April 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

Silver Oak Cellars' Alexander Valley Winery

Building on a long history in Sonoma County, the Cabernet specialist's new winery is a sleek, sizable and sustainable investment in the future

by Andrew Adams

While walking through the cellar of Silver Oak Cellars' new Alexander Valley winery filled with new stainless-steel tanks, most of which are fitted with an independent pump-over system and designed to never be used more than once per vintage, one has to stop and ask: "Is this all just for Cabernet?"
     "We only make the Alexander Cab here," says the winery's president and CEO David Duncan. "That's it."
    While on a footbridge spanning the spacious crush pad that has the room and equipment to hoist large gondola bins from trucks and yet is still covered from the weather, one double checks. "No other winemaking for other brands was consolidated here at the new winery?"The answer again is no, it's just for the Alexander Valley Cabernet program.
     Standing in front of the brand new Bertolaso bottling line from Italy, one still wonders if maybe it will be used for other wineries owned by the Duncan family, such as Twomey, or for custom bottling for other wineries, perhaps just in the short term to help pay off the initial investment. But nope, it's just for Silver Oak's Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
     After strolling through the spacious barrel rooms, in which brand-new American oak barrels from the winery's cooperage in Missouri are getting unpacked by cellar workers, it seems logical to ask, again, about custom crush, because the winery has the space and resources for it. "We don't do any custom crush or anything like that. We just make our wine," Duncan says.
     All that space and then some. The winery was designed to support the future growth of Silver Oak's Alexander Valley Cabernet program. "We did make it able to grow by about 30%."
     From the tour Duncan gave Wines & Vines in January, as construction finished on the estate tasting room, it is readily apparent the winery has ample space for growth. That space will be needed, as the new winery is nestled in a 113-acre estate, of which 75 acres are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. The Duncans also recently purchased the 35-acre Crazy Creek vineyard nearby and the Big River vineyard, where the Alexander Valley AVA overlaps with the Russian River Valley.
     Silver Oak purchased the property for the new winery in 2011 and finished the facility in time to crush grapes from the 2017 vintage. Permitted for 120,000 cases, Duncan said the winery will likely produce around 75,000 to 80,000 cases of wine in 2018. "We can grow here, but that will take us a number of years."
     Duncan said the new winery was designed and built to provide the same level of quality that Silver Oak's many customers and distributors expect. The winery produces around 100,000 cases of wine per year, and only about a quarter of that is sold direct to consumer, with wholesale distribution split around 70% on-premise and 30% off-premise accounts. Duncan said DtC sales continue to grow and are a key part of Silver Oak's future, but expanding production has enabled the winery to maintain solid distributor relationships.
     While Silver Oak and the emblematic water tower of its Oakville estate that shows prominently on the label may be best known as a Napa Valley Cabernet to many consumers, Alexander Valley has been an integral part of the wine company's long history. Duncan's father, Raymond Twomey Duncan, founded Silver Oak with Justin Meyer, and one of Raymond Duncan's first vineyard investments was in Alexander Valley. The family has also owned the 80-acre Miraval Vineyard, down the road from the new winery, since 1987. "This neighborhood has been in our DNA, part of Silver Oak, really since the beginning," Duncan said.
     Plans for a new winery in Alexander Valley started to form after the Duncans first had to rebuild the Napa Valley winery that was extensively damaged by a fire in 2006. The new winery offered ample space for winemaking and hospitality to support growth as part of a 50-year plan. It also opened in 2008, just in time for the recession.
     But that proved somewhat fortunate, Duncan said, because it gave the family time to gain perspective on what they really wanted to do in Alexander Valley. That vision evolved from a complete remodel to building a new winery.
     In 2011, the Sausal Vineyards & Winery property came on the market, and Duncan said he put in what he considered a fair-market-value offer for the winery and vineyards. About six months later, he called the broker to check on the property and learned the owners were about to accept another offer.
     Duncan promised to have a new offer in by the end of the day and raised his price to about $100,000 per acre for the property. Today he's relieved he was willing to pay more for the ranch. "For the amount of money that we would have missed this opportunity by, it was irrelevant," he said. "The market was changing."
     With the property to build a winery from the ground up, Duncan said he knew he wanted it to be a sustainable project. Duncan, like the rest of his siblings, grew up in Colorado. He said he spent every summer when he was in high school working on a ranch and that instilled in him a love and respect for the environment.
     When he was working on the rebuild of the Oakville winery, he also was inspired by Ken Grossman, the owner and founder of Sierra Nevada Brewery, which built a brewery in Mills River, N.C., as part of a major East Coast expansion that earned a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certification. After hearing Grossman describe the project in a speech, Duncan had most of his employees visit the company's sustainable brewery in Chico, Calif., to learn some of Sierra Nevada's principles. "The team came back just totally fired up, and I was already fired up by Ken; so, if he can do it in beer, I can do it in wine."
     The new Alexander Valley winery is expected to become one of the few wine-production facilities to earn LEED Platinum certification, joining the Silver Oak Oakville winery. When Wines & Vines visited, the company was in the midst of the certification process. Duncan said it also complies with several of the standards of the Living Building program, which is even more exacting. That commitment to sustainability, however, was made to pay for itself. "One of my big statements, too, was that I was not willing to go green at any cost," Duncan said. "Every single decision we've made is fully justifiable in under seven years."
     The solar panels that cover the roof of the winery and tasting room should pay out after two-and-a-half years. Redwood siding that covers the winery in wood once was used for large fermentation vats. The large membrane bioreactor wastewater system was a significant investment, but it also meant the winery didn't have to use 2 acres of land to build wastewater ponds. Those 2 acres have been planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and will produce several hundred cases of Silver Oak Cab in a few years. "It pays back pretty fast, so those are the kinds of things we went through when thinking about why we would do this," Duncan said.
     The new winery comes after Silver Oak has pivoted further toward an estate model. Since Duncan has been the company's CEO, the company has shifted to using 75% estate grapes and 25% from partner growers. "That's been another big strategic shift for us too, so we've acquired several hundred acres of vineyards and farm it all ourselves-both for Pinot and for Cab," he said. "I just think it's so important for us to control our supply, and we know they're not making any more Alexander Valley or Napa Valley Cabernet ground."
     In addition to the Alexander Valley property, Silver Oak made headlines when it purchased Ovid Napa Valley winery in a deal reported to be worth $50 million. Once the new Alexander Valley winery was close to completion, Silver Oak sold its old Sonoma County facility to the fast-growing Lodi, Calif.-based Michael David Winery.
     Production at the new winery is managed by winemaker Nate Weis, whose office is at the Alexander Valley facility. The new winery is designed for flexible, high-quality Cabernet production. Grapes arrive on trucks, in half-ton bins or gondolas from Silver Oak's new Pellenc harvesters. If already destemmed and sorted, the grapes are transferred directly to tank via Waukesha must pumps. Those lots that do require some sorting are dumped onto an elevated conveyor that leads to the Cluster Thruster, a patented oscillating conveyor manufactured by P&L Specialties that empties to an Armbruster RotoVib destemmer sold in the United States by Scott Laboratories. The destemmed berries are then moved by must pump to one of many tanks of varying capacities manufactured by Santa Rosa Stainless Steel. The winery also has a few square tanks by La Garde and several small, portable TranStore tanks by Custom Metalcraft. Each tank used for fermentation is outfitted with an independent pump-over pump that is monitored and can be controlled via the TankNet system.
     The large cellar is filled with natural light as well as LED lights that turn on or off depending on motion sensors. Those working in the cellar and throughout the winery also can take advantage of a premium music system. Music is a priority for Duncan, who sings and plays harmonica as a member of the country rock band The Silverado Pickups (performing May 27 at the 2018 BottleRock festival in Napa Valley).
     Once fermentation is complete, the pomace is pressed with one of two Diemme Enologia membrane presses, and the wine is racked to barrel. Barrel work is done in a separate room that houses a Tom Beard Co. Barrel Processing System that is used not only for barrel washing but also racking and filling. Barrels are laid onto a conveyor that then moves them into position to be filled, racked or cleaned.
     Key to Silver Oak's style is the use of American oak barrels. The company invested in a small cooperage in Higbee, Mo., in 2000 and bought it outright 15 years later. Now known as The Oak Cooperage, the company primarily supplies barrels built with staves of Missouri white oak to Silver Oak and Twomey wineries, but it does produce some for sale to other wineries and a limited number of barrels for the spirits industries.

Seismic stability
At the new Alexander Valley winery, those barrels now rest on four-barrel racks made by Western Square. Duncan said the larger racks provide seismic stability, and he knows how well they performed in the 2014 Napa earthquake that damaged the Oakville facility. After barrel aging, the wine will then be bottled on the new Bertolaso line from ColloPack Solutions that Duncan described as an investment in quality assurance for wine.
     While the new winery did process grapes during the 2017 vintage, construction was delayed by about a month because of the heavy winter rains and then by two months because of the North Coast wildfires that prevented key contractors from getting to the construction site. Three Silver Oak employees also lost their homes in the fires.
Duncan said the Oakville winery didn't have power for about a week, but backup generators kept it running. As far as the 2017 vintage goes, Duncan said the last grape lot was picked Oct. 8 and, because fire erupted that night, Silver Oak missed the smoke. "I would say we have zero effect from the fires from a smoke-taint standpoint," he said.
Expected to be completed in April, the winery's tasting room features a modern and subtle design similar to that of the winery, but is situated at a higher elevation to provide more views of the surrounding vineyard. The winery was built in a depression to make the most of what could have been a weak spot in the vineyard and to hide it from the highway. "We wanted to minimize the impact of the winery visually, and we also wanted to build it on the worst spot of the vineyard, so that's why it's in a hole there," Duncan said. "When you drive in and the vines are growing, you can't even see the winery."
The San Francisco firm Sagan Piechota Architecture designed the winery, and the lead contractor was Cello & Maudru Construction. Summit Engineering handled structural, civil and wastewater engineering on the project. The landscape architect was Marta Fry Landscape Associates.
Both the private and public areas of the tasting room feature floor-to-ceiling doors that can be opened during pleasant weather. The winery is permitted for 26 events per year and has a commercial kitchen larger than the one at the Oakville winery. At the heart of the tasting room building will be a circular wine library containing glass-walled racks of bottles that surrounding a 12,000-pound basalt boulder. The boulder is intended to help make the room a visually stunning centerpiece for visitors and also ties in the tasting room floor, which is comprised of 30-inch by 30-inch basalt tile.
One innovative design and hospitality touch is a footpath that leads from the tasting room through a vineyard and to the winery. Once inside the winery, the path becomes an elevated walkway that leads above the barrel room, crush pad and to an observation deck above the cellar so visitors can get a first-hand look at the work of winemaking. "It's a tasting room, but hopefully it will become a must-see," Duncan said of the hospitality space.
Silver Oak is in the enviable position of being a popular and strong brand in the wholesale market, supported by estate vineyards and now enhanced production capabilities. An offering of the winery's Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was the top barrel lot in the 2018 Premiere Napa Valley auction, selling for $110,000, or $417 per bottle. Duncan acknowledges the "unique place" the winery has in the market and said he has no plans to try and dramatically increase production to compete with some of the industry's larger family-owned companies. "There's a sense of cyclicity and permanence to our business," he said. "We can grow the grapes, make the wine and sell the wine. We can do that every year, and that's kind of a nice place to be from a business standpoint."
A brand-new, sustainable winery built and equipped to produce more high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon is also a pretty nice place to be. And, yes, it's all for Alexander Valley Cabernet.

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