Silver Oak has long made its name on barrel-aged Napa and Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon. But as the company, founded in 1972, enters its third generation of ownership and operation by the Duncan family, it is now solidifying its reputation as a leader in eco-friendly, sustainable winemaking as well.
After attaining the prestigious LEED Platinum certification for its Napa facility, and then its Alexander Valley one, the company announced today, Earth Day, that the Sonoma winery has notched another milestone: It has been certified a Living Building by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI)—the first winery and only the 25th project of any kind in the world to earn the designation.
"Getting the news was emotional, because we really set that goal in 2012 when we bought the property. So we've been at it eight years," Silver Oak proprietor and CEO David Duncan told Wine Spectator. "It took every single contractor and subcontractor and architect and the Duncan family, as owners—everybody had to be committed to it because there were a lot of things you just don't do the easy way."
Haley Duncan, David's niece, joined the team nearly six years ago and would become project manager for the design and implementation of sustainable technology at the family's wineries. Soon after she started, she attended a seminar in Seattle on the precepts of the Living Building Challenge. "It was clear that this was going to be really, really difficult," she said. "To be able to come out the other side of it and say that we did it feels pretty good."
The standards of the LBC are codified in seven "petals" of design and function: water, energy, materials, place, health and happiness, equity and beauty. A certified building recycles and reuses as much water as possible, produces more energy than it expends, is constructed without environmentally hazardous "red list" materials and provides a comfortable and appealing workplace for employees. What perhaps most distinguishes the certification is that the building must demonstrate to ILFI observers that it can operate at the water, energy and emissions levels its design promises for 12 months.
"Silver Oak's Alexander Valley Winery sets the bar for what is possible in the wine industry, and also more broadly among water- and energy-intensive manufacturing sectors," Marja Williams, vice president of programs at the ILFI, told Wine Spectator via email.
After Silver Oak's Oakville winery burned in 2006, the company rebuilt it, eventually retooling the new building to LEED Platinum standards of sustainability. It would be a dry run for the construction of the Alexander Valley facility. "I really grew up as a kid understanding that we have a duty as stewards of the land," said David. "As we approached [construction] this time, I thought, OK, what have we learned building Oakville, and how can we apply that to this new facility?"
Still, David framed the challenge around two considerations: Would it be cost-effective? And would it improve the wine? "I felt like if we built the greenest winery in the world but it cost three times as much as a conventional building, or even 20 percent more, you don't really prove anything," he explained. "And I think that the thoughtfulness and the energy that went into the building, in a way, is translating into the wines."
When the team decided to aim for the LBC compliance, one of the earliest and lengthiest challenges was meeting the restrictions of the Materials Petal. All the components of construction had to be vetted and documented, made according to a playbook that contractors were not familiar with. "Really the first few months were just all about education," said Haley. "And a lot of buy-in. I vetted over 3,000 products."
For example, building codes require that a winery coat electrical wires in a protective material like PVC—a red-list material to the ILFI. Haley and her team tried to import a less environmentally hazardous substitute from an Australian company that would be amenable to both the Living Building Challenge and Uncle Sam. "There were just so many roadblocks in the way," she said.
Water conservation would be another that required both upfront investment and out-of-the-box thinking. Winemaking requires a lot of water, and doing it in a sanitary way requires a lot of hot water, which requires a lot of energy. To reduce or even reverse the net use of both is a particular challenge for a winery.
For energy, the Duncans topped most of the facility's roofs with solar panels, almost 2,600 of them, installing a lithium ion phosphate battery for energy storage. They'd ultimately generate 104 percent of energy needs: net positive. The panels and CO2 heat pumps, rather than the typical propane boilers, would heat the water needed for sanitizing. "Even our engineers were new to the technology," said Haley. "There was a lot of uncertainty around how they'd work, how well they'd work."
Water used in the winemaking process, for tasks like washing presses and cleaning tanks, is treated with a device called a membrane bioreactor and disinfected with ultraviolet technology and a charcoal filter; it can then be reused to flush toilets and irrigate the vineyards. David Duncan pointed out that the cost of these intricate systems paid off in the long run: Building a conventional wastewater pond would have eliminated 2 acres of land where he instead planted grapevines.
The Alexander Valley winery now uses only 1 gallon of potable water per gallon of wine produced, a rare, possibly unmatched, ratio for a winery (for many, it's closer to 5, or even 10 gallons of water). "In a region where water scarcity is common, Silver Oak is showing its possible to greatly reduce water demand through innovative practices and technologies," said Williams.
The Living Building Challenge is "all or nothing," as Haley described it, and it's holistic; aspirants cannot choose among a menu of criteria to meet, and there are few hard targets. How does one demonstrate a building is certifiably beautiful?
Silver Oak showcases art and a reflecting pool but, Haley explained, beauty "should be looked at through the lens of the people that use the building"—visitors, but also employees. The team polled staffers with questions about design features, asking which were their favorite workspaces, and why?
Among the world's 25 Living Buildings, only one other is on a winery campus: the tasting room at Cowhorn Vineyard, an estate in the Applegate Valley region of southern Oregon that adheres to biodynamic and organic principles in the vineyard. "We wanted a tasting room that was consistent with our philosophy," said co-owner Bill Steele. "There's a really nice technical term [we use] as farmers: There's no bad juju anywhere in the building, nor in the manufacturing of any of those products."
Steele and his wife, Barbara, also found the Materials Petal to be particularly prickly. "Everything had to be vetted. If the [supplier] was not willing to give their recipe, then we had to assume that there was something bad in it," said Steele. But after achieving certification in 2018, the Steeles have been gratified to hear that contractors who worked on the tasting room brought their new knowledge to other projects. "I think we can help demonstrate in the wine industry that these standards, while they're tough, they're meaningful, and they can make a difference."
The leadership at Silver Oak has also endeavored to pass on the lessons it learned. They've hosted tours for students at U.C. Davis taking winery design courses, spoken at eco-conscious building conferences like Greenbuild, and welcomed many, many vintners and architects looking for inspiration and solutions. "This certification brought to light many considerations specific to the wine industry," said Williams, of the ILFI. "By working together, we all came away more aware of the challenges and opportunities, charting a path for other wineries to follow."
"Right now, when we're all kind of stopped [by the COVID-19 pandemic]—everybody I talk to is assessing what's important, where their priorities are," reflected David. "And I think the way we treat the earth is something that people need to be on top of."