Silver Oak wines: Beloved, maligned, coveted or scorned?

If you’re into wine, where do you come down on the never-ending Silver Oak discussion? Is it very good wine? Or over-hyped? Is the big, luscious fruit something you appreciate? Or is it simply too obvious and lacking in character?

The Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague recently weighed in on the matter in a well-rounded piece and suggested it might be all those things, depending who you ask, though the venerable Napa Valley winery known for its big, fruit-forward Cabernet Sauvignon seemed to hold its own in a tasting.

Silver Oak is a very popular wine to order at upscale steakhouses, perhaps suggesting it’s a showy and ubiquitous choice, as one sommelier quoted in the piece said, “for people who think they know a lot about wine.” That may sound incredibly patronizing, but the more you follow certain opinion-makers in the wine world, the more you’ll find Silver Oak poo-pooed as “Silver Joke” or worse.

This discussion is all the more interesting in Sacramento, where the Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sacramento has some 20,000 bottles of wine in its cellars and lays claim to having the “largest collection of Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon than any other restaurant in the world.” The collection is continuous from 1973 onward, stemming from the relationship between veteran Firehouse wine director Mario Ortiz, and his mentor, winemaker Justin Meyer.

The Journal notes that Silver Oak’s aging process is one of the lightening rods – the winery makes its own barrels out of American oak rather than the French oak that is much more common at premium wineries.

The article states that “Silver Oak Cabernet sells well all over the country, but thanks to its big, ripe flavor profile.” As for its steakhouse popularity, “it’s a regular top-seller at Empire Steak House in New York and at Del Frisco’s steakhouses across the country.” Jessica Certo, sommelier of Del Frisco’s in New York, said that she couldn’t keep Silver Oak in stock. “We sell out of every vintage,” she said.

Some feel the older Silver Oak vintages are significantly different than its newer wines.

Teague opened a 1982 Silver Oak Alexander Valley, and 2008 and 2009 bottles from Napa and Alexander Valley. While Teague enjoyed the older wine and appreciated its structure and “brown-sugared apple sort of fruit,” one of the tasters who was a fan of Silver Oak thought the wine was “too old” and felt the “fruit was faded.”

All of the tasters enjoyed the 2008 but were disappointed in the oakier 2009. For your own side by side tastings, this could be pricey – depending on the vintage, expect to pay $100 or more per bottle.

Writes Teague in conclusion: “However sexy it might be to hate Silver Oak, I simply found that I couldn’t. Maybe it was because I was surprised by how well the 1982 wine showed at such an advanced age, or maybe it’s because I’ve had much worse wines. Or maybe just because it went so well with the steak.”

To peruse the Silver Oak collection at the Firehouse, check out the restaurant’s digitized wine list (the Silver Oak portion starts on page 40).

And if you want to see what the wine geeks are saying about the Wall Street Journal article, check out the discussion.