As California vintners continue to commit to environmentally ethical practices—and consumers reward them for eco-consciousness—wineries have been aggressively pursuing sustainability initiatives. On the vanguard is Silver Oak Cellars, which achieved another sustainability milestone July 9, when the company earned LEED Platinum certification for its new Alexander Valley facility, the first commercial winery in the world to attain the green-building program's highest level of recognition in the category of "new construction."
In 2016, Silver Oak's winery in Napa’s Oakville appellation became the first commercial winemaking operation to earn LEED Platinum in the "existing building" category. That project was in the works at the same time as development of the company's new Sonoma County home, which was completed in time for the 2017 crush; the tasting room opened in April. Prior to that, the only winery facility to reach Platinum status was the University of California at Davis’ teaching and research operation, opened in 2010.
"It goes back to being stewards of the land, and somebody who is hoping that our business and our future will be around for generations to come," David Duncan, president and CEO of the winery that has long been associated with distinctive oak-aged Napa and Sonoma Cabernets, told Wine Spectator. "I think we've set a new bar on what can be done at wineries. We want to represent for the industry and for the community how 'sustainable' can be good for your business and good for your brand."
Demand for sustainably produced wines has increased over the past five to 10 years, according to a 2016 survey of the wine trade by research group Wine Opinions, in which 70 percent of respondents agreed with that statement. Third-party certifications are one key way that wineries demonstrate to their customers that their practices truly are sustainable.
LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a program that, since its introduction in 1998, has become an international standard for buildings that aim to meet a variety of green goals for the health of the environment and occupants. Water-recycling systems, renewable-energy use, waste-material management and a healthy employee workspace are among the design components the U.S. Green Building Council assesses when considering LEED certification, which is awarded in tiers of Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum. In 2002, Oregon's Sokol Blosser became the first winery to receive LEED certification (Silver), and in recent years, prominent California wineries like Hall Wines and the PlumpJack Group's Cade and Odette have earned Gold.
Photos courtesy of Silver Oak Cellars
Duncan's father, Ray, cofounded Silver Oak in 1972, and the new winery's sustainability effort represents a new generation of know-how, with David's niece Haley Duncan overseeing the LEED initiatives as project manager since 2015.
Water management is a key element of the new winery's innovations. Californians are keenly mindful of their limited water resources after years of drought, says Haley, "So investing in technology to reduce water is particularly smart business. And just being a good neighbor and a good leader." To that end, the new winery employs a "membrane bioreactor" that treats water used in the winemaking processes year-round—an average of 4,700 gallons per day—allowing it to be reused for cleaning tanks and flushing toilets, and then again as a cooling agent for winery equipment. (The offices and tasting room also have water recycling and low-water-use fixtures.) "The goal is to source all of our water needs from onsite and not rely on a public utility to provide water," said Haley, who estimates the bioreactor will reduce their winemaking water usage by 37 percent.
Energy conservation is also paramount. The winery has more than 2,500 solar panels and a renewably powered battery system that stores energy generated by the panels, with the goal that the 109,100-square-foot facility produce 5 percent more energy than it uses. The winery is also one of only a few commercial facilities to employ a CO2 heat pump for sanitizing water, using ambient carbon dioxide in the winery rather than fossil fuels.
A third important pillar of LEED is "materials and resources," which covers everything from management of construction waste to ongoing recycling in the building. Silver Oak earned credits toward certification by using salvaged, recycled and locally sourced materials to meet significant percentages of building costs. Slats from old redwood wine tanks, for example, provide siding for the winery.
Silver Oak will also submit to auditing for the Living Building Challenge, a rigorous sustainable-design certification program for which a building must demonstrate it meets its performance goals over 12 months. Next up for 2019, said David Duncan, the company will pursue LEED compliance at the wineries for Silver Oak's sister brand, Twomey.
For now, David hopes the Alexander Valley winery inspires and provides a template for other vintners to pursue sustainable building goals. "We have an open door to sharing what we've learned and what we did and why to really anybody," he said, noting that several other winemakers have visited the facility since it opened to check out the technology. "I think the next person who builds or rebuilds a winery in California ought to know what we did—that's what I hope—and do it better!" p>