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An Oak Revolution Is Underway In The World Of Wine

Is this the future of the wine business? Full material control? Color us intrigued.

By Brian Freedman @

In May of 2015, Silver Oak, the highly regarded Cabernet Sauvignon producer whose Napa and Alexander Valley wines have garnered legions of fans over the decades, purchased full ownership of the Missouri cooperage that they had been 50-50 partners in since 2000 and renamed it The Oak Cooperage. By doing so, they became one of the only wineries in North America to operate and own one for themselves. In hindsight, this seemed to have been indicative of the changing nature of how wine and spirits producers in the United States employ and purchase oak, which, it turns out, has been evolving for years.

The reliance on oak in the wine and spirits industries, and the expanding markets for both, has changed dramatically over the years. From storage and transportation vessels to seasoning agents, shifting technologies and consumer tastes have caused producers to alter the ways in which they employ oak. Those changing uses, in turn, have impacted the products that consumers ultimately purchase.

For decades, in the latter part of the 20th century, a heavy hand with oak was generally seen as a mark of quality in the world of wine—the California Chardonnays I grew up with in the 1980s and 1990s were generally of the ‘oak bomb’ school of thought, and it wasn’t unusual for high-octane wines bursting with the telltale vanilla and baking spice notes of new American oak to garner the highest scores and the greatest sense of prestige.

Inevitably, the pendulum began to swing in the other direction, and a renewed sense of restraint became the M.O. of many of the top producers. While there remains to this day a strong market for wines whose dominant characteristics are derived from the impact of oak, its use in this country on the high end seems to be skewing to the more judicious end of the spectrum.

 It’s also evolving in terms of the sourcing of oak for barrels. David R. Duncan, President and CEO of Silver Oak, is among the many wine professionals who see the benefit in increasingly focusing on specifically where oak comes from, which forests in certain regions, as a way to tailor even further the range of flavors, aromas, and textures that it imparts on a wine .

For Silver Oak, “we’re starting to zero in on the terroir of oak, really. And we’re just at the beginning of that. Where in France, they’ve been doing it for 200 years or 250 years,” Duncan explained. As a result, he told me, different specific French forests are desired for one reason or another, whereas in the United States, that process is still in its infancy. But, he suspects, we will catch up here and increasingly understand the benefits of various forests across the United States. His reliance on barrels from The Oak Cooperage, and the level of focus on its oak sourcing in the Upper Midwest, is a step in that direction.

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