Oakville Ranch Winery
Napa Valley AVA
Gold Medals and ratings in the 90s quickly had all eyes focused on Oakville Ranch.
It started out as a weekend getaway spot, then quietly turned into one of Napa’s shining stars. Bob and Mary Miner looked around for a couple of years before discovering, then buying the 334-acre Oakville Ranch in the Napa Valley. The fact that the property already had 60 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay vines was almost secondary to their purpose. “They primarily wanted to have a place to get away from the city, spend time relaxing, playing some tennis—that sort of thing,” explains nephew and Oakville Ranch President, Dave Miner.
The Oakville Ranch property got its start as a winery in the early 1900s. It ceased production during Prohibition, then was converted into an executive retreat in the 1950s. It remained as such until the Miners bought the property in 1989. As an executive retreat, there was very little focus on maintaining the vineyards and the entire crop was sold off each year without much regard.
Even though starting a winery was not on the front burner, the potential of the vineyards was not lost on Bob & Mary. Given the location, the varietals and the age of the vines, just maybe they could coax some decent wine out of the ground. The fruit from the Oakville vineyard was entirely allocated to other wineries that had long-term contracts with the previous owners. So in order to get started, Bob and Mary had to sell the grapes then buy them back!
Their let’s-see-what-happens approach led not just to “decent” wine but to spectacular wine. In what was generally regarded as a disappointing year in Napa, the 1989 Oakville Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the valley’s big success stories. Gold Medals and ratings in the 90s quickly had all eyes focused on Oakville Ranch.
Friends of the Miners, Randy and Debbie Lewis (now of Lewis Cellars), agreed to come in and help the promising new venture get off the ground. The buildings on the Ranch property were not appropriate for winemaking so for several years the wines were made at nearby Plam Vineyards. Over the next few years, part of the Chardonnay vines were grafted over to Merlot and Cabernet Franc. “It was initially done for blending those varietals into the Cabernet,” recalls Dave. “But it turns out that the Cabernet has never needed any blending—each bottling has been exceptional as 100% Cabernet.”
Indeed, the Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon has piled up accolade after accolade with each successive vintage. After a few years of making the wines at Plam, the Miners hired industry veteran, Joe Cafaro as their winemaking consultant. Even though overall output was just several thousand cases, production was shifted to two different locations. The Cabernet was made at the Honig Winery facilities and the Chardonnay at Sinsky Winery. In 1992 Oakville produced their first Merlot then the following year came out with a Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend they called “Robert’s Blend.”
Tragically, in 1994 Bob Miner was diagnosed with cancer. As a result, Bob’s nephew, Dave Miner, who was working for Oracle Corp. in Houston, was brought in to help manage the winery. When Bob passed away in 1995, Dave was up to speed and ready to carry the torch. “We shared a common vision for the winery and the style in which the wines are made,” says Dave. “Since my uncle’s death we haven’t strayed from those concepts.”
Mary Miner now owns Oakville Winery in its entirety. She and Dave have agreed to keep the winery small, producing 4,000 to 5,000 cases annually. There will always be a goal to improve quality no matter how good the wines are perceived to be. Cabernet and Chardonnay will remain as the winery’s flagship wines and will account for most of the production. Merlot and Robert’s Blend will remain in the line-up too. Over the last few years a line of small-production specialty wines has also been produced at Oakville Ranch, including the 1997 Sauvignon Blanc and 1997 Sangiovese featured this month. Other specialty varietals include Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and a Sangiovese Rosato (Rosé).
Several years ago, the Miner Family (including Dave’s father, Ed) collectively bought a beautiful winery facility just down the road from the Ranch. The 8,500 square foot building is home not only to Oakville Ranch, but also to a dozen other wineries that use the facility on a part time basis for anything from crush to bottling. It is also home to a new venture for Dave Miner and his wife, Emily—their own newly launched Miner wines.
Miner wines debuted this year with Cabernet, Chardonnay and Merlot at the forefront. While Oakville Ranch stays with the tried and true Estate wine concept, Miner wines will have the flexibility to do some blending, add varietals, and grow larger. “These are upper-tier quality wines that will for the most part be vineyard-designated,” says Dave. “We have complete control over the viticultural practices of the vineyards we’re buying from, so they are virtually our own,” he states. Production is at 8,000 cases now and is expected to increase to 25,000 within three to five years. Other than the big three varietals, also being introduced is Pinot Noir, Sangiovese (switching from the Oakville label), Zinfandel, and Viognier. Syrah has been planted also but will not debut for several years.
Meanwhile, winemaker Joe Cafaro has left to pursue his own line of wines and Gary Brookman has come in to replace him. Gary has accumulated over 15 years experience, mostly with Joseph Phelps Winery and then Franciscan Oakville Estate before joining the Miners. Besides managing the large winery facility, Gary is responsible for both the Oakville Ranch and Miner Family wines. He made quite a splash recently with two Miner Family Chardonnays and one Oakville Ranch Chardonnay, receiving scores of 94, 93 & 93 points respectively from the Wine Spectator. “The most significant changes in the wine industry have been in attitude, both with the consumer and the producers,” believes Gary. “Relentlessly, vintners have preached of the wonderfulness and enjoyment of wine and both Napa grape growers and winemakers have pursued techniques and ideas on how to grow great grapes and make world class wines. Finally wine drinkers have raised their glasses to applaud these efforts and signify that California and Napa Valley in particular is producing some of the finest today.”
The Miner Family
The word oracle is defined as ‘any person reputed as uncommonly wise, and whose opinions have great weight.” We’re not sure if Bob Miner literally fits this description as we did not have the fortune to meet him before his untimely death. As co-founder of software giant Oracle and founder of highly successful Oakville Winery in the Napa Valley, seemingly, the decisions he made during his lifetime do reflect extraordinary wisdom.
Bob Miner was the son of Iranian parents who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1920’s. After streaming through Ellis Island as so many did in that era, his parents settled in Cicero, Illinois, where they raised 2 sons and 2 daughters. Bob’s father became a cook in Chicago and enthusiastically shared his love of wine and food with the rest of the family. The two brothers Bob and Ed (Dave’s father) together recalled the family’s numerous gatherings. ‘They were always having big get-togethers, says Bob’s nephew Dave Miner. And having plenty of food and wine around was a big priority,” he adds.
Bob went to school at the University of Illinois where he studied Mathematics. During the Vietnam War he worked for the U.S. Department of Health where he began programming computers—that was back in the old punch card days. Parlaying his early computer knowledge, he hired on with Phillips Electronics, who moved him to Paris, France.
While attending a French language class in Paris, he met his wife Mary, who had just moved there from London. Mary is an English citizen who left London at the age of 17 and moved to Italy where she worked as an Au Pair for an family in the Piedmont region. At age 20, she moved to Paris where she eventually met Bob.
The two were married in Paris in 1969 then shortly after, moved to Maryland where Bob began working for IBM. A few years later he quit IBM to work for technology giant, Ampex Corporation in San Francisco.
It was at Ampex in the early 1970s where Bob Miner met up with Larry Ellison. A research paper on the concept of relational databases had just been published which piqued the two friend’s interest. Using this new concept as a basis, they theorized they could bring a usable product to market years quicker than behemoth IBM. They teamed up with two other ex-IBM’ers and founded Oracle. As you may be aware, Oracle is now the world’s second largest maker of software.
Bob had a high profile role at Oracle as head of Development and a member of the Board of Directors, until he was diagnosed with cancer. His death in 1995 left Mary as sole owner of Oakville Ranch Winery. Their 3 children were pursuing other directions and chose not to become involved in the wine business.
During Bob’s illness, his brother’s son, Dave Miner moved back to California to manage the winery. Interestingly, Dave was working for Oracle at the time based in Houston. Although profoundly saddened by his uncle’s illness, he welcomed the chance to return to California.
Dave, like his Dad and Uncle, was born in Cicero, Illinois. When he was 13 his family moved to Tustin, in southern California. As a teenager and into his 20s, he was an amateur 10-speed bike racer and excelled in tennis as a member of the Jr. USTA. He attended U.C. San Diego where he studied English and American Literature. His thought at that time was to prepare for a sales career in the hospital supply industry in which his father, Ed, was a key player. Instead he opted for a sales career with Oracle which he correctly surmised would have more upside potential.
Dave’s Oracle career spanned from 1989 through 1993 when he left to join six ex-Oracle co-workers who had started their own company called Patrol Software. In 1994 he answered the call to move back to California to run the winery.
Just last May he married his wife, Emily, whom he met at the winery. Emily hails from Minneapolis and moved to California in 1994. Oakville Ranch hired Emily away from Clos Pegase Winery in 1997. She is in charge of special events at the winery and coordinates the public relations. When we caught up with the Miners, the newlyweds were in the process of moving permanently from their San Francisco digs to Napa Valley.