There was a time when wine stores everywhere stocked Silverado Vineyards’ flagship $25 Napa County chardonnay. A killer value — better than the oceans of similar wine, but priced no higher — it made Silverado Vineyards owners Diane Disney Miller, daughter of the legendary Walt Disney, and her husband Ron Miller so proud they expanded production until the middle market label accounted for nearly half of the wine they made each year.
It’s now a middle-of-nowhere chardonnay. The recent recession slaughtered California’s mid-range wineries. While wealthy wine lovers have continued to plop down $100 for a favored bottle of wine, folks who used to pay $25 traded down to $12 and stayed there.
The Miller’s flagship overachiever became a money loser. “We had to take down that tattered flag,” says Russell Weis, Silverado Vineyards’ general manager. And so began a top-to-bottom transformation from unfashionable middle-class winery with an overwhelming emphasis on white wines to a puff-out-your-chest Napa Valley wine estate producing premium reds.
A serious makeover
Today, Silverado Vineyards produces half as much wine as it made when the Miller’s started their extreme makeover — roughly 65,000 cases. Vineyard designated estate wines have replaced regional blends.
If recent critical raves from Decanter Magazine, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and Wine Enthusiast entice you to try Silverado Vineyards’ revamped wines, you will be less likely to find the new bottles in wine stores. The winery’s website is now a primary outlet with direct sales protecting profit margins, bolstering the bottom line without steep price hikes. In an effort to increase sales to the burgeoning Asian markets, Weis just returned from a trade mission to China. Exports of Silverado Vineyards wines have gone from zero to 10 percent of sales in the last couple of years.
But the surest sign that the winery is serious about its makeover is Solo. This 100 percent estate-grown Stags Leap District cabernet sauvignon, the most ambitious project in the winery’s history, is the new center of attention at Silverado Vineyards. Showcasing the soft, supple tannins, acidic structure and silky fruit flavors that characterize Stags Leap red wines, Solo is giving the winery serious bragging rights.
Turning to the vineyard for inspiration
It is common to learn about Silverado Vineyards’ winery before tasting its wines. Perched on the side of a hill, the Millers’ Tuscan-inspired tasting room looks north with a sweeping view that is among the most spectacular in the valley. To sip a glass of wine watching the late afternoon sun reflect off hawks soaring over the hilly Stags Leap region is the essence of Napa luxury. Looking down from that stone terrace, the estate vineyards hug the hill and sweep around to the back in a gently sloping crescent.
The trick was to start producing wines that matched the grandeur of the place. Longtime winemaker Jon Emmerich says, “We had to return to our own vineyards.”
The Millers bought their original vineyard along the southern stretch of Napa’s Silverado Trail in the mid-1970s, across the road from Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. The Napa land rush that followed the 1976 Paris Tasting — where Winiarski’s cabernet sauvignon trumped the favored French wines before a panel of French wine experts — had yet to start.
By 1982, when they built their Stags Leap District winery, the Millers had expanded their vineyard holdings, eager to stake their claim in the new wine industry. Soon, they were contracting with outside growers for an ever-increasing supply of grapes — tons and tons of fruit from across the valley.
To handle the crush at harvest, they installed industrial-size stainless steel fermentation tanks. Demand for Silverado Vineyards’ Napa County chardonnay had begun to drive the business, while efforts to showcase Stags Leap District cabernet sauvignon all but stopped.
A renewed focus on red wine
The decision to flip that equation and move away from purchased grapes to produce higher class estate-grown wines meant ”a weight was lifted from my shoulders,” says Emmerich. Rather than continue to spend his time coaxing indifferent grape growers to improve their farming so that he could get “good enough grapes,” Emmerich was free to focus on improving Silverado’s vineyards.
“For the first time, we were spending our time at home on the estate,” he says. “We learned the tail had been wagging the dog. The Millers didn’t know what they had here.”
Acres of the Millers’ vineyards in the heart of Napa Valley’s heralded red wine country were in chardonnay grapes, which Emmerich happily ripped up and replanted with cabernet sauvignon and merlot. “We’ve changed everything we think about our vineyards over the course of the last five years,” he says. In the winery, the industrial-sized equipment was pushed aside in favor of small fermentation tanks capable of producing higher quality wine.
The hard work has been done, says Emmerich. Three estate cabernet sauvignons now account for 40 percent of Silverado Vineyards’ production, up from 15 percent. Merlot was nothing and now accounts for eight percent of the winery’s volume. Only one outside grower continues to work with the winery.
It’s showtime, says Emmerich. Silverado Vineyards wants to be known as more than just a pretty tasting room.
Read her story on a post-Robert Parker wine world here.
Photo: Silverado Vineyards’ Stags’ Leap vineyard, courtesy of Silverado Vineyards.