How to Stay Relevant, Part 1: Silver Oak and the Duncans

Coasting on past success can doom even a popular winery; here's how one company is staying in the conversation
How to Stay Relevant, Part 1: Silver Oak and the Duncans
Silver Oak's Napa winery, where an annual "release day" party for the latest vintage of Cabernet draws crowds of devotees. (Courtesy of Silver Oak)
May 28, 2015

As the world of wine continues to balloon, swelling with ever more regions, brands and demographics, the wine producer must be like the proverbial shark: Keep swimming or die. But these iconic brands have gotten it right in their own ways.

“Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” is typically posed to young humans long on ambition and short on history. But I wanted to ask Silver Oak president and CEO David Duncan, whose father Ray Duncan cofounded the winery in 1972, about the future of his brand. Its two-car train of Napa Valley and Alexander Valley Cabernet has steamed across four decades of basically uninterrupted success and acclaim.

Whatever you think of the distinctive wine (senior editor James Laube recently wrote about the many ways in which the team is improving it), Silver Oak is one of very few wine brands to become an American institution. Yet back in 2002, Laube wrote that Silver Oak was “battling an image of complacency.” Today, the company is hustling, and recent developments point the way forward.

When I first met Duncan about a year ago, I asked about the notion of Silver Oak as the quintessential “Dad Cabernet,” a comfortable Boomer brand lacking the allegiance of a new generation. Duncan objected to the premise, and he’s likely right—it may never be a darling of the "natural" wine set, but Silver Oak is aggressive about getting its bottles into hands of all ages. It also seems to have a line on celebrities unmatched outside Champagne, counting everyone from Coach K to Patrick Dempsey as fans.

Still, Silver Oak has been actively diversifying. In 2002, the Duncan family launched Twomey, originally conceived as a $60 California Merlot. The Twomey label eventually veered toward Pinot Noir, with three appellation bottlings (Anderson Valley, Russian River, Sonoma Coast) by the end of the decade. With the release of the 2014 vintage, it will boast four single-vineyard offerings (as one does in California Pinot these days), two from sites the company acquired within the past five years.

Last year, to work under longtime director of winemaking Daniel Baron, Silver Oak brought on two new winemakers: young Evening Land alum Erin Miller for Twomey and Nate Weis, formerly of Antica Napa Valley and a classmate of Miller’s at U.C. Davis, for Silver Oak.

With cool-climate credentials in hand and Pinots mostly under 14 percent alcohol, Twomey gained admission to the roving band of mostly small-production, “cool kid” winemakers known as “In Pursuit of Balance.”

But Twomey never abandoned that Merlot; instead, in 2012 Duncan hired Jean-Claude Berrouet to consult, the man who spent 44 years at Bordeaux's Pétrus, the hottest address in Merlot, if not all of wine.

Of the current-release 2010 Silver Oak Cabernets’ quality, Duncan told me it was a foretaste of wines to come. Silver Oak worked for it; “it didn’t just turn out that way.”

In Alexander Valley, Silver Oak bought a nearby estate where it is planting another 75 acres and has ambitious plans to build a green winery to the rigorous standards of the Living Building Challenge, a sustainability certification program that evaluates site selection; water, energy and materials use; healthy and humane working conditions, and the building’s beauty.

So while Silver Oak has been hitching cars to its train, the most important part of the 10-year plan remains pumping horsepower into the locomotive. “In 15 years,” reckoned Duncan, “we’ll have 75 acres of perfect Cabernet.”

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter at twitter.com/BenODonn.

United States California Napa Sonoma Red Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Pinot Noir Winery Intel

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