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Berger on wine: Silverado Vineyards stands the test of time

Silverado Vineyards (THOMAS C./ YELP)

DAN BERGER,

There may be no more iconic name in American popular culture than Walt Disney. There may be no more iconic image in American sports than a National Football League receiver.

Put them together, and what you might end up with it is a slam-dunk neon lights image.

That was the headline nearly 40 years ago when it was leaked that a Disney family member, who also was a star NFL receiver, was investing in a property in the already glitzy Napa Valley.

The fear was widespread: field workers’ baseball caps would have large ears; tourist buses would flood the roads; fireworks would destroy the ambience; and the volume of wine produced would be so great it would rival the world’s largest wineries.

Not only did none of that occur, but in the last four decades, results of that heralded investment has resulted in nothing more than exceptionally fine quality wine, crafted with such respect for the land that many people today don’t even know who the owners were.

Which is all to the credit of Ron and his late wife, Diane Disney Miller.

Silverado Vineyards was the result of the Disney family investment, which started out with the now-retired Jack Stuart as its first winemaker. Stuart carried forth the family ideal with his remarkably low-key, land-respectful approach in which balance exceeded bombast.

Today the winemaker is Jon Emmerich, only the second person in that role over the decades, and the amazing thing to me is that Silverado retains all of the pure class and the dignity that the Millers brought to the property when it was founded in 1981.

That is evidenced by what you see when you visit. Many wine-tasting facilities paper their sales rooms with posters touting how many points some of their wines received. Others display oodles of medallions from wine competitions. Still others have displays of the different soil types they farm.

At Silverado, there is no hype. But when you taste the wines, you marvel at the structure, the respect for the varietal, the respect for the land, and should you be lucky enough to meet Ron, you will get no heroic stories of the gridiron or tales of how the wines compare to First Growth Bordeaux.

He is the same quiet, charming man I first met in 1986, speaking in quiet tones of the legacy of his Stag’s Leap District project.

It had been more than a decade since I visited Silverado when I recently drove up the hill in Stag’s Leap to taste the latest offerings, and I noted how subtle the property really is. Signage has always been minimal, promotion virtually nonexistent — almost the complete antithesis of Disneyland.

The late Lillian Disney, widow of Walt, her daughter, Diane, and Diane’s husband, Ron (Wisconsin 1961, and a former Los Angeles Rams QB) jointly founded the winery. Today Ron likes most the solitude of private events on the spectacular patio that overlooks the vines.

The best of it for wine lovers is that the style of wine established by Stuart and carried forward by Emmerich is far more classic and respectful of the past than many nearby producers, some of whom have gone for weight and concentration over balance and personality.

Over the decades, the terms used mostly to describe the wines of Stuart and Emmerich are graceful and elegant.

Perhaps the best wine to illustrate this is the winery’s limited production Cabernet Franc ($50), which is available only at the winery. It comes from the winery’s property on Mt. George in the cool Coombsville area of Napa.

Cabernet franc is a superb grape variety, one that could some day be the salvation of the valley. This wine displays the charms of this grape, with traces of red cherries, dried leaves and a trace of earth. Simply wonderful wine, and one with a grand future.

Perhaps the most stylish wine in the entire line is Silverado’s 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, Miller Ranch ($25), a simply superb example of how Napa can grow this variety with nearly perfect melon and spice aromas. It is fresh but already has begun showing what an additional year in the bottle will do for its development.

The winery’s 2013 Solo ($125), a kind of reserve-level cabernet, is the embodiment of the phrase “less is more,” a beguiling, seductive and relatively dark red wine, but one that still retains much of it regional silky distinctiveness, from a district that may be Napa’s most interesting in terms of cabernet style.

Visits to Silverado are usually not hectic. The place is rarely overrun by tourism, and the beauty from the hilltop is a real treat, especially when sipping great wine.

Wine of the Week: 2014 River Road Pinot Noir, Green Valley of Russian River, “Stephanie’s Cuvée” ($25): This well-priced pinot displays lovely red cherry/strawberry fruit, a trace of tobacco, and it has a silky entrance, not unlike Volnay. Its charm is in its expansive mid-palate fruit. It’s best served cool to give the wine better structure.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.