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Silver Oak Earns First LEED Platinum Certification for Eco-Friendly Winery

One of Napa's most recognized producers is honored with top award for green building practices at its Oakville winery; owners strive to match the level at new Sonoma project
Photo by: Sara Sanger
At its Oakville estate, Silver Oak replaced its grass lawn with natural-looking turf, reducing its water use by about 1 million gallons a year.

Dana Nigro
Posted: August 1, 2016

Taking energy-efficient winemaking to a new level, iconic California Cabernet producer Silver Oak has become the first commercial production winery in the world to earn LEED Platinum certification—the U.S. Green Building Council's highest level of recognition—in the "existing building" category. With its Oakville facility, Silver Oak leads a roster of other prestigious wineries in Napa Valley—Cade, Hall St. Helena and Frog's Leap—and around the world that have chosen to build as green as possible and get their practices verified.

The only other winery to achieve Platinum so far is the University of California at Davis' $15-million, high-tech teaching and research winery, opened in 2010 as a showplace designed to teach the wine industry how to build a sustainable winery now and to study ways to further reduce carbon output, energy and water use in the future.

But Silver Oak, which also makes wine in Sonoma County, is hoping to repeat the feat with its new Alexander Valley winery, also designed to LEED Platinum standards and due to open before the 2017 harvest.

"It's never been done before," said president and CEO David Duncan, son of the late Silver Oak cofounder Ray Duncan, who oversees the company with his brother, Tim. "In the future, no one should build a winery that's lower than the standards we're creating," Duncan added. "One of my goals has been to make it cost-efficient; if we build green at any cost, we're not proving anything because that's not practical for most people."

LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a voluntary program that, since its introduction in 1998, has become an international benchmark for buildings that are better for the environment and for the health of the people who live or work within them. The LEED logo can be found on everything from new office skyscrapers to manufacturing facilities to apartment complexes in renovated factories and private homes in the suburbs.

Applicants are awarded different levels based on the number of points they earn in categories such as water efficiency; use of renewable energy; creating a sustainable site with open space and protected habitats; use of materials that are reclaimed, recycled, renewable or certified sustainable; indoor air quality; support for alternative transportation; innovation in design; and more.

In 2006, a fire destroyed Silver Oak's original Napa home in Oakville, a 7,000-square-foot historic building used for barrel storage and events, burning right up to the eaves of the stone winery. As the company built a new winery and tasting room, it implemented sustainable features such as solar panels (which provide 35 percent of the power), natural lighting, and night-air cooling and jacketed insulation on the tanks in the fermentation room. Although Duncan looked into LEED certification then, they decided to pass on it due to time limits: "We only had 19 months to get the winery done before the 2008 harvest!"

About three years ago, Duncan was re-inspired to pursue LEED when he heard Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing, speak at a Napa Valley Vintners event about the new brewery the company was building in North Carolina; its Mills Valley facility just became the first brewery to earn Platinum status, in June. By then Silver Oak had purchased a new property in Alexander Valley and was planning on making it the company's new Sonoma County home. Duncan sent some of the Silver Oak team to visit Sierra Nevada to learn more, and they decided to aim for Platinum—for both buildings. They also visited U.C. Davis to study its systems.

For the Oakville facility, Silver Oak had to make some significant changes to bring it up to Platinum standards. To save more than 1 million gallons of water a year, the grass lawn was ripped out and replaced with a natural-looking form of turf known as HG fescue ("I don't like to use the word 'artificial,' quips Duncan) and drought-tolerant shrubs. Among other things, they also put in low-flow faucets, modified the system for outside air intake and worked to change employee behavior, increasing recycling by giving everyone a bin at their desk, encouraging carpooling and adding electric-vehicle charging stations in the parking lots.

Other wineries that have previously earned LEED certification have noted that one of the biggest challenges in reaching for the top level is that many of the standards were originally developed for urban settings. Encouraging employees and visitors to ride bikes or use public transportation isn't practical when you're 10 to 15 miles away from the nearest major towns, and 2 miles from the closest bus stop. "One of the things I'm proudest of," said Duncan, "is that we were able to take these rules and apply them to an agricultural setting."

For the 100,000-case Alexander Valley winery, which is being built with a 50-year plan in mind, "Oakville showed us the way," Duncan noted. "We learned a lot from building it and having used it for five years. So many features will be very similar." For example, the new building will have the same type of galvanized steel walls as in the Oakville winery, which, though expensive upfront, don't rust and don't require repainting.

However, Silver Oak is also benefitting from technology that had been cost-prohibitive before or didn't even exist yet. In 2007, LED illumination would have tripled the cost of the lighting; "now it's only a 10 percent premium and you save a lot in electricity costs," Duncan said. They'll also be trying new technology for CO2 sequestration and water reduction that he calls "mind-boggling."


Photo Gallery: Silver Oak's Eco-Friendly Features

Click to enlarge

David Duncan of Silver Oak Solar panels at Silver Oak Silver Oak's fermentation room Silver Oak's hospitality center

As costs have come down and concerns about environmental issues such as drought and climate change have increased, more wineries have been going green when it comes to new construction, renovations and facility upgrades.

Sokol Blosser in Oregon was the first winery, in 2002, to achieve LEED certification. Back in 2010, when Wine Spectator first covered LEED in depth, 10 other North American wine producers (plus the Napa Valley Vintners)—primarily in California and Oregon, but also in Canada's Niagara Peninsula and New York's Finger Lakes—had earned or were pending either Gold or Silver certification for a winery, tasting room or the entire property. (See our list of mini-profiles.)

Since then, along with UC Davis, at least five more U.S. projects have achieved certification:

  • In Paso Robles, Niner Wine Estates became the first LEED-certified winery in the Central Coast, earning Silver in March 2012 for its new winery and hospitality center.
  • Shale Oak Winery in Paso Robles followed by earning Gold in December 2012 for its new tasting room.
  • In Virginia, North Gate Vineyard earned Gold in September 2013 for its winery and tasting room.
  • Hall earned a second Gold certification at its St. Helena property in July 2014 for its new visitor center and a high-tech production facility.
  • In Lompoc, Calif., Hilliard Bruce became the first LEED-certified winery in Santa Barbara County, earning Silver in January 2015.
  • In Vermont, Shelburne Vineyard earned the basic level in July 2016.

It can take quite a while to wend through the certification process, leaving it unclear exactly how many wineries are close. A number of other California projects are pending certification, the most prominent of which is Odette, from the PlumpJack Group, which also owns Gold-certified Cade. Opened in 2014 in Napa's Stags Leap District, Odette was built to LEED specifications with green features such as a living roof and offices built in recycled shipping containers. Other efforts include a big push from the Jackson Family Wines group to get existing wineries certified, including Cardinale and Freemark Abbey in Napa Valley and Arrowood, Hartford, Matanzas Creek, Stonestreet and Vérité in Sonoma County. Elsewhere in the United States, USGBC lists other projects pending from Michigan to Florida to Pennsylvania and New York.

Outside the United States, Bodega Garzón in Uruguay, which opened earlier this year, is aiming for certification through the USGBC, also a goal of Château Maris in the Languedoc with its hemp-walled winery, opened in fall 2012.

LEED is not the only option. For example, the Napa Valley Vintners have their own sustainable program for buildings and land, under which 48 producers have earned the Napa Green Certified Winery for following more than 100 measures to eliminate waste, save resources and become more efficient. France has a certification called High Environmental Quality (HQE), which Bordeaux châteaus such as Cheval-Blanc and Clerc Milon have achieved with their new cellars. Among the most ambitious, though still small in scope, is the international Living Building Challenge, which sets goals such as net-positive energy and certifies only based on the actual performance of the building after at least 12 months. Sokol Blosser attempted the challenge with its new tasting room and Silver Oak's new Sonoma winery will be aiming for recognition in some of the categories.

Nor is the trend in the alcohol-beverage industry limited to wineries. Big spirits and beer players such as Bacardi, Diageo and Heineken have certified offices. New Belgium and smaller breweries have already earned or are pursuing credentials.

"Our industry’s collaborative spirit fosters an environment in which companies are willing to trade tricks and practices for the betterment of everyone," said Sierra Nevada's Grossman. "I truly believe that a rising tide—in this case, greater focus on sustainable resource utilization—lifts all boats. Similarly, we find that a lot of our consumers embrace environmental stewardship and appreciate what they know of our efforts."

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