A Storied Winery Runs Toward Tech, Reaps the Rewards
Entrepreneur|November 2015
While its lush cabernets adhere to classical traditions, Silver Oak Cellars is pushing winemaking into the 21st century by embracing breakthrough technology, sustainability and data insights. Here's a toast to the Napa Valley mainstay that's fomenting - and fermenting - a wine revolution.
Jason Ankeny

 

What are we going to do? We’re going to rebuild the winery.”

Sometimes an ending is also a beginning.

Around 6:30 a.m. on Feb. 2, 2006, firetrucks from across Napa Valley raced to the Oakville, Calif., site of Silver Oak Cellars, one of the region’s oldest and most celebrated boutique wineries. Smoldering fireplace ashes discarded in a nearby dumpster had caught fire sometime before sunrise, and the flames soon engulfed Bonny’s Chai, the 7,000-square-foot erstwhile dairy barn that served as Silver Oak’s original winemaking facility in 1972, the year Ray Duncan and Justin Meyer began crafting the first vintage of their signature cabernet sauvignon.

No lives were lost in the blaze, but the historic Bonny’s Chai was destroyed. The fire also claimed about 70 barrels of Silver Oak’s 2004 Napa Valley Cabernet, valued at roughly $2 million, and caused heat and smoke damage to other buildings on the property.

“The old days of Silver Oak literally burned down,” president and CEO David Duncan, the youngest of Ray Duncan’s four sons, recalls almost a decade later. “I remember we were at my dad’s house that afternoon. The whole management team was sitting there, and it’s dead silence, except for the sniffles. Rickie [Piña, Silver Oak’s CFO] all of a sudden goes, ‘What are we going to do?’ I looked up, without missing a beat, and said, ‘We’re gonna rebuild the winery.’ Everyone relaxed and started laughing, and we opened wine. We knew we had a future, no matter what.”

Silver Oak didn’t simply start over, however. It seized the opportunity to rethink both the art and business of winemaking, blending its time-tested oenological principles and processes with cutting-edge technologies, analytics-driven insights and sustainable philosophies—in essence, bridging the gap between Napa Valley and Silicon Valley, its neighbor less than 100 miles to the south.

Seven years removed from the grand opening of the reconstructed Oakville facility, Silver Oak remains both an institution and an innovator. While consumer support for its supple, food-friendly cabernets has never wavered over time—Silver Oak consistently places among the top 10 on Wine & Spirits magazine’s annual countdown of bestselling restaurant wines—David Duncan says the company is currently producing the richest, most nuanced wines in its 43-year history. He credits the creative renaissance to the state-of-the-art Oakville winery as well as digital advances translating to healthier, more bountiful vineyards and superior grapes.

So now Silver Oak is doing it all again, leveraging the lessons it learned in Oakville to build an even more forward-thinking site in Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, on the grounds of the former Sausal Vineyard and Winery, which the Duncan family acquired in 2012. Duncan says the new winery, scheduled to open in 2017, will incorporate alternative energy sources, water-reuse solutions, reclaimed building materials and other ecologically progressive elements coming together to produce wine in greater harmony with the earth.

“It’s going to be very farm-based—very modern. When it’s finished, it’s going to be part of the land,” Duncan says. “Water use, energy use, where the materials come from—all of those things are really important to demonstrate what can be done for the wine industry. We’re not doing risky things. We’re just taking current technology and pushing it to the edge.” 

Winemaking isn’t the world’s oldest profession, but it’s damn close. Villagers in Jiahu, located in northern China’s Yellow River Basin, produced the world’s oldest known fermented beverage—a rice wine made with beeswax and wild grapes or hawthorn berries—as far back as 7,000 B.C., and in 2011, archaeologists unearthed the earliest known winery in an Armenian mountain cavern. The site, dating back about 6,100 years, housed a large basin for treading grapes, as well as fermentation jars and the remains of crushed fruit, leaves and vines.

The history of California wine begins in 1769, when Father Junípero Serra, a Franciscan missionary, established the state’s first vineyard in San Diego. California wines were produced for sacramental purposes before businessman Jean-Louis Vignes established the Golden State’s first commercial winery, El Aliso, in 1833 in Los Angeles; other pioneering California wine entrepreneurs include Agoston Haraszthy, General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and Charles Krug, famed for launching Napa Valley’s first commercial winery in 1861. Collectively these vintners were generating between 19 million and 35 million gallons annually by the 1890s.

Prohibition, enacted in early 1920, derailed the American wine industry for decades. The ranks of commercial wineries across the U.S. plummeted from more than 2,500 before Prohibition went into effect to fewer than 100 by 1933, when lawmakers passed the 21st Amendment, repealing the law. Even by 1960, there were fewer than 300 commercial wineries nationwide; California, which had 713 bonded wineries before Prohibition, did not return to that level until 1986.

Despite a combination of climatic, geographical and geological factors creating a singularly hospitable environment for growing premium wine grapes, Napa Valley boasted only about 25 wineries as late as the mid-1960s, with a local focus on low-grade jug wine. The Robert Mondavi Winery, the first major winery built in Napa during the post-Prohibition era, opened in 1966 in Oakville and radically reshaped the landscape, creating an array of top-quality, top-dollar varietals that proved the region could produce wines to rival the finest European exports.

Ray Duncan, founder of Denver-based oil and gas exploration firm Duncan Oil Inc., as well as the Durango Ski Corp. and Purgatory Ski Resort, began acquiring land in the Napa and Alexander valleys in the early 1970s. Duncan originally planned to plant vineyards and sell grapes, but he opted to enter the wine business after befriending Justin Meyer, the former apprentice to Brother Timothy Diener, the legendary vintner at Napa’s Christian Brothers winery. Duncan and Meyer agreed to devote all their resources to creating a single varietal: cabernet sauvignon aged for two years in American oak barrels and an additional 15 to 20 months in bottles, making each vintage drinkable upon commercial release.

“You gotta tip your cap to the fact that Ray jumped in at a time when Napa really wasn’t known for cabernet,” says Rob McMillan, a longtime wine industry analyst and the executive vice president and founder of Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division. “Everything takes vision. There’s also timing, luck and hard work. Without a doubt, all those things turned out for [Silver Oak]. But Ray was diligent, and he listened to Justin, took his point of view, and they worked very well together to come up with a philosophy of just doing cabernet. Virtually nobody else that I can recall said, ‘We’re gonna do one [varietal], and we’re gonna do it really well.’ They helped define Napa as a cabernet producer.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM ENTREPRENEURView All

WE KNOW LESS THAN WE THINK

And that’s a good thing! The greatest lesson from the pandemic is this: Possibilities are endless.

3 mins read
Entrepreneur
Startups Summer 2021

READY FOR A BIG RETURN

The end of the pandemic is in sight, and many franchises are anticipating an explosion in business. Leaders at four franchises share how their brands are working overtime to prepare for the rush and win back coveted business.

9 mins read
Entrepreneur
Startups Summer 2021

DESKS THAT KILL ZOOM FATIGUE?

Another workday at home getting you down? A new line of desks will help you up— and help you maintain focus.

2 mins read
Entrepreneur
Startups Summer 2021

ONE RESTAURANT, EIGHT BRANDS

To boost sales during the pandemic, the founders of Dog Haus flooded the delivery apps with virtual restaurants that operate out of existing franchise kitchens. They’ve been so valuable that they’re now here to stay.

6 mins read
Entrepreneur
Startups Summer 2021

MAKING BIG CHANGES IN TIMES OF BIG CHANGE (OR WHY AMAZON CREATED THE KINDLE)

Entrepreneurs are defined by how they adapt during crises. In this exclusive excerpt from their book Working Backwards, longtime Amazon execs Colin Bryar and Bill Carr reveal how the company dealt with massive disruption…and transformed itself as a result.

10+ mins read
Entrepreneur
Startups Summer 2021

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

The year 2021 may feel uncertain, but set your expectations high anyway. Doing so will become your guiding force.

3 mins read
Entrepreneur
Startups Summer 2021

THE TIME FOR REINVENTION IS NOW

Our world has changed. As people—and as entrepreneurs—we should change, too. Follow these three steps to find new opportunities and capture them with success.

3 mins read
Entrepreneur
Startups Summer 2021

HIS WORST FIVE YEARS WERE HIS LIFE'S BEST GIFT

What is it like to build a hit business and then lose all control? Oded Brenner, the founder of Max Brenner: Chocolate by the Bald Man has a lot to say about that.

5 mins read
Entrepreneur
Startups Summer 2021

HOW TO TAKE DOWN GOLIATH

The biggest companies can still be taken down by the smallest startups. Here are four strategies disruptors use to fight their way up.

5 mins read
Entrepreneur
Startups Summer 2021

THE RISE OF THE SMART BOARD

Miss having in-person meetings in front of whiteboards? Now you can replicate them remotely.

2 mins read
Entrepreneur
Startups Summer 2021
RELATED STORIES

For The Love Of Wine With Joey Wölffer

We enjoy a great glass of wine whether sipping it alone, happy hour Zooms or friends and family. When we think about one of our favorites, Wölffer Estate comes to mind. Whether we have sipped at their winery in the Hamptons or had a few bottles on hand for celebrations, it's one that we always gravitate towards. Joey Wölffer is continuing the tradition of great winemaking for this family-owned brand. She's also known for her sense of style and her boutique. We caught up with Joey to talk about the winery, innovations, their properties and more.

5 mins read
Athleisure Mag
December 2020

A DEEP DIVE INTO OCEANIA EATS

How Oceania Cruises’ gastronomy stays impressively on-trend

3 mins read
Porthole Cruise Magazine
November/December 2020

Ernesto's Interregnum

Between our critic’s first and last visits to the Basque-inspired taverna, not much (and everything) has changed.

4 mins read
New York magazine
October 26– November 08, 2020

Bars, Restaurants Pay Price For California Virus Surge

California took a big step back in reopening its economy on Wednesday as Gov. Gavin Newsom shut down bars, wineries, museums, movie theaters, and inside restaurant dining across most of the state for three weeks amid troubling increases in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.

5 mins read
Techlife News
July 7, 2020

World of Wine and Ale

Come discover the wonderful world of wine and ale, where every experience is unique in its own very special way. From finely crafted beers to exquisite wines, this section is sure to tantalize your taste buds.

10+ mins read
Food and Travel Magazine
Spring/Summer 2020

Alexandra Minton Earns National Honor as Level-Two Sommelier

While growing up in Ocean Springs, Alexandra Minton had a passion for music.

3 mins read
Eat Drink Mississippi
April/May 2020

A Fresh Pour

Davidson’s first urban winery makes another pioneering mark: A woman of color owns it

3 mins read
Charlotte Magazine
March 2020

Perfectly Paired

CHATEAU CHANTAL’S INTIMATE WINE DINNERS BRING TOGETHER NEW FRIENDS AND OLD TO DELIGHT IN THE MAGIC OF EXPERT WINE AND FOOD PAIRINGS.

3 mins read
Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine
March 2020

Tapped Out

With its DIY concept, everyone gets to play bartender at Serenity Wine Café.

2 mins read
Baltimore magazine
December 2019

Hollywood And Vine

Kyle MacLachlan, who plays Patricia Heaton’s fellow doc and potential love on Carol’s Second Act, is also one happy winemaker

2 mins read
CBS Watch! Magazine
September - October 2019