Can there be many brands in wine as powerful as Silver Oak? It’s an American institution, its shiny label an emblem of the rich, luscious ideal of California Cabernet. Silver Oak has built its success on stylistic consistency — if you liked it one year, you’ll like it the next — and a commitment to people-pleasing. The wines are not meant to challenge. They’re meant to gratify.
For many of its fans, Silver Oak is synonymous with one place: Napa Valley. But Napa Valley represents only about a quarter of Silver Oak’s wine production. In addition to that famous Napa Valley Cabernet, Silver Oak makes another — arguably, depending on your taste in wine, better — Cabernet, from Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley.
Both the Napa and Alexander wines are 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and both, under winemaker Nate Weis, are made in the winery’s distinctive style: generous and concentrated, imbued with the unmistakable flavors — vanilla, coconut, dill — of American oak barrels. (It’s a meaningful point of departure: Most high-end California wineries use French oak barrels, whose flavors are different.)
Of course, Silver Oak’s Alexander Valley wine has always lived in the shadow of Napa. The Napa bottling is more expensive ($125 to Alexander’s $75), more famous (LeBron James and Draymond Green are fans) and hails from the name-brand California wine region.
As for Alexander Valley — where is that again, exactly? A refresher: eastern Sonoma County, nestled between the towns of Healdsburg, Geyserville and Calistoga.
It’s no surprise, then, that Silver Oak’s Napa Valley winery in Oakville — a wine-tourism temple that in 2016 earned a platinum LEED certification — has long outshone the functional, no-frills Alexander Valley location in Geyserville. But that’s about to change. In April, Silver Oak president David Duncan unveils a new, state-of-the-art winery, vineyard and tasting room for the Alexander Valley wines, this time on the outskirts of Healdsburg.
The new Alexander Valley winery won’t just be a better place to make wine, Duncan hopes. He expects it will also be the most environmentally friendly winery built in California.
“The goal is zero net water and zero net energy,” Duncan says, walking on the elevated walkway that connects the winery to the barrel chai. The place is still under construction; he’s wearing a hard hat. “Eventually, this property should be producing 105 percent of its energy output.”
Duncan purchased the 113-acre property, formerly Sausal Winery, in 2012. The price, according to county records: about $10.9 million. Resting in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, facing Geyser Peak with Sausal Creek at its edge, it had 75 acres under vine when he bought it, mostly Zinfandel. Duncan’s team gradually has been replanting the site to — what else? — Cabernet Sauvignon.
Owning a property like this comes with the requirement to treat your own wastewater. Typically, a vineyard owner would install a pond that can filter the wastewater with underwater motors; you’ve likely seen such reservoirs around Napa and Sonoma before. But a pond takes up land that could be used for grapevines, and its treatment mechanism is inefficient, since its stores are subject to evaporation.
So instead of digging a pond at the new Silver Oak winery, Duncan purchased a membrane bioreactor, a compact system for processing wastewater that can be kept indoors and is, he claims, the most environmentally efficient system available. The machine cost about $1 million, Duncan says, which is a lot. But it saved him from having to remove two acres of vines. “When you translate that to wine, that expense was a super easy decision to make,” he says.
The goal: Every drop of water gets used three times on the property. That means the same water used to clean barrels could then be used in a sink faucet and then to water grapevines. The membrane bioreactor “would cover a small city,” Duncan says.
Is this the Winery of the Future? It has 2,000 solar panels, which will not only light the property but also heat all its water. The vineyard boasts a top-of-the-line mechanical grape harvester; it can pick, destem and optically sort grapes while still in the vineyard (and goes for north of $100,000). There’s even a mechanical barrel racker — the first I’ve ever seen — that moves wine between barrels at rapid speed.
It isn’t just LEED platinum that Duncan is chasing. He’s also going after the Living Building Challenge, a certification program administered by the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute, which addresses not only input and output but also criteria like how you treat your employees. Both certifications would be challenging for any building to meet; for a facility growing grapes and making wines — energy-intensive endeavors, to say the least — it’s a serious undertaking.
And David Duncan isn’t kidding around. “This should last forever,” he says of his new winery.
It’s a little-known fact, but the Duncan family’s history in Alexander Valley predates its involvement in Napa wine. In 1970 David’s father Ray Duncan went in on a vineyard in Alexander Valley called Los Amigos with Jack Novak, who would soon after purchase the Spottswoode property in St. Helena. It wasn’t until 1972 that Ray and winemaker Justin Meyer bought the Oakville dairy barn that would become Silver Oak. (Meyer, a monk who had worked at Napa’s legendary Christian Brothers Winery, left the order when he co-founded Silver Oak; the longtime winemaker sold his company shares to the Duncan family in 2001.)
The inaugural Silver Oak vintage, 1972, was comprised of fruit from both Napa and Alexander valleys. It was labeled “North Coast,” since Alexander Valley was not yet an official American Viticultural Area. In 1977 and 1978, Alexander Valley was the only wine Silver Oak made. “Napa Valley” would not appear on its bottles until the 1979 vintage.
Today, at 75,000 cases, the Alexander Valley wine makes up the majority of Silver Oak’s 103,000-case production. And though both Silver Oak Cabernets share that consistent, American oak-tinged signature — “Silver Oak is an adjective,” Duncan likes to say — the Alexander is the more restrained of the two. It uses only 50 percent new oak, for example, as opposed to Napa’s 90 percent. (In 2015, Silver Oak acquired its longtime cooperage in Missouri — the first American winery to own an American cooperage — so it now completely controls the production of its barrels.)
Even as Silver Oak has moved aggressively into new businesses — this year alone, it purchased cult Napa winery Ovid and Oregon’s high-profile Erath Vineyard for Twomey, Duncan’s Pinot Noir-focused brand — it hasn’t relented on more development in Alexander Valley. Also this year Duncan bought two more vineyards in the area, Big River and Crazy Creek; added to Miraval, Red Tail and, of course, the vineyard at the new winery, that makes Silver Oak the owner of 277 acres of Alexander Valley vineyards.
Why invest so much in Alexander, when Napa is — and likely always will be — the marquee? “I’d argue that our property here is superior to almost anything in Napa Valley,” Duncan says. “Plus, the land costs half as much, so the fruit costs half as much, so the wine can cost almost half as much.” And of course, opening a tasting room — with elaborate food pairings, organic vegetable gardens, scenic verandas — is half as much trouble.
And Silver Oak, perhaps more than most California wineries, knows its customer. “A lot of people in Napa are chasing the same high-end customer, but not us,” Duncan says. “We are for most of our customers still an aspirational product — a once-a-year special occasion.”
Now, maybe, those customers will pay a little more attention to the Sonoma side. After all, whether from Napa or Alexander Valley, a Silver Oak wine still tastes like Silver Oak. “If there’s one thing we’re committed to,” Duncan says, “it’s to keeping the promise of how our fans think about the wine.”
If you go:
Silver Oak’s new winery is expected to open in early April. Reservations won’t be required for a standard tasting, but other experiences must be planned in advance. There will be vineyard tours (highlighting the property’s sustainability features), plus food pairings, under the direction of Dominic Orsini, also the chef at Silver Oak’s Oakville winery. As in Oakville, there will be a wood-fired pizza oven.
7300 Highway 128, Healdsburg