How do you improve on history?
If you’re Silver Oak Cellars in Oakville, you start by hauling in 550 tons of stone from a dismantled, 115-year-old five-story flour mill half-way across the nation to replace your main building.
That’s one unique element of Silver Oak’s remodeling, but not the only one for the winery which was co-founded in 1972 by partners Raymond Duncan and Justin Meyer and burned to the ground two years ago.
The replacement building, celebrated at a media event last week, goes one better than the original “stone building” that occupied the Silver Oak — it is actually constructed of stone.
“It’s funny. We called it the stone building, but it was actually made of cinder block that you could get at Home Depot,” mused Silver Oak president David Duncan, one of the co-founder’s two sons. (His brother, Tim, is in charge of Silver Oak marketing.)
“Though the fire was devastating, it presented us with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Duncan told the group attending the event. “We were able to take 35 years of experience in winemaking and hospitality and apply it to create an ideal space for making our Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and entertaining our guests.”
The four-inch thick stone used for the replacement building — though Duncan is reluctant to call it that — came from Coffeyville, Kansas, a town that wild-west history buffs will recognize as the place where the Dalton gang met its Waterloo. Four of five Daltons were shot dead by the Coffeyville townspeople there in 1892 to foil their ingenious attempt to rob two banks at the same time. The fifth Dalton, despite having 23 bullet holes in him, survived and eventually became a California real estate agent and actor.
The retired mill was found by a consultant for the Duncan family during a nationwide search just before it was going to be dismantled and sold to landscapers to make retaining walls and the like.
Nothing, save some artwork, was salvaged from the original winery building. All structures on the property were destroyed, except for a water tower which has become the Silver Oak icon. As part of the Silver Oak makeover, the tower has been freshly painted, revitalized and moved 12 inches.
Besides the fact the original building was constructed with material inferior to that used in the winery’s recreation, there were other issues that drove the Duncans’ decision to fully replace it — which, as it developed, wasn’t really much of a decision at all. The old building’s tasting room frequently flooded and it sorely needed seismic upgrading.
To resolve the flooding concern, the entire area with the tasting room building and adjacent warehouse was elevated 4-1/2 feet.
Nothing has been spared to give the building’s interior and exterior historic ambiance.
“We want to honor where we came from,” Duncan said, “so a lot of elements of the building are reminiscent of the first winery, and yet this building is so much better for making wine in our style.”
The next-most unique elements at Silver Oak are the four stained-glass windows — two each in the main building and the warehouse. The windows reflect the four seasons and feature trees, flowers, birds, vines and the Napa Valley landscape. Summer and autumn windows adorn the main building and were salvaged from the fire. Spring and winter are installed in the warehouse.
The windows were created by local artist Diane Peterson. And therein lies another story: She created them over a 27-year period — one window in 1981, another in 1991 and the remaining pair this year.
Other compelling features include:
• A tasting bar crafted from stacked American white oak 4-by-4s reclaimed from a 182-year-old barn in Missouri. At the back of the bar is a hand-carved depiction of vineyards and Silver Oak’s iconic water tower.
• A soaring sky-lit fermentation barn and an eastern-facing crushing pad and tilt-up concrete barrel with walls 11 inches thick.
• A second-floor tasting lab featuring cutting-edge equipment.
• Solar panels, 1,464 of them, providing enough power for most of Silver Oak’s energy needs.
• A glass-house library displaying wines that date back to Silver Oak’s first vintage.
Silver Oak winemaker Daniel Baron characterizes the total effect as a “winemaker’s dream” and predicts wine quality will improve as a result.
The winery produces cabernet sauvignon exclusively.
“Originally our wine was 100 percent cabernet. With Daniel, it has become a blend of cabernet, merlot, cab franc and petit verdot,” Duncan said.
Silver Oak ages its wine for two or more years longer than the standard two years.
The aging takes place in American-made barrels manufactured in a Missouri cooperage in which the Duncans are half-owners. Outside growers, most of them long-time suppliers, and vines growing on the winery’s 180 acres in the Napa Valley provide the fruit.
With cabernet facilities in Oakville, Alexander Valley and Geyserville; a merlot winery in Calistoga and a pinot noir winery in Healdsburg, Silver Oak has an overall use permit for producing 40,000 cases and annually produces 30,000 cases, Duncan said.