Merced County Times Newspaper
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Merced’s own Rainbird offers wine experience like no other

‘Taste of Wine Country’ on March 2 features renowned Silver Oak winery


Hakan Kocak is all smiles as he sits in his office above the Rainbird restaurant at the El Capitan Hotel, with a Napa winery representative on the phone, a schedule of upcoming events in his hand, and a reporter by the door wondering what question to ask first.

The 57-year-old director of Food and Beverage — someone who has created memorable events at some of California’s most luxurious hotels and restaurants — appears to be invigorated, perhaps even surprised, by his own excitement and anticipation for what’s to come.

The call ends on a nice note, and then Kocak turns to the reporter.

“I wonder,” the director says playfully. “Is there a restaurant in all of Merced County that’s better than Rainbird? … Does any other restaurant have a sommelier?” Of course Kocak doesn’t wait for answers he undoubtedly already knows. Instead he adds: “There are no other restaurants in Merced County that carry the wines and the style of food that we have.”

And that’s the selling point for the Rainbird since its auspicious opening one year ago.
It’s a refreshing, first-of-its-kind, fine dining destination inside a boutique Joie de Vivre hotel by Hyatt, in a reimagined Downtown Merced, on the way to Yosemite National Park.

One Forbes magazine reviewer was inspired to write: “Once you see the tremendous potential of a place that’s as rich in farm-fresh produce as Merced, it’s hard not to want to be a part of such a monumental swing in trajectory.”

It’s clear Kocak understands and appreciates this concept after decades of working in such posh locations as the Belmond El Encanto in Santa Barbara, the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena, the Four Seasons in Newport Beach, the Peninsula Beverly Hills and Quail Lodge in Carmel.

Kocak is also a Level 2 Sommelier, and his passion for fine wine is now being redirected to this new culinary frontier in the heart of California’s Central Valley.
In September, he started a monthly wine dinner series called “A Taste Of Wine Country” that features a four-course “chef-inspired” dinner with wine pairings. The idea is to invite California’s best wineries to town, and have their vinicultural experts, along with Rainbird Executive Chef Quentin Garcia and Kocak as sommelier, talk guests through an unforgettable culinary experience.

“It’s designed to be a two-hour experience with separate seating times, 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.” Kocak says, “but no one has been asked to leave at the end. We want people to have a really great time. These are mellow evenings with generous pours, great conversations, and lots of networking and exchanging of business cards.”

So far, local wine aficionados have welcomed the likes of Rombaurer of Napa, Brander of Santa Barbara, and Tables Creek of Paso Robles.

But it’s the upcoming March 2 edition with Silver Oak winery that has Kocak feeling so very pleased lately.

Silver Oak — an icon among the California greats — is one of the most requested wines in high-end restaurants across America. Favored by the most well-known celebrities and legions of fans, Silver Oak has created a cult-like following that has endured for more than 50 years. Legendary founders, Ray Duncan and Justin Meyer, started out with a 1972 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon, deciding to only concentrate on that variety. Early on, they imagined Cabernets as the future of the emerging Napa Valley growing region.
They aged their Cabernets in American oak, slowly released vintages, and set the price high. The wine became so sought after that eventually fans would gather and line up at Silver Oak for “Release Day” events.

Today the Silver Oak winery is still family-owned and operated by the Duncan family. The trailblazing brand remains synonymous with innovation, with visionary winemaker Nate Weis overseeing production from vineyards with the most advanced technology in the world.

While Ray Duncan and Justin Meyer are not longer with us, the Rainbird’s own Kocak has enjoyed a relationship with their families that goes back nearly 30 years to the start of his professional career.

“I’ve been selling this wine for years,” he says. “The Ritz Carlton, the Four Seasons, the Belmond, Beverly Hills — wherever I worked I added Silver Oak to our wine list. It’s a great product, and people bought it.”

Kocak says he fell in love with Silver Oak during a tasting early on in his career, after he immigrated to America from his native Istanbul, Turkey. Kocak earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Northern Arizona University, and then he landed at the exclusive Club 33 inside Disneyland Park. It was at this private VIP dining club in 1996 when Kocak had the opportunity to meet Justin Meyer who brought his wife, Bonny, and three children to the park for a visit.

“They were very generous, thoughtful and down-to-earth people,” Kocak remembers. “I later received a personal letter from Justin in the mail. And the when I got married soon after, I received signed Silver Oak bottles as a gift.”

Kocak still has the letter, and pictures of that day at Club 33, in his office above the Rainbird. It’s this personal experience that Kocak is excited to bring along to the Silver Oak wine event on March 2.

“We are very proud to bring such a high-end winery to Merced for people to try,” he says, adding that locals and visiting El Capitan guests are in for an unforgettable night.

The price for those attending the wine-dinner event is $155 per person, and that’s actually quite a deal considering a bottle of 2018 Silver Oak Cabernet hovers around $100 or more, if you can find this latest vintage release in these parts.

“And you will pay my price, not yours,” Kocak says with a glimmer in his eye.

He probably already has the attention of local wine fans with the mere mention of Silver Oak, but he concludes with this:

“So you will be drinking a high-end wine you wouldn’t normally find around town, and it will be served by a sommelier at the perfect temperature, and paired with exquisite food created by a very passionate executive chef. You know, this is the making of a lifelong memory.”

Upcoming events for
‘Taste of Wine Country’
  • APRIL 6 — Carr Winery
  • MAY 4 — Daou Winery
  • JUNE 1 — Trefethen Winery

Reservations online at:, or call (209) 446-4026

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