Raymond Twomey Duncan - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Raymond Twomey Duncan

Few wines inspire more consumer loyalty than Silver Oak cabernet. In 1990, Silver Oak was one of the most popular wines in America’s restaurants, according to our inaugural restaurant poll—and it’s placed near the top ever since.

Raymond Twomey Duncan Raymond Twomey Duncan
While the wine may have struck a nerve with American wine drinkers, the man behind it wasn’t a wine industry insider with a calculated plan to capture the nation’s palate. Silver Oak was put together by oil and gas entrepreneur Raymond Twomey Duncan, after a trip to Napa Valley and a Bank of America report about the growing American wine market convinced him to invest in vineyards.

Duncan passed away on October 9, at age 84.

Between 1970 and 1974, while living in Denver, Duncan acquired and began planting several hundred acres of vineyard land in Alexander and Napa valleys. How did someone from the petroleum industry decide where to plant? “If I told you where I got my choices, it would be embarrassing,” he admitted to us in 2012 as Silver Oak celebrated its 40th anniversary. “We did it from the assessor’s records in Napa. We knew the ownership of parcels, we saw a parcel owned by BV, and we looked at parcels next door and contacted those people, on the theory that where BV or Christian Brothers had a vineyard, it must be a good place.”

He partnered with winemaker Justin Meyer, formerly of Christian Brothers, to make the first vintage of Silver Oak in 1972 (labeled North Coast, since the Alexander Valley appellation didn’t yet exist). From the beginning, the goal was to sell a cabernet that was ready to drink on release, so Meyers and Duncan kept the wine in American oak barrels for more than two years, and left it in the bottle for three. They began selling the 1972 in 1977. The first few vintages were small affairs, barrel aged in a repurposed dairy barn in Oakville and hand-bottled. But a favorable write-up of the 1974 vintage in the Los Angeles Times gave the young brand a welcome push.

“That was the turning point in our business and the demand for our wine,” Duncan told us in the same interview. “Once we got the wine out to people, they loved the style Justin was making. We did some traveling ourselves—he told the story and I opened the wine. Ever been to a Safeway office and been told you have five minutes? Justin would start talking and I’d start pulling the corks.”

The Duncan family became sole owners of Silver Oak in 2001, after purchasing Justin Meyer’s share of the business. A few years earlier, they had launched Twomey, a separate winery that, this year, earned a place among our Top 100 wineries. Twomey and Silver Oak are now managed by Ray Duncan’s sons, David and Tim.

As Silver Oak grew, Ray Duncan remained active in the oil and gas business. In 2004, he was inducted into the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Hall of Fame. An avid skier and founder of Durango’s Purgatory Ski Resort, he was he was also inducted into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in 2006. He is survived by his wife, Sally, their six children and 16 grandchildren.

This is a W&S web exclusive feature.

Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.

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