California wineries are often burdened by a turnover of winemakers. The most elite wineries hang on to their winemakers because, well, there’s no place better for them to go. But otherwise, winemakers can leapfrog from one mediocre winery to the next, in search of an owner who gives him the freedom to make good wine, provides him good vineyards and supplies the capital necessary for him to make his mark in the wine industry.
Jon Emmerich is an anomaly. He paid his dues early in his career at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Conn Creek and Sebastiani before landing a job at Silverado Vineyards as a lab technician in 1990. Now its winemaker, he hasn’t seen the need to leave. It’s a rarity for a winemaker to stay at one winery this long.
We caught up with Emmerich just as he was celebrating his 30th anniversary at Silverado. His longevity there has cultivated a dependable, consistent product year after year. But that doesn’t mean he’s opposed to change. In fact, he’s planting new grape varieties — kerner, melon and picpoul — to prove that.
Emmerich knows each block of vineyard like the back of his hand, remembers what was done in the challenging seasons, has the confidence of the owners and can easily predict how a wine will perform. That institutional knowledge and year-to-year consistency is priceless.
All of this is reflected in the consistency of Silverado’s wines that despite the temptation of countless fads has maintained a steady approach to winemaking. It’s balanced chardonnays, for instance, eschew the faddish lushness of malolatic fermentation that smothers a lot of consumer-driven chardonnays. Emmerich’s reasoning is simple: “I won’t use it if I don’t need it.”
And, you won’t find bizarre blends of red grape varieties here. One Silverado cabernet sauvignon blends the classic Bordeaux grape varieties, but its reserve cabernets and its merlot are unblended. And there are none of those crazy blends that resemble hobo stew.
The 2018 Silverado Vineburg Vineyard Chardonnay ($35) from Los Carneros has an austere, Chablis-like style with beautiful minerality, melon and citrus notes. The 2018 Silverado Estate Chardonnay ($35) with grapes from its Firetree and Vineburg vineyards has a rounder texture, thanks to some malolactic fermentation and more oak exposure. Which one you like depends squarely on your preference for acidity and roundness.
Emmerich also points to quality vineyards for a reason to stay the course. Silverado’s seven vineyards stretch over 360 acres, almost entirely in five appellations of Napa Valley. Its holdings in Stag’s Leap, purchased in 1978, produce stellar, full-bodied cabernet sauvignons that rank alongside the best from this appellation.
Silverado was founded by Ron Miller and his wife, Diane Disney — the only daughter of Walt Disney — in the late 1970s. Both have died but three of their children have occupied the executive suite and show no signs of selling the family business. One never knows how this plays out in the long run; it wouldn’t be the first family business to sell to a large corporation. For now, though, Emmerich is quite happy to be stay with a winner. He has been Silverado’s only winemaker besides Jack Stuart.
Besides the chardonnays, here are the red wines we enjoyed:
- Silverado Vineyard Mt. George Vineyard Merlot 2016 ($40). This sturdy, bright merlot shows why consumers shouldn’t give up on this falsely maligned grape variety. The cool evenings in this Coombsville appellation gives the grapes a needed break from warm days. Emmerich believes the cool climate slows down the sugar accumulation and contains ripeness and alcohol. The wine is entirely merlot — “I want to make a statement” about the grape variety, he says. Rhubarb pie aromas shift to bright cherry flavors and hints of clove and black pepper.
- Silverado Vineyard Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($53). The wine with the largest production in the producer’s lineup, this full-bodied blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc unites three vineyards. Subtle dark berry aromas with black cherry flavors and hints of cocoa and vanilla.
- Silverado Vineyard GEO Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($75). Emmerich describes this wine has having “shining fruit” character – crisp, bright cherry and raspberry flavors. Using grapes from only the Mt. George Vineyard, it spent 17 months in barrel to harmonize texture and complexity. Very floral with lavender followed by dark berry flavors and a hint of licorice and cocoa. Long in the finish.
- Silverado Vineyard SOLO Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 ($125). The additional bottle age in this wine tames the tannins of what you would expect from the Stag’s Leap District. Round in the mid-palate, it exudes black cherry and plum notes with a dash of spice and toasty oak. Tannins are fine and round, making it easy to enjoy without further aging. The grapes for this wine are from a heritage clone developed from pre-phylloxera vines first planted in 1884 – one of three such clones in Napa Valley.
- Anaba Moon Bismark Vineyard Syrah 2016 ($48). From the Moon Mountain district of Sonoma County, this lush syrah has black berries, black cherries and chocolate notes.
- Two Hands Angels’ Share Shiraz 2018 ($33). Australia has suffered tremendously from recent fires, but its wine industry remains strong. How fitting it is to pay tribute to the resiliency of those who live there than to buy one of its products. This lush, delicious shiraz is symbolic of the McLaren Vale. Very aromatic with violet and red berry notes, this shiraz has a medium body and blueberry, blackberry flavors. Consider joining Two Hands in making a donation to the Australian Red Cross (redcross.org.au) or the wildlife rescue mission (wires.org.au).
- Flat Top Hills California Chardonnay 2018 ($14). The oak is pleasantly restrained in this tasty, value-priced chardonnay made by the fourth generation of the C. Mondavi family. Medium boded with pineapple and guava notes.
- Fulldraw Hard Point Grenache 2016 ($85). This wine from the Templeton Gap region of Paso Robles demonstrates that serious, complex wine can be made from grenache. Complex and deep, it has red fruit character and good tannins.
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Tom Marquardt (email for questions) and Patrick Darr have been writing a wine column since 1985. They’ve traveled extensively to vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the U.S.
Tom lives in Florida with his wife, Sue, where he conducts wine tastings. Patrick is in the wine retail business in Annapolis, Md.