Twice a year, crowds anxiously line up outside the gates of the Silver Oak Cellars in the heart of Napa Valley. Encompassing an entire spectrum of ages from newly minted twenty-one year old’s, to middle-aged families with children in tow, to grey-haired boomers, they are a snapshot of the modern wine lover. Each one anxiously clutches their entry ticket, awaiting the moment the doors swing open, and they can enter.
It’s like a bacchanal Willy Wonka Adventure, except instead of five golden tickets found inside candy bars, these drinkers have paid $200 for the opportunity to sample the latest Cabernet being released to the public from a Napa legend. The events have been going on for decades and fly in the face of the notion that wine tasting is a staid affair. Instead, it has helped create a cult-like status around Silver Oak and its award-winning Cabernets. Plus, it created a blueprint for releasing new products that has been copied across Napa Valley and beyond by winemakers, distillers, and craft brewers.
“Over the years, our biannual release date has morphed and taken a lot of turns. What started as a small, sedate affair in the late eighties quickly took on a life of its own,” says David Duncan, the CEO of Silver Oak. “The first year, about thirty people showed up, but within a few years, we had over three hundred people at our doors. So, we just decided to run with it and make it an event to reward our fans.”
Founded in 1972 by Ray Duncan (David Duncan’s father) and Justin Meyer, Silver Oak has followed a singular mission from its first days. To make the best Cabernet Sauvignon possible. Taking inspiration from European winemakers, they only focused on one wine, not a broad spectrum like many others in the region. They also made the radical decision to solely age their juice in American Oak to produce a more mellow tannin flavor profile and to pick their grapes later than others to impart their wines with a lushness not typical in the region at the time.
From the get-go, drinkers noticed. Their first bottling, a 1972 Cabernet, won a gold medal at the California State Fair in 1977, right after it was released. By holding their wines for five years, a tradition they still follow today, their Cabernets were bursting with subtle flavors and helped introduce the American public to the possibilities of finer wines from home.
A unique blend of scarcity and unrivaled flavors made wine lovers pilgrimage to Silver Oak to get their hands on a bottle the moment it was available almost immediately. As the years went by and the crowds kept growing, the winery decided to embrace the festive atmosphere that descended upon them and ramped up the event. The first Saturday in February celebrates the release of their Napa Cabernet, and the first Saturday in August marks the release of their Alexander Valley Cabernet.
“We have an old saying at the winery that ‘We have yet to make our best bottle of wine yet,’ and I believe that is what has helped us always keep a buzz around our wines,” says Duncan. “We are always trying to do better, and each year we are just as excited as our fans to open a bottle and see what we have created. We have a lot of gratitude and have made many great friends over the years at our events. They are an interesting mix of people who come from old-time regulars to college kids who are pumped up to sip some of our wine. We even get the occasional star mixed in with the crowd. Everyone that comes does so out of love for our wine, and they take that energy back with them.”
Each release day has a different makeup. Some are more music focused, some have a healthy educational slant to them, and all feature an ever-changing selection of food options. Most years, a mix of Napa Valley chefs offer their favorite creations, but you never quite know what Silver Oak will roll out. The latest release party on February 4th featured a celebrated pitmaster from Texas, Leonard Botello IV, the owner of Truth BBQ, partnering up with Burt Bakman, the owner of SLAB Barbeque of LA.
After a festive afternoon, the 1,200 attendees will leave Silver Oak and return home. Many will already be planning on coming back for the August release date. Return visits are the norm, says Duncan, one gentleman has traveled from Omaha, Nebraska, for everyone since the mid-nineties. He is at sixty-six and counting. It’s that type of passion and connection with its consumers that has kept Silver Oak top of mind and helped it remain a vibrant brand in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
They say that even though wine has a rich history and deep culture, its primary purpose is to bring joy to those who consume it. If Silver Oak has done anything, it has highlighted that facet of wine drinking and, along the way, become an iconic brand.