Raymond Twomey Duncan first came to the Napa Valley in the late 1960s and within a year began purchasing land in the Napa and Alexander Valleys. Along with the late Justin Meyer, they founded Silver Oak Cellars in 1972 with a single goal: create the best Cabernet Sauvignon. After selecting Daniel Baron to succeed him as winemaker in 1994, Justin Meyer sold his share of Silver Oak to the Duncan family in 2001. Today, the Duncan family leads Silver Oak forward, maintaining the vision established by Ray and Justin more than 35 years ago. David Duncan serves as the winery’s President and CEO, overseeing production and operations. Today Silver Oak is regarded as one of the top Cabernet Sauvignon producers in the Napa Valley, earning legions of fans and a near cult-like status. 

Silver Oak makes only one wine, Cabernet Sauvignon, and you are known for this. When the idea first started with your dad, was there any concern that you would not be able to make a name for yourself with just a single wine?

It is hard to appreciate from today’s “cab is king” mentality but we really stepped out and took a big risk with our singular focus on just one wine. I don’t think we were too worried about making “a name,” just making great wine.

Why does Cabernet Sauvignon have such staying power? There are many other excellent varieties out there, why this one?

The Napa and Alexander Valleys provide excellent growing conditions for this varietal, so we can expect a consistent wine year after year. We’re also always making small improvements in our winemaking and viticulture techniques so it gets better and better.

How difficult is it to market a single wine? If the wine buying public is less enchanted with Cabernet, or wine prices, or there’s another variety that’s commanding the attention, what recourse do you have to sell a limited product? Or is the marketing that much easier?

I think the marketing is easier. Our customers know what to expect and they are never disappointed. Cabernet Sauvignon, in my opinion, will never go out of style – it’s a superior varietal that always pairs well with food, and has a boldness that people love.  

The term “cult cabernet” is now part of our lexicon. Is Silver Oak a cult Cabernet? If so, what makes it that?

We were unquestionably one of the first. We may have started out as a cult wine, but at this point I would categorize it as an exceptionally strong customer base. First and foremost, we cater to our customers and as a result have extremely enthusiastic Silver Oak fans that we’ve known for years. Our twice a year release days are a great example of this – a celebration that our customers started years ago when they lined up at the door to buy the new release. Now, thousands of people come to Silver Oak from around the country to celebrate. So, if a cult wine needs to be tiny and impossible to buy, we are not that. If a cult wine is when people take a sip and say “mmmmmm” -  we are definitely that!

High-end Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is expensive, and Silver Oak is no exception. How do you justify the cost per bottle?

Considering the prices of comparable wines, our wines are set at an extremely fair price for the quality that we produce. We look at it as the value you receive. Also, remember it takes us almost 5 years before we release our wine so, yes, we do have a big investment in that. We combine our unique winemaking experience with a spirit of innovation, enabling us to produce food-friendly, handcrafted wines. The labor of love is worth the price.

Silver Oak Cabernets consistently achieve a lower percent alcohol, although levels in U.S. wines are overall quite high. What are your thoughts on the subject of high alcohol wines?

I call these wines “cocktail wines” and, for my taste, that’s not what a glass of wine is supposed to be. I find these wines to perhaps be “showy” in a first sip, which I believe is why they stand out in a tasting. However, wine is not for sipping once or comparative tasting, it is for drinking with your meal. More moderate wines are pleasing as you drink a glass with your entrée. This is what we strive for in our wines. The moderate alcohol percentage of Silver Oak Cabernets (14%) as well as our Twomey wines, allows our customers to pair the best meals with food-friendly wines. 

Your two Cabernets use fruit sourced from the Napa Valley, and the Alexander Valley. Clearly there are differences in drainage, elevation and soil. Beyond that, what makes these two areas ripe for great Cabernet?

Our estate vineyards throughout the Napa and Alexander Valleys are ideally situated to provide optimal growing conditions for our Cabernet Sauvignon. We complement this fruit with grapes from top independent growers throughout both appellations, giving our winemaking team the flexibility they need to realize the full potential of each Silver Oak vintage. The core of the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon comes from our Soda Canyon vineyard. The lushly flavored wines from this vineyard provides a rich foundation for our Napa blend. Also, Napa Valley’s cooler weather, in addition to the marine layers and fog that often roll in, maintain a balance of acidity in the grapes. Our Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is drawn predominantly from our three Alexander Valley estate vineyards and reflects a blend of their characteristics. The serpentine soils of our Geyserville vineyard yield wines with a black-pepper spiciness that adds zest to the final blend. Alexander Valley’s climate is warmer than in Napa due to the mountains blocking cooling marine fog, and has warm sunshine-filled summers and cool dry falls. Due to the warmer weather’s ability to ripen the grapes, Alexander Valley cabernets have a more voluptuous flavor.

In the years of tasting through a multitude of Silver Oak Cabernets, have there been moments when you’ve had a current or former vintage, and at that moment you’ve thought to yourself, “this is a perfect wine.”

I’ve had a lot of people ask me this question; for me (and stealing the line from our founders), the wines are like my children – how do you pick a favorite moment in time when you loved them the most? If I had to pick a favorite, I’d say the same thing as I do about my kids, “I can always tell you which one is my favorite at any one time, but it always changes!” 

How did your second project, Twomey Cellars get its start? And why the need for another label?

After decades of making Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon, we decided to expand our mission of making hand crafted wines. In 1999, with our experience and resources in hand, we purchased our Soda Canyon Ranch vineyard in Napa Valley. Our winemaker, Daniel Baron, saw great potential in the Merlot clones and we produced our first Merlot that same year. We then had the opportunity in 2000 to secure a great piece of land in the heart of the Russian River Valley, a perfect site for growing Pinot Noir. Twomey was founded with the same philosophy that has guided Silver Oak; making food-friendly wines that are drinkable upon release. Our winery in Calistoga is devoted to our Merlot and our winery in Russian River is designed for our Pinots and Sauvignon Blanc. We didn’t need to produce another label, but we’re passionate about wine making and an opportunity presented itself, so we took it. We are truly enjoying the discovery of the potential for these varietals and I would look for great things from Twomey, now and in the future.

When you’re home alone, or with friends, what do you like to drink?

Silver Oak, of course! Seriously, I often find myself drinking our wines. Next, I enjoy wines from my friends’ vineyards and wineries. Finally there is the old saying, “Making great wine takes a lot of beer!”