Explore Napa Valley's Wine Excellence

July 24, 2019

Few images of wine country are as iconic as the white water tower and solitary silver oak rising from the vineyard floor. The image has graced the label of every Cabernet Sauvignon bottle from Napa Valley’s fabled Silver Oak Cellars winery since its inaugural vintage, and is representative of the winery’s singular focus. “Do one thing, and do it well,” says CEO and President David Duncan of Silver Oak’s guiding philosophy. Silver Oak produces only two wines: Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Alexander Valley. Both are aged for about two years exclusively in American oak, and both enjoy cult status among connoisseurs and collectors, which is no small feat in a region that produces some of the world’s most elegant and sought-after Cabernet Sauvignons.

While Silver Oak has built its considerable reputation on producing Cabernet Sauvignon exclusively, its younger sister winery, Twomey, is more experimental and specializes in modern interpretations of Old World wine across a variety of styles, starting with Pomerol style Merlot with a New World sensibility. “It’s a perfect complement for the ethos of Silver Oak,” says David, whose father, Ray Duncan, founded Silver Oak in the early 1970s. Silver Oak releases its wines four and a half years after harvest, and although these wines are ready to drink, they’re also capable of aging another 15 years.

This steadfast schedule doesn’t allow time to adjust to current winemaking trends, and its unwavering approach has created the legend that is Silver Oak. “‘Trust’ is a favorite word we hear from customers,” David says. “Instead of trying to change according to critics’ palates, we keep putting out wine that is drinkable.”  

Twomey shares that dedication to releasing drinkable wines that also pair well with food, but produces a variety of styles that allow Twomey to utilize and fine-tune winemaking techniques that are best suited to each specific varietal. In addition to Merlot, Twomey also produces appellation and estate Pinot Noirs and an estate Sauvignon Blanc. “My brother, Tim, is a Burgundy lover, so he is a big influence with our Pinot Noir, and the women in the family all like white wine, so we added Sauvignon Blanc to the lineup,” David says. It’s fair to say that, as different as they are, both wineries are still very much in the same family. 

Raymond Twomey Duncan, an entrepreneur from Denver, co-founded Silver Oak winery with Christian Brothers enologist Justin Meyer in 1972. Their singular goal was to produce a world-class Cabernet; it’s what David refers to as his father’s “Cab is king” mentality. Producing just one wine was seen as renegade and risky, which is something of a Duncan family hallmark. Additionally, Meyer insisted on holding the wines to age until they were ready to drink—at the time an unorthodox practice in California—believing that the tannins needed time to mellow and driven by the desire to make an approachable wine that’s drinkable on release.  

By the mid-’80s, the highly allocated wine was in such fierce demand that hundreds of customers would line up outside the winery and spend the night before the annual release date. Duncan jokes, “They’re still lining up, but we don’t let people spend the night anymore.” “Silver Oak is a phenomenal success story,” says Ian Blackburn, founder of Learn About Wine in Los Angeles. “It’s a paramount brand that has been unwavering in its approach to the market. They did it their way— making Cabernet in what has now become a Cabernet state. Many Napa wineries started lining up their release dates around Silver Oak’s. It’s as if Silver Oak had the crystal ball.” Indeed it’s a legacy that seems almost charmed.

“I got a call from my dad,” says David Duncan, who was then heading up Duncan Oil in Denver. Within hours, David and his wife, Kary, who was serving as assistant chief of medicine at the University of Colorado, made the decision to pack up their life in Denver and make the move to Napa Valley. But David’s move to Napa wasn’t the only change for the Duncan family, which was finally expanding its sights beyond Cabernet Sauvignon. The previous year, in 1999, Ray Duncan had bought the Soda Canyon Ranch, mainly for the Cabernet, but “our winemaker, Daniel [Baron], got very excited about the French clones of Merlot in the vineyard,” says David Duncan. “So we decided to make a single-vineyard Merlot. Because Silver Oak was to remain strictly focused on Cabernet, the Duncans named the new Merlot winery Twomey, Ray’s mother’s maiden name.

 The partnership between Duncan and Meyer still existed at Silver Oak; however, Twomey was founded as a Duncan family venture. “With Twomey, the Duncans decided to plant a stick in the ground with Merlot,” says Blackburn. “That’s a powerful move from a label that is synonymous with Cabernet.” Like his father, David is a renegade—perhaps something he picked up during all those summers working on a cattle ranch in Colorado as a teenager. When he wants something, he goes after it. His commitment to making world-class Merlot at Twomey continues with the recent appointment of winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet of Château Pétrus fame as a consultant to Twomey’s winemaking team. If you want to make the best Merlot in the New World, you hire the guy making the best Merlot in the world.  

“Much of my style of winemaking is based on [Berrouet’s] aesthetic,” says Baron. “In fact, I often credit my time with him [at Pétrus and Dominus] as one of the inspirations that led to Twomey Cellars. JeanClaude knows how to combine subtlety, intensity and balance in a wine, and his joy of living comes through in every glass.” Today, Silver Oak’s landmark wooden water tower and headquarters in Oakville—constructed from hand-quarried limestone reclaimed from a 19th-century cooperage—stand in stark contrast to Twomey’s sleek tasting room in nearby Healdsburg; the different styles make an apt metaphor for the two wineries’ distinct identities. As different as the two wineries may appear, however, they’re united by the family’s singular vision and unwavering pursuit of excellence. “Our model is focus,” David says. And whether it’s Silver Oak’s dedication to perfecting a single varietal based on 40 years of experience or Twomey’s more varied and experimental approach, their shared vision remains clear.