the drought.
The early portion of winter was remarkably warm, leading to an early budbreak and start to the growing season, very much like 2014. As early as budbreak was, however, the weather pattern soon changed and early-season weather was cool and relatively wet. April and May in the North Coast were cold, with many highs in the 60s and very few in the 80s, and we saw a couple of inches of rain in this critical bloom period. The drawn-out and slow bloom period and years of drought led to decreased yield potential throughout the state. June saw two short heatwaves with temperatures approaching triple digits, and then, curiously, snow fell in Yosemite in early July when an arctic cold front moved quickly through California.
Late July through to October saw seasonal weather with a number of short heat events. More unseasonably, there was a period in early September of eight consecutive days above 95 degrees. The heat hastened harvest and 2015 wound up being the earliest in anyone’s memory. We began picking Cabernet Sauvignon on August 19th and finished on October 1st.
2015 will be remembered as a warm, early and small vintage, much like 2008 or 2004. Fans of Silver Oak will remember those as particularly good vintages in both the Napa and Alexander Valleys, boding well for the development of this year’s blends. What we had to work with was top-notch raw material, albeit much less than we might have liked.
October 19, 2015
Harvest Update from Winemaker, Nate Weis - August 31, 2015
POSTED 9/1/2015 6:09:50 PM
The weather last week started out mild. However last, Wednesday and Thursday got up into the 90s in most of the North Coast and Friday afternoon, and it pushed into the high 90s in Oakville. A bit of precipitation may materialize this weekend, but a barely measurable amount fell which was not concerning. In fact, we often notice an increase in ripening after these sorts of events, the theory being that a small amount of rain rinses dust off the leaves and allows more efficient photosynthesis. The long-term forecasts call for more of the same and even those meteorologists who dare provide 30-day forecasts have clear skies through mid-September, for what that’s worth. Keep in mind these are the same forecasts that predicted Friday would only reach the mid-80s (whoops!).
Last week was exciting with Jean-Claude and Jeff Berrouet here with us. None of the Soda Canyon Merlot was quite ready for harvest but we had some wonderfully informative time with the two of them, visiting vineyards, and tasting the fermenting tanks. It is a real pleasure to work with such a wealth of knowledge and often the most productive input we receive is something Jean-Claude may say in passing that sparks lively discussion and results in a new approach. We look forward to having them back after the New Year.
While Brix is used as a proxy for % sugar, it’s actually just a density measurement, not a precise measurement of sugar. We use it because it’s a decent approximation and one that can be done quickly and easily. Why is this important? Another part of our precision farming technique is an attempt to separate the physiological status of the plant from a simple Brix measurement. With some fancy math and careful measurement in our labs, we can determine how much sugar the plant has actually “unloaded” into the berry.
Vitis vinifera (the grape species used for making wine) unfortunately doesn’t care about wine or wine quality. Like all plant and animal species, it has evolved to be very good at one important thing: survival (in this case, dispersing its seeds). Berries turn color and becomes sweet to attract animal life to the fruit. What we have found is that once the plant stops making the fruit sweet, it starts to focus on preparing the berry for its travel through the intestinal system of the animal and hopefully for the seed to germinate and grow in some new location. In winemaking terms, this is the key period. We’ve found that after the plant stops pushing sugar towards the berry, there’s a period of time in which flavor and tannin in the skin and seed (although we place little emphasis on the seeds, quite honestly) mature and become ideal for winemaking. That’s our harvest window, when the berry physiologically matures but before it starts to dehydrate and flavors move towards the over-ripe. So, in short, Brix goes up, Brix goes down, we ride the wave but don’t get too concerned.
At our Oakville Winery, we crushed fruit from a partner vineyard in the hills east of Rutherford. We picked more cabernet yesterday morning as well, and there are a number of other Napa vineyards on our radar in the southern part of the valley.
Our Geyserville Winery did not receive any Alexander Valley Cabernet last week. Performing berry sensory revealed that the vineyards we’ve been watching closely just weren’t quite ready. This week seems likely to see our first harvest there.
Those of you who interact with members of the Production Team probably notice a malady that develops this time of year. We may forget to return an email, beg out of a scheduled meeting (sorry!), or do something as simple as forget to eat lunch. This is known as “harvest brain” and shows up when we all try to keep a lot of balls in the air in a rapidly changing environment. As harvest brain sets in, I like to think about what Pete Rose said when a reporter asked him about his secret to being a career .303 hitter, likely expecting some deep philosophical approach to working the count or taking the ball the other way. Pete’s response:
“See the ball. Hit the ball”
Translation: keep things simple and your eye on the ball. See grapes, pick grapes, crush grapes, ferment grapes.
August 31, 2015
Harvest Update from Nate Weis: August 24, 2015
POSTED 8/26/2015 7:55:46 PM
We managed to escape the heat last weekend and early this week and water was used wisely to keep canopies healthy and grape berries hydrated. The forecasts now call for a stable period of seasonal temperatures well within the ripening and vine function ranges, although we are keeping our eyes on the possibility of showers next weekend (August 29th). The beginning of this week we saw the return of a thick and stubborn marine layer that took a long time to burn off: a welcome homecoming in our eyes.
In the fields, flavors are progressing in all varieties, but there is a sense of tranquility as sample chemistries, like the weather, are stabilizing and offering the opportunity for patience. An interesting marker of this vintage is surprisingly small berry sizes. Pinot noir has a well-documented tendency towards producing hens and chicks (clusters with berries of different sizes and levels of maturity. Normal sized berries are the “hens,” smaller berries are the “chicks”) but it is especially prevalent in many vineyards this year. We’ve coined the term “chicks and chicks©”. It’s catchy, we know.
2011 Alexander Valley Cabernet Blending Story
POSTED 7/21/2015 10:33:45 PM
The 2011 vintage was challenging in Alexander Valley, as it was for all Northern California winemakers. As a winemaker, these are the kinds of vintages that push us to think creatively and make wines that truly show the mastery of our craft.
In January 2012, as our Associate Winemaker, Christiane Schleussner and I prepared to present our proposed blend to our President and CEO, David Duncan, we were a little nervous. First of all, there is always a plan, an anticipated case quantity. The plan is based on producing acreage, crop estimates for each vintage and historical performance of vineyards. And we have a clear understanding: the Director of Winemaking has the final say as to what goes in the blend. Nevertheless, we work from a place of mutual respect, admiration and consensus. All that being said, to propose a blend that is about 60% of plan seemed like it might be a hard sell. To illustrate our choices, we also made up a blend that would take us to full capacity.
Nate Weis, Winemaker
POSTED 7/2/2015 8:37:23 PM
Although he toyed with the idea of becoming a pilot or firefighter, Nate Weis’ decision to pursue winemaking seemed almost inevitable. A Napa Valley native whose father is also a Winemaker, Nate grew up with wine on the table and a drawer full of t-shirts emblazoned with winery logos. His first job after graduating with honors from UC Santa Barbara with a BS in Biopsychology/Neuroscience was as a “cellar rat.” Nate remembers, “My dad suggested I make sure I actually liked winemaking before heading down that career path. I loved that first harvest, so I packed my bags, dropped my application for UC Davis grad school in the mail and went off to Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand.”
Nate spent the 2003 harvest at two New Zealand wineries, and when he returned home he worked one harvest before starting grad school. After earning his MS in Viticulture and Enology, he was hired as a Cellar Master, and then spent two years as an Assistant Winemaker. In 2008, Nate was hired by Marchese Piero Antinori to be Winemaker for Antica Napa Valley, where he made Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot. He also served as Winemaker for Aril Wines in Napa, a small ultra-premium producer of Cabernet and Syrah.