Silver Oak Icon Justin Meyer Dies
Justin Meyer, co-founder of Silver Oak Cellars in both Napa Valley and Sonoma County, died August 6. He was 63. The former monk was among a handful of modern-day vintners who cemented Napa Valley's identity as California's premier region for Cabernet Sauvignon.
"I started with nothing," Meyer said in an interview several years ago. And it was true. As a Christian Brothers monk, he had renounced claim to all worldly possessions. He was teaching Spanish in a Sacramento high school for the Brothers when the monastic order asked him to become an assistant winemaker to Brother Timothy at the Christian Brothers winery in Napa Valley (now the Culinary Institute of America). At first, Meyer had no interest and turned them down. His superiors eventually prevailed, and the Bakersfield, California native moved to Napa Valley in 1964. He remained a Christian Brother until January 1972, when he left the winery and monastery to start Silver Oak with partner Ray Duncan, a Colorado gas and oil businessman.
The two men eventually built wineries in both Napa and Alexander Valleys, but focused solely on Cabernet Sauvignon. Silver Oak Cabernets, with their distinctly rich flavors and supple texture, became among the most coveted of California's red wines and set the stage for what has now become the cult wine phenomenon.
In addition to his winemaking activities, Meyer was also an avid fisherman and an accomplished pilot. But in the mid 1990s, the hard-driving Meyer showed signs of slowing down and expressed an interest in distancing himself from Silver Oak. "When I'm 60," he said in 1996, "I want to be free."
Almost on schedule, he sold his share in Silver Oak to his longtime partner, Duncan, for a reported $120 million in 2001. He nonetheless remained in the wine business, working on a winery project in Mendocino County with his son, Matthew. He is also survived by his wife, Bonny, and two other children.
Meyer was the author of a self-published book called Plain Talk About Fine Wine, in which he attempted to demystify the subject and make wine less intimidating. It was a perfect vehicle for the winemaker, whose honest, down-to-earth manner was appreciated by all who knew him.
Meyer had been suffering from ill health for several years. Shortly after his death, some 600 people attended a memorial service in Napa Valley for the popular vintner, whose robust and generous personality will be sorely missed.
Roberto Conterno and Luca Currado
Q&A For a long time, Barolo and Barbaresco demanded almost 20 years in bottle before they were at their peaks. In the late 1960s, however, Piedmontese winemakers introduced new vinification techniques to satisfy consumers who wanted to drink these wines within a few years of purchase. While most producers today have speeded up maceration and aging times, replacing huge oak vats with small barriques, a few vintners still adhere to the tried-and-true methods used by their ancestors. Traditionalist winemaker Roberto Conterno, of Giacomo Conterno, and new-school Luca Currado of Vietti explained to Wine Enthusiast why their methods are best for their respective wineries.
|Wine Enthusiast: Are you against change?|
Roberto Conterno: No, but we must have good reason for what we do.
The large barrels—we call them botti—were the traditional method. But for a while we also tried concrete vats lined with fiberglass, and then stainless steel. About 50 years ago, we switched back to wooden vats. The old vats were closed and used only for fermentation, but today they are open for fermentation and then closed for aging.
WE: What have you got against small oak barrels?
RC: I am not against barriques, but I detest the abuse of them. The barriques, as generally employed, tend to level the characteristics of wine, giving you the same flavor each vintage. At Giacomo Conterno we want to maintain the differences of the vintages and the personality of wine.
WE: Wouldn't it be advantageous for you to make wines that do not require years of aging before you can sell them?
RC: That would be nice, perhaps, but it would not be true to the way we see our duty to the wines.
WE: Are there any wines made in the modern style that you appreciate?
RC: We tasted a '97 Gaja Barbaresco blind recently and a colleague, who favors traditional wines and has a great palate, could not distinguish it as a wine aged in barrique. I like the wines of modern-style winemakers such as Paitin and Cigliutti because they let the wine express itself, and do not overpower it with wood. Most modern-style winemakers, however, produce an international wine that does not adequately reflect the grape and its terroir.
|Wine Enthusiast: Did your family resist your imported ideas?|
Luca Currado: My family was open to change.
With us, tradition is not something that started a hundred years ago, but is constantly evolving. We've learned that in order to show the wine at its best, we must work like a small tailor and dress the grape the way a tailor dresses a person.
WE: How does that apply in the winery?
LC: You can't use the same vinification for Barolo from different vineyards. We learned that our Lazzarito requires rapid fermentation and aging in small barrels. Our Rocche, on the other hand, needs 28 days of maceration and fermentation, then aging with the submerged-cap system used only by a few old-line wineries.
WE: Producers have told me that Italian grapes do not do well outside of Italy. What do you say?
LC: Some winemakers in California have struggled with Sangiovese, but I think Mondavi's La Familia line produces a good Barbera and Ponzi in Oregon makes a fine Arneis. I've also enjoyed a late-harvest Moscato from Kiona in Washington. Nebbiolo, however, seems most at home here in the Piedmont. But I'm glad to see winemakers popularizing our grapes wherever they may be.
WE: What do you think of the movement to drop vineyard designation and make Barolo and Barbaresco under proprietary names?
LC: Personally, I would not make any such wine for commercial reasons. I do not want to be the one who destroys the name of Barolo by using some fantasy name. Would Romanée-Conti stop using its famous appellation?