Bob Miner bought 350 acres of land with rich, red volcanic soil in the hills above Silverado Trail in the late 1980s on a whim. Some say it was his best business decision.
If Miner were alive today, he might argue that the decision he and Larry Ellison made to launch a startup called Oracle in a garage on San Francisco’s Baker Street made a lot more business sense.
Nevertheless, no one would dispute the fact that the founding of Oracle — a renowned business software and hardware systems company — allowed Miner to branch out into the wine business.
Today, the property supports a thriving wine company called Oakville Ranch. Its general manager, a well-known industry veteran named Paula Kornell, would tell you the operation had a tenuous start.
First, it had to rebuild from a prior property owner’s efforts to turn a well-constructed ranch house into a bed-and-breakfast operation. “The county shut it down,” Kornell says of the property’s earlier business venture.
On this sloping plateau east of Oakville — that rises some 1,400 feet above the Silverado Trail — Miner planted 55 acres of grapes. He also convinced race car driver Randy Lewis (who was sponsored by Oracle) to come to work as winemaker. While there was an old ghost winery on the property, as well as vestiges of vines planted long ago, Miner and Lewis had to put the winegrowing effort together from scratch. It wasn’t long before the Oakville Ranch operation produced a wine brand.
With any business, change is inevitable. Encouraged by Miner, Lewis left to start his own wine brand. But the team suffered a devastating setback when Miner was diagnosed with rare lung cancer and succumbed 18 months later. His nephew, Dave, ran operations for a time, but a decade ago decided he wanted to launch Miner Family Vineyard just down the road.
Oakville Ranch owner Mary Miner has brought together a strong team to produce wines that reflect the distinct terroir of the site. In addition to Kornell, the two dozen-member viticultural crew is headed up by Phil Coturri, a lifelong farmer who earned a reputation of Sonoma Valley’s leading organic viticulturist. His motto at Oakville Ranch is “sustainable biodiversity.”
Vineyard management practices are meticulous at Oakville Ranch, thanks to Coturri and crew. Some 65 acres of vines are rigorously pruned to maximize sun exposure. Only a few bunches are allowed to grow on each vine, and yields are closely controlled. Coturri’s made a big difference in the vineyard since he came on board in 2007, Kornell said.
Coturri doesn’t cut corners. His ranch development effort included substantial rock removal from vineyard sites. “I don’t think Mary liked the first bill for rock removal — it was $250,000,” Coturri admits. He’s also put in a pair of irrigation systems and replanted several sites.
Newest member of the team is Anne Vawter, Oakville Ranch winemaker. A native of Washington, Vawter is a UC Davis enology grad who subsequently worked harvests from her home state to a 600,000 case winery in Chile. She assisted Paradigm winemaker Heidi Barrett for four years and signed on at Oakville Ranch last year.
Vawter feels she has “a fairly traditional winemaking style ... kind of a ’70s style ... (focused on) not messing up what Phil has done in the vineyard.” She’s big on “balanced ripeness” in the wine which is made with “old Napa Valley yeast. Otherwise, it’s all about texture. Once I feel the tannins coming on, I press the fruit.”
Blending is also on her mind, Vawter said. “I rarely go over 5 percent (of another grape variety) when I am blending a particular varietal,” she said.
Vawter said ranch temperatures contribute to the consistent quality of Oakville Ranch wines — with daytime readings between 85 and 95 degrees on average, and nighttime temperatures dropping somewhere between 55 and 60 degrees. “That promotes ripeness,” she adds.
Even with the current relatively cool summer, both Vawter and Coturri predict the 2011 harvest will be a little earlier than last year.
A recent tasting of current releases revealed:
Oakville Ranch 2009 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($45): A lovely mouthfeel and lemony nose are the hallmarks of this absolutely incredible chardonnay. Fruit comes from the property’s Deep V tract, a sloping hillside and hollow studded with vines that produce a wine that’s proven a favorite with chefs from far and wide, says Kornell. It has amazing acid and a palate that brings to mind freshly sliced white peaches and the best poached pears. It’s simply well-balanced and delicious — and worth every cent. Total production is 178 cases.
Oakville Ranch 2007 Napa Valley Robert’s Blend ($90): Considering this piece of land has turned out to be ideal for growing cabernet franc, you’d expect a blend of 90 percent cabernet franc and 10 percent cabernet sauvignon to be a serious wine. Well, the fruit jumps right out of the glass here — Damson plums, black cherries, juicy blueberries. Although it has a delicate finish, it’s a wine that’s full and rich, and a terrific tribute to Bob Miner. Production: 264 six packs.
Oakville Ranch 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($68): A concentrated cab blended with 3 percent petit verdot and 1 percent cab franc, it’s a ripe, lush red with both cassis and spice competing smartly on mid-palate — the cassis winning on the long-lasting finish. A bargain for such an extraordinary cab. Production: 350 cases.
Oakville Ranch 2009 Napa Valley Field Blend ($45): This fruit-driven classic pays tribute to the growers of yesteryear who often made wine from a mix of varieties growing in their vineyards. This one is 86 percent old vine zinfandel and 14 percent petite sirah fermented together to produce a full-bodied red that’s supple on the palate. There’s spice and bright acid from the zinfandel and fleshiness from the petite sirah. Last year’s Field Blend earned a 95 score from Robert Parker. This one is also a prize winner. Only 100 cases were produced.