On a sunny day in March, Instagram was on fire. Drew Barrymore, Reese Witherspoon, Cameron Diaz and their crew headed to Napa for the ultimate girls getaway, posting shots of the Valley’s lush vineyards and rolling green hills as they went. After documenting a cooking class at the Culinary Institute of America, the ladies then quietly made their way to Oakville’s Silver Oak Cellars. Vintner David Duncan didn’t even see them coming. We mean this in the very literal sense: Duncan was sadly off-site when the A-list crew made their impromptu visit. “I missed them!” he admits ruefully. “They were here when they were on vacation, but they were incredibly silent when they walked into the tasting room. We didn’t even know they were coming.”
Though the 48-year-old winemaker won’t reveal what—or how much—the ladies purchased, let’s just say they left happy after a tour of the premises. And why shouldn’t they? Silver Oak Cellars is not only an award-winning winery, but it is also a perfect representation of what Cameron, Drew and Reese enjoyed on their trip: not only fine wine, but friendship. “Wine should be consumed with food and friends at a table,” Duncan maintains. “That’s really what we have focused on from the beginning – not making wines to win points, but for people to enjoy. ‘Life is a Cabernet’ is our slogan, and certainly for Silver Oak, that’s what we do. We work incredibly hard to follow our path to excellence. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, we try to make an excellent product that’s world class, and we realize that wine is really about fun and friends and family.”
Friendship is certainly part of the reason why the Silver Oak President and CEO and Twomey Cellars Managing Partner decided to co-chair this year’s Auction Napa Valley: he and wife Kary would be working alongside longtime pals Jeff and Valerie Gargiulo. “We’ve been active members [of Auction Napa Valley] for a long time; I’m on the board now. They’ve been asking us for years when we were going to host the auction, so it was a natural thing that we would need to do it. From a vintner’s perspective, I thought co-chairing would be a great experience,” he says. It also helps that he and Jeff are really close: they’re even in a band together. Along with Shane Soldinger of Crocker & Starr Wines, professional percussionist Joe Shotwell, Dan Zepponi of Valley of The Moon, winemaker Tres Goettings of Krupp Brothers Winery and wine-industry advisor Paul Hoffman, the men make up a group called the Silverado Pickups. For Duncan, who plays harmonica, guitar and is the band’s lead vocalist, the outfit is, again, all about friendship and having fun.
“Jeff and I started playing together ten years ago. One thing led to another, and now we have a core band. We’ve recorded a couple of songs, like ‘Wine Country Cowboy,’ which is on iTunes. We’ve done a lot of charitable stuff and have opened up for Tim McGraw and Leon Russell. It’s a good group of guys.” Though they’ve played at Napa’s BottleRock music festival alongside the likes of The Black Keys and the Kings of Leon, don’t expect Duncan to quit making wine in order to seek fame and fortune as a musician any time soon. “My wife has a wonderful way of keeping me grounded. She says, ‘Don’t quit your day job,’” he laughs.
An interesting choice of words, given that Duncan has held many different jobs in fields across the board, and has excelled at all. After receiving his undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame and his MBA at the University of Denver, he started working for father Ray Duncan’s Duncan Oil firm, where he rose from Exploration Manager to President in the 1990s. He then became a Board Member of Colorado’s First Western Trust Bank and Lead Director for Noodles & Company, a chain of restaurants based in Boulder, Colorado. He only ventured into the winemaking world when his father’s business partner, Silver Oak co-founder Justin Meyer, began to have health issues and decided to sell his share of the company.
“From the time I was a small boy until I went to business school, I came out [to Napa]. It was the first place I drank wine, but [that didn’t mean] wine wasn’t necessarily in my future,” Duncan recalls. “I decided to major in finance, and to finish my major I did my final project on Silver Oak, which led to getting me involved in the business aspects of the industry, like financial forecasting. 2001 was when I really got involved in the winery, though. We bought Justin’s interest out; my dad became the sole owner of the winery. At that time, Silver Oak’s manager was at retirement age. My dad walked into my office in Denver and said, ‘I know the perfect person to run the winery at Silver Oak.’ I said, ‘Who?’ He said, ‘You.’ I took the next 35 years of my life, crumpled into a ball and threw it over my shoulder. At the time, my wife was the Assistant Chief of Medicine at the University of Colorado. She was 31. She gave that up and came out here to start her own practice. We had two babies with one on the way. We gave it all up, and we’re the luckiest people alive.”
You might say that Duncan discovered his true calling when he was propositioned to run Silver Oak. He stepped up to the plate, and has sought to make the winery one of the most innovative in Napa. His varietals have low or moderate alcohol levels, which, in his opinion, heightens the wine-drinking experience, as they’re both easier to drink and to pair. He is also practicing viticulture by working with Fruition Sciences, which has developed a new technology that “listens” to the grape vine’s water needs and decides when and how much to irrigate by measuring the vine’s water consumption.
Additionally, he is focusing his attention on Silver Oak’s sister winery, Twomey, which is named after his late grandmother, Velma Marie Twomey Duncan. “We’re growing our pinot noir presence as well as our sauvignon blanc, which we sell out of every single year,” Duncan says, adding, “Experimenting with other varietals is the next logical step. We don’t have plans necessarily to grow a stable of labels like other folks are doing. We’re going to focus on making Silver Oak and Twomey the best they can be.”
There are many elements that make Duncan’s wines so respected and revered, but his most import recipe to success is the company’s heart. Duncan has created “Bottle Stories,” a Tumblr blog where fans of the brand can share their personal stories involving the Silver Oak brand. “To have someone come in and say, ‘I drank a bottle of Silver Oak at my daughter’s wedding, or a vintage from the year my daughter was born’ is wonderful. For instance, we met a fan of Silver Oak called Jason Cupp through social media. Every Sunday, Jason and his friends would get together and drink Silver Oak. One of the friends passed away, and Jason tweeted that [the remaining friends] were together, drinking Silver Oak, celebrating his life. To make those connections is priceless.”
This sentiment sums up Napa itself to a T. There is a real sense of community in the Valley, which is rare, given that because of the 430 physical wineries, competitiveness is expected. What Duncan refers to as a “real joining of goodness” isn’t just prevalent at the auction: it is the norm in Napa Valley; its residents have one another’s backs, so to speak. “People kind of think that we’re competitive, quote unquote, but all of our kids go to the same schools, we to the same churches and the same coffee shops. We’re all friends. In the artistic expression scene in Paris, take Hemingway and Renoir; those guys were hanging out together. It’s similar here. We appreciate what we do, and we all have the same interpretation of what excellence is. We live together, we work together and we respect one another.”
In a nutshell, Duncan has discovered the true heart of wine country.