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Just before Christmas, a group of Silver Oak employees, representing accounting, hospitality and winemaking, joined Silver Oak General Manager Tony LeBlanc to visit The Oak Cooperage in Higbee, MO. Tony worked with our hospitality team to prepare his grandmother’s special meatballs and pasta sauce for an early Christmas lunch. The cooperage hosted a holiday open house attended by much of the town and our vendors throughout the area.
But I tagged along on this trip for a more specific purpose. Silver Oak initially invested in the cooperage in 2001 and in the spring of 2015, we had the opportunity to acquire the other half as our partner approached retirement. It’s very rare for a winery to have this level of vertical integration and be “hands-on” in the barrel making process. There are a few wineries in France that make their own barrels, and it has been done with mixed results here in the US, but never has a winery focused solely on American Oak barrels, and, more pointedly, coopering, forestry and milling all in the same region.
My goal this trip was to discuss the materials and process with Danny Orton, the onsite manager, and design some trials playing with various elements of the coopering process. I wanted to figure out if we could tailor the barrels even further to complement Silver Oak wines. We talked through some logistical steps needed to vary the amount of stave seasoning, the length and depth of the toast, the grain of the wood itself, and the source of the logs used at the mill to determine how these different inputs ultimately manifest in the wine
Oak is a particular passion of most winemakers: it (or the choice of alternative storage vessels) plays a big role in the style of each and every wine made in the world. However, for most, it resembles an ingredient. It’s something with characteristics they can ask salespeople and cooperages to specify, but ultimately they buy it from a supplier. I find it exhilarating that I get to participate in the entire process and go “backstage,” peek behind the curtain, and customize our barrels to our wines. Just as people are interested in knowing where their food comes from and what goes into growing it, we also want to better understand everything that comes in contact with our wine.
It’s going to be a long process fine-tuning The Oak’s barrels. Even if we decided tomorrow exactly what was the perfect barrel (and I tend to think that there is no one “perfect” barrel, just the right mix of slightly different seasoning and toasts) for Silver Oak’s wines, the wood we mill the following day would need to spend years in the stave yard before becoming a barrel followed by several years of wine aging to see the end results. This is another reason I enjoy making wine for the Duncan family: I can tell them that we’ll probably have some definitive answers on results in 4-5 years and that seems perfectly reasonable to them. These are folks who understand the long timeline upon which the wine business operates.
It was a professionally fulfilling trip, but just as importantly, I got some time to bond over Tony’s Polpette. Higbee is a community with a tightknit feel, which makes it easy to see why Justin Meyer, Ray Duncan and Daniel Baron created a special bond with this place. Silver Oak and Twomey have a similar feel, in which colleagues pat each other on the back in good times and hold each other up during hard times. The California contingent and the local crew broke bread, laughed and toasted to a wonderful holiday season and, although we were thousands of miles away close to Christmas, it felt like being home with family. The future is bright for The Oak, and I feel fortunate that I’m getting the opportunity to participate in the process from forest to cellar, something unique in the world of winemaking that I never imagined I’d get the chance to do.
-Nate WeisRead more ›
We hope you will join us Saturday, February 6, 2016 to celebrate the release of our 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon!
Release Day has been a Silver Oak tradition for over 25 years. It is a celebratory day filled with delicious food, fantastic wine and a lot of fun!
Each guest will receive (4) 3 oz. pour tasting tickets to try our 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet. In addition to being one of the first to taste our new release, you will enjoy fantastic food and entertainment. To commemorate the day, you will get to take home a keepsake professional photo and Silver Oak wine glass.
Featured Restaurants and Chefs:
· La Toque
· Cole’s Chop House
· Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen
· Charlie Palmer
· Silver Oak Cellars
· Sow Belly Trio
· Mother Truckers Band
· DJ Harry Duncan
2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Release Day
Saturday, February 6, 2016
Silver Oak Oakville Winery, Napa Valley
915 Oakville Cross Road
Oakville, CA 94562
10am - 3:30pm
$75 per guest
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, 2015Read more ›
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, 2015Read more ›
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.
In the Bordeaux varieties, we are seeing berry weights 20-30% lower than what we consider the “standard” for the individual varieties, in large part due to the drought. The ideal time for controlling berry weights is between bloom and veraison, and the relative lack of rain has let us control soil and thus plant moisture very closely through irrigation. This is in many ways the crux of the precision farming techniques that the vineyard team have been using for a number of years. I should note that the reason we want small berries is that they are generally a great starting point for making high quality red wines.
As with everything viticultural and enological, however, small berries are a double-edged sword. Over-extraction with such low berry weights is a real concern and possibility, so we will be adjusting our fermentation protocols as needed. This is yet another example of how growing grapes and making wine is a series of seemingly unrelated but actually inter-connected decisions and actions.
Our shout-outs this week: (1) to kitchen staff. They came in a few hours early last Saturday and made breakfast for our crews picking Sauvignon Blanc. It was a huge hit, after all, it takes the Whole Bunch to raise a wine. (2) to Nick Filice, our Grower Relations Manager, who this time of year has to play grower psychologist/therapist, brutal truth deliverer and logistics coordinator.
The Twomey Healdsburg winery has continued on a hectic pace in their second week of crush. Russian River Pinot Noir from Last Stop Ranch and Westpin Vineyard has been a steady stream this week and Ferrington Vineyard (Anderson Valley) and Bien Nacido Vineyard (Santa Maria Valley) were picked out by the middle of the week. There is one more block of Sauvignon Blanc in Oakville to pick (likely early next week) and we started harvesting the Sauvignon Blanc at Twomey Healdsburg Thursday. Fermentations are very active, barrels are being filled with Sauvignon Blanc and the crew is not far from pressing the first Pinot tanks.
Our Geyserville Winery will get started next week with Cabernet from the Reynoso Vineyard and/or a partner vineyard in the hills above Geyserville. A couple of Alexander Valley vineyards are approaching ripeness, and others are not far behind. Some parts of the Alexander Valley are a little behind and the Cabernet tsunami will start in 12-18 days according to my crystal ball.
We crushed Cabernet in Oakville from the Milat Vineyard in what I am told is the earliest pick in Silver Oak’s history, so Oakville is officially open. It will be a few more days before the next pick of the year as we wait for other vineyards and blocks to ripen.
In honor of the unusual and non-customary, this week’s quote comes from the esteemed Hunter S. Thompson (also of Colorado):
"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
August 24, 2015Read more ›
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