Oil and gas, skiing and winemaking—over the span of five decades, Raymond Twomey Duncan created successful businesses in all of them. But the American entrepreneur is perhaps best known as cofounder of Napa Valley's Silver Oak Cellars. Duncan died Oct. 9 at his home in Denver, Colo. He was 84.
Duncan first visited Napa Valley in 1970 and soon afterward began buying vineyard land. He cofounded Silver Oak in 1972, and within a few years, had helped it grow into a Cabernet Sauvignon icon, still in high demand today.
Born in 1930 in South Bend, Ind., Duncan studied philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, then joined the Marine Corps and served in the Korean War after graduation. In 1958, he moved to Durango, Colo., a flourishing site for oil and gas. He founded Duncan Oil, an independent oil-and-gas operator. His fondness for skiing led him to establish the Purgatory Ski resort in 1968 in the nearby San Juan Mountains.
Duncan first visited Napa at the invitation of old college friends Jack and Mary Novak, founders of Spottswoode Winery. Duncan wasted no time joining the wine industry—by 1972, he had acquired several properties in Napa and Alexander valleys.
Soon afterward, he met winemaker Justin Meyer, who had recently left his position at Christian Brothers. The two became quick friends and founded Silver Oak Cellars over a case of beer and a handshake, they later said. The name Silver Oak was purely coincidental. As Meyer and his wife, Bonny, were filling out paperwork to register the winery, they bounced around several ideas until Bonny suggested Silver Oak—the old dairy building they had purchased for cellars sat between the Silverado Trail and Oakville.
Duncan focused on financial and administrative responsibilities, while Meyer oversaw the winemaking. Their strategy was simple—focus on great Cabernet Sauvignon. Meyer's signature style can still be seen in the wines today, rich and supple, with the unmistakable mark of aging in American oak barrels.
Meyer's Cabernets quickly grabbed attention, and Duncan's business acumen helped turn Silver Oak into one of the most well-known wineries in California. Over time, they continued to acquire vineyard land, including the Red Tail and Miraval Vineyards in Alexander Valley and the Soda Canyon Ranch and Jump Rock in Napa Valley. The winery also developed close relationships with longtime growers in both appellations. Both the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon are blends, made from grapes grown both in estate vineyards and growers’ vineyards.
Meyer sold his interest in the company to Duncan in 2000, two years before his death. Today, Duncan's sons David and Tim oversee the brand, which produces roughly 100,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon annually from their Alexander and Napa Valley estates.
Raymond founded a second winery, Twomey Cellars, with his sons in 1999; the brand focuses on Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc from both Napa and Sonoma counties.
Honored for his business achievements, Duncan was also involved in numerous philanthropic pursuits, including the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, the Denver Art Museum, Kent Denver School, St. Helena Montessori School and Sonoma Academy. This year, with support from Duncan and his family, the University of Notre Dame broke ground on the "Duncan Student Center," a nine-story facility for student activities.
Duncan is survived by his wife, Sally, six children and 16 grandchildren.