Each year at the Sonoma County Barrel Auction, the Sonoma County Vintners have recognized local wine industry icons who have shaped the heritage and history of Sonoma County winemaking. This year, they are also celebrating innovators who help propel the Sonoma County wine community forward. One of the innovators, the Duncan Family of Silver Oak Cellars, perfectly exemplify that the two categories can overlap, and even a brand with deep wine industry roots and strong traditions can innovate.
2019 Icons and Innovators: Ron Rubin, David Duncan, Margo Van Staaveren, and Rod Berglund
Silver Oak started making their cult cab at their Napa winery in 1972 and the Duncan family has since taken a leadership position in the Napa and Sonoma communities buying 113 acres in Alexander Valley in 2012. In 2015, the Oakville winery received its LEED Platinum Certification in the category of Existing Building, Operations and Maintenance, and in 2018 Silver Oak opened their newly constructed LEED Platinum Building Design and Construction Certified winery in Alexander Valley. The only two LEED Platinum certified production facilities in the world.
Spoken as leader and pioneer, “I challenge you to do it,” David Duncan, CEO of Silver Oak said speaking at the North Bay Business Journal’s Wine Industry Conference in April. He emphasized that even though the result was a beautiful building this was not a prestige project.
“The main place we were able to make an impact was the winery,” said Duncan, and “The investment in the winery was an investment in our brand. Everything we did at the winery has a payback.”
Duncan believes that the most innovative element is their water treatment process, which allows them to use every drop of water three times and be water net positive. He pointed out from a business perspective that even though the million dollar membrane bioreactor was a big expense, it frees up acreage that would have otherwise been used for aeration ponds to plant vines that create revenue.
The bioreactor filters 100% of the water from the cellar with natural biological activity and reduces potable water needs by 37%. They also harvest rainwater which will provide 100% of landscape irrigation needs.
The layout and design was also an important consideration to create a visitor experience where the buildings frame the vineyards and winery tours have impressive reveals, like when first entering the winery and crossing the “Star Wars Bridge” with American Oak Barrels stacked on each side, and little details, like having the right lighting, was tinkered with to make it just perfect.
Another amazing little detail which combines the reclaim and reuse ethos of sustainability with historic significance is the redwood siding on the winery and tasting room. The wood was salvaged from old wine tanks built by Cherokee Winery in the 1930s, then later disassembled by Robert Mondavi when he purchased the brand.
Even though Silver Oak is a classic brand, they are an unapologetically modern winery that has been an early adopter of technology that improves efficiency, quality, and sustainability.
“I think the most exciting trend in viticulture is technology in the vineyard,” Duncan said. Silver Oak is using precision viticulture technology in their vineyard to monitor vine growth and health with lasers, and use historical data to create maps of growth by zone to continue to grow better grapes.
Silver Oak hopes to pass on the lessons they’ve learned in building the winery to others, both wineries and people who come to visit, but they are not done and plan to make their Twomey winery LEED certified as well.
By Kim Badenfort