Watching winemaker Jon Emmerich and General Manager Russ Weis banter back and forth prior to a Silverado Vineyards trade visit is like glimpsing a portion of a concert tour documentary: you see the inside workings of a team before the big show, yet it is a not-to-miss show in itself.
Their talk is both smart and humorous, making them shoe-ins for a non-snobby wine web show. Such at ease with, but also still in awe of, the Silverado wine estate, their passion for the property is infectious. And not because they say so, but because you see it for yourself at every turn. It is beautiful to tour; the stunning views from the stone patio span out before you, and no matter how many vineyards you have seen, you are likely to take in a breath.
Despite Disney family ownership, this is not a northern outpost for Mickey Mouse fans. If you look, there are hints of the family’s other great venture, such as the French version of a Ratatouille film poster (where Remy is allowed to be shown holding a glass of wine). But the focus is on the grapes, the estate vineyards and the wines — and sharing these things with visitors.
Following Russ Weis on a tour is like hearing an audio appendage to Charles Sullivan’s “Napa Wine: A History” book. There are great stories, facts and figures shared every step of the way. Abel McFarland, for example, planted vinifera on the Silverado property in the 1870s, and named the area “McFarlandville” – a narcissistic fact that is not left without comment. McFarland also ran a Calistoga mine, and when the silver ran out, he mined mercury which was used to refine gold. Who knew?
Winemaker Jon Emmerich, you realize, is fanatical in his constant pursuit of wine perfection. Cellar experiments are an ongoing project. Mad scientist comes to mind, but he instantly dispels this as he methodically explains the details of characteristics from various vintages, weaving together historical tracking of the grapes and wines into his cellar explorations.
Russ calls Jon an “amazing luxury,” such is his intimate knowledge of the fruit and wines at Silverado over the decades. Jon worked with previous winemaker Jack Stuart for eight years before becoming Silverado’s Winemaker in 1998.
In 1968, Silverado’s Stag’s Leap vineyard was only the third to be planted to cabernet sauvignon, along with cab pioneers Nathan Fay and Warren Winiarski. All Silverado wines use estate fruit only, but the vineyards are only a part of the story when it comes to their wines.
The 2016 Estate Grown Chardonnay from Los Carneros, Jon explains, has Dijon and Clone 4 vines to thank for the wine’s flavorful character. The Vineberg vineyard on the Sonoma side of Carneros, he adds, brings a steely, flinty, mineral character to the wine, with lots of vibrant acidity. Stainless steel and Burgundian barrels (20 percent new French oak) define the final “stone fruit and gentle toast” style of the wine.
The tasting of the 2013 Mt. George Merlot from Coombsville comes with its own stories: the Mt. George property is one of the oldest sites here for vinifera; planted in 1868 by William Woodward. In 1889, a red wine made from this vineyard won a silver medal at the Paris Exposition; the same Exposition where Thomas Edison exhibited his incandescent lamps, and the Gustave Eiffel showed off his new tower.
Silverado’s 2013 Merlot has depth across the palate, with the broader earthiness of Coombsville. Phenolic ripeness and acid balance defines this wine. As Jon explains, this property, purchased in 1988, “joins the house style with kinetic acidity,” making Coombsville an easy fit into family. GEO is a newer wine (first vintage in 2012) that showcases cabernet sauvignon from Coombsville. The 2013 has deep dark fruit and spice complexity.
A taste of the 2013 SOLO Cabernet Sauvignon from Stag’s Leap leads to a discussion on Napa Valley’s heritage clones. After the 1980s phylloxera outbreak threatened the existence of some of our earlier, historic field clones, work was done to single out and circulate the best of these historic clones used in Napa Valley wines. By 1993, UC Davis named three heritage clones: FPS 28 To Kalon, FPS 29 Niebaum, and FPS 30, the Silverado clone. Silverado’s flagship wine, SOLO, is made exclusively from this clone.
The common thread through all of the winery’s red wines is the richly textured, vibrantly fruity-spice-and-toast complexity balanced by refreshing acidity. Never do you feel like you are sucking on fresh wood planks before the fruit comes in to save the palate from a Pinocchio-like fate.
Pop Quiz: Who owned the property before the Disney family? The See’s candy family — and they were the ones to change the property’s name to Silverado Vineyards. Make a visit to Silverado for more fun facts and stories, as well as their excellent wines.
Catherine Bugue is the St. Helena Star’s tasting panel writer and is the co-founder of the Napa Valley Wine Academy in Napa.