Food & Drink

Napa Valley’s Disneyland vibe isn’t Walt’s doing

In the barrel room of Silverado Vineyards, winemaker Jonathan Emmerich, left, and president Russell Weis.
In the barrel room of Silverado Vineyards, winemaker Jonathan Emmerich, left, and president Russell Weis. Mike Dunne

Not long after arriving, visitors to Napa Valley may think they’ve wandered into Disneyland North. The pricey boutiques, wine train, gondola and castle along Highway 29, among other attractions, are apt to leave that impression.

Ironically, the people least responsible for this parallel are the heirs of Walt Disney. They have been a presence in Napa Valley for more than 40 years but famously have shied from capitalizing on the magic of the Disney brand.

“They felt that this little project ought to stand on its own,” says Russell Weis, president of Silverado Vineyards, the winery that Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, and her husband, Ron Miller, former president and CEO of Walt Disney Productions, founded in 1981. “Diane used to say that if you saddle this estate with that name (Disney) you are just asking for it. This is a Miller family thing. Ron and Diane just wanted to make wine,” Weis says.

To that end, the Millers steadfastly have avoided using their aerie and its sweeping view of Napa Valley for weddings, carnivals and the like.

Meanwhile, “this little project” has evolved in to one ambitious production, turning out up to 70,000 cases of wine a year, but the winery’s profile remains low. Silverado Vineyards is secluded on a woodsy knoll east of Yountville, so unobtrusive that motorists zipping by on Silverado Trail just below are apt to miss the turnoff to the road twisting up to the winery.

There, links to the Disney heritage pretty much are limited to paintings from the family’s art collection and a couple of framed posters in the tasting room – one from the French promotion of the Disney/Pixar animated movie “Ratatouille,” a gift from John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer, and the other of a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell, which he inscribed, “To Walt Disney, one of the really great artists – from an admirer, Norman Rockwell.”

Rather, the legacy that draws visitors to Silverado Vineyards is its long if reserved standing for wines of fidelity and elegance. The Millers and Walt Disney’s widow, Lillian Disney, arrived in Napa Valley in 1976 with the purchase of 105 acres at Yountville, what now is known as the Miller Ranch. That property remains the source of their sauvignon blanc, an early flagship for the winery for its clarity and verve. The current version, the Silverado Vineyards 2016 Napa Valley Yountville Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc ($25), upholds that standing with an almost feral assertiveness, tackling the palate with flashy displays of grapefruit, grass, melon and peppy acidity.

Over the past four decades the family quietly has purchased several more older vineyards about the valley, studied the sites diligently, and cultivated them to grape varieties most fitting for their soils, exposures and the like. Today, they tend substantial blocks of chardonnay in the cool Carneros district at the southern reaches of the valley and cabernet sauvignon in the highly regarded Stags Leap and Coombsville appellations along the valley’s eastern edge.

Throughout this growth, Silverado Vineyards has been a model of stability and restraint. Drama has been left at theme park and cinema. In its 36-year history, for one, Silverado Vineyards has had just two winemakers, Jack Stuart initially, now retired, and Jonathan Emmerich, who joined the cellar in 1990.

Their signatures are remarkably similar – wines faithful to traditional expressions of grape variety, representative of artful and intricate blending, judicious in their exploitation of oak, and consistently high in quality at relatively modest prices. They aren’t loud and heavy wines, but rather share sleek builds and a lilting harmony.

The biggest difference between Stuart and Emmerich is that Emmerich and Weis are extending Silverado’s line of vineyard-designated wines. With the 2002 vintage, for example, they introduced Solo, a stately cabernet sauvignon made solely with grapes from the Stags Leap vineyard that stretches downslope from the winery and west to the Napa River.

This vineyard is home to one of three clones of cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley designated as “heritage” selections by officials of UC Davis for their reputation for yielding quality wines. The strain is believed to be related to the “See clone,” after Harry See of the family that founded See’s Candies; he owned the vineyard when Lillian Disney and the Millers bought it in 1978.

While the history of the clone is murky, the cabernet sauvignon it is producing is perfumey, fresh in its cherry fruit, solidly but not rigidly structured, and balletic in its energy, focus and grace, to judge by a vertical tasting going back to its first release from the harvest of 2002. While the wines shared those characteristics, they also paid tribute to the individuality of each growing season. The still brilliant and lively 2002 stood out for its briary note. Intriguing herbal threads coursed through the enduringly fresh 2005. And the 2008 was notable for its voluptuousness and complexity. The current release, the Silverado Vineyards 2013 Napa Valley Stags Leap District Solo Cabernet Sauvignon ($125), is inky and sturdy, gradually unfolding in the glass to reveal licorice as well as cherries, retreating tannins and brushstrokes of oak.

From the 2012 vintage, Silverado Vineyards added a second vineyard-designated proprietary cabernet sauvignon, Geo, Greek for “earth” and shorthand for “George,” after Mount George Vineyard, a plot the Millers bought in 1987 and planted in 1989. It is in the Coombsville appellation on the east edge of the city of Napa, an area drawing interest for its pointed and brisk cabernets. The current release, the Silverado Vineyards 2013 Napa Valley Coombsville Geo Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), is an intricate and direct take on the varietal, with fine bones, tight layering, carefully integrated oak and rejuvenating acidity.

Another wine of note in the winery’s portfolio is the Silverado Vineyards 2016 Carneros Estate Chardonnay ($35), an interpretation vivid in its tropical fruit and exceptionally long in its finish.

While Ron Miller continues to downplay Silverado’s Disney connection – Lillian Disney died in 1997, Diane Disney Miller died in 2013 – the family’s artistic heritage can be found in the sketch of winery and vineyard on the winery’s label. It was done by Annabelle Miller, Ron and Diane Miller’s oldest granddaughter, the great-granddaughter of Walt Disney.

Have a Taste, Take a Dip

El Dorado County vineyards play host to some 70 varieties of wine grapes. That diversity should appeal to members of the millennial generation, reputedly more eager to explore new styles of wines than their parents and grandparents.

Thus, the El Dorado Winery Association is launching a new wine festival in hopes of exposing more millennials to the area’s diverse selection of wines.

It is being called the WINEderlust Renegade Wine Festival, scheduled Aug. 26 along the South Fork of the American River at Coloma. In addition to wine tasting and frolicking in the river, the gathering is to include a concert with the groups MerryGold, Late for Dinner and Achilles Wheel, food trucks, craft beers and art vendors.

The event is to be 2-9 p.m. at Henningsen Lotus Park along Lotus Road just to the west of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Though created with millennials in mind, the festival is open to all ages. Tickets are $28 for people 21 and older, $20 for youths 13-20; youngsters 12 and younger will be admitted free of charge. More information:

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at