As the saying goes, if you want to get something done, ask a busy person. Even post-holidays at Miner Family Winery, there’s plenty to do—especially when it comes to planning the winemaking and cellar schedules for the year ahead. Which makes Head Winemaker Michelle Shafrir one of those busy people.
Curious what was going on with her in mid-January, we caught up with Michelle on a sunny afternoon in the tasting room for some conversation about the current Miner wine lineup. She was happy to take a break from a checklist of cellar tasks to sample a few recent vintages and share some thoughts on them.
Seated beneath Dave Miner’s display of Benedetto guitars, she dove first into the Viognier, a white wine you’d likely be offered by one of Miner’s hospitality team upon arriving at the tasting room. Beginning in 2018, Miner has sourced the viognier fruit from the Steinbeck Vineyard in Paso Robles, of which, Michelle noted, “I’m a really big fan.”
Tasting the 2019 Viognier, it’s easy to see why.
The vine originated in France’s Condrieu appellation and is the only one grown in those legendary vineyards of the Rhône Valley. Meanwhile, in California it has found a select few favorable spots. Miner’s grapes come from one of them: Steinbeck Vineyard in the Geneseo District, a terraced landscape of mostly clay and calcareous soils about eleven miles east of Paso Robles. For Michelle, this inland section of the Central Coast is a great place to grow viognier.
Giving it a swirl and sip, she drew a comparison between Miner’s version and Condrieu. In that much cooler region of France, the winemaking favors barrel and malolactic fermentation to soften viognier’s edges before it goes into bottle.
“The Rhône climate is totally different from Paso,” she pointed out. “I feel like if we were to make it that way, it would result in a wine that was rounder and not quite as fresh tasting. We love the winemaking in Condrieu, but I feel that by fermenting in tank and not going through malolactic, it’s a better kind of ‘homage’ to what they do in the Rhône Valley.”
Striving to capture the varietal character from an individual vineyard is a big part of Michelle’s winemaking world. In that respect, her strategy with the Steinbeck Viognier isn’t too different from how she approaches site-specific grapes like chardonnay and pinot noir. While fruit from four vineyards went into the current 2021 Chardonnay, Napa Valley, each location—including the iconic Hyde Vineyard in Carneros—plays a part in terms of the individual characteristics it brings to the finished wine.
Brightness and freshness, Michelle explained, are her stylistic goals for this bottling, particularly compared to Miner’s single-vineyard and Wild Yeast Chardonnays. “Those wines are beautiful and delicious, but with the Chardonnay, Napa Valley, we’re going for a bit of a different style.”
Some tools she keeps in her belt to achieve this include partial tank fermentation, a targeted 50% malolactic fermentation, and less new oak during the aging process. She described it as a white wine that “has a brighter profile, more like fresh apple and lemon blossom, versus the creamier, toastier style of chardonnay.”
Moving onto the 2019 Pinot Noir, Garys’ Vineyard from the Santa Lucia Highlands, Michelle shared something she’d heard from another Gary—Miner’s longtime and now retired winemaker, Gary Brookman. “When he was here, I remember him once telling me that pinot noir is actually a white wine pretending to be red.”
She clarified that for winemakers up and down Napa Valley whose jobs revolve around cabernet sauvignon, extracting lots of dark color from the grapes’ skins is a vinification standard. But with pinot noir, there’s something closer to the transparency of a white wine. “The variety doesn’t have that type of makeup in the skins. That phenolic profile doesn’t exist for it. So if you start to pull out seed tannins or anything that might be bitter or astringent, it can’t be hidden.”
Michelle mentioned that the “two Garys” who co-own the vineyard—Pisoni and Franscioni—have a number of California winery clients for their grapes. “If you do a lineup of our wine versus some of these other wineries, I feel like sometimes our pinots might be a little bit lighter in color and extraction,” she said. “That’s kind of by design because we’re going for something that’s a little more elegant.”
Compared to many pinot noir-producing wineries, she added, color and extraction aren’t really her focus. And while they certainly are important components of the Miner Family Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux-style blends, that word “elegant” remains a key descriptor in Michelle’s winemaking vocabulary. Often for tasters, it’s the first word that comes to mind about Emily’s Cabernet Sauvignon.
This signature red wine is, as the winery’s literature eloquently reads, “our eponymous offering in remembrance of Emily Miner, co-founder of Miner Family Winery. It is as expressive and elegant as our muse.”
“She had a big part to play here,” Michelle said. “I wish I could have met her.”
The winemaker has her own big part to play in this Napa Valley Cabernet, a bottling debuted in the great 2013 vintage and produced since then from vineyards mostly situated on the valley floor. She observed that Emily’s is a stylistic counterpoint to the Miner Cabernets sourced from mountain vineyards—sites that, in her words, yield “some of the bigger, more tannic and heftier wines that we make.”
In contrast, she describes Emily’s Cabernet as more lush and fruit-forward, with softer tannin profiles. “It’s just a different wine. There’s going to be a good portion of merlot blended in to help with that softness, along with some percentage of cabernet franc,” she explained. “We want something that can be drunk younger and that’s more approachable.”
To conclude the tasting, Michelle poured herself a splash of The Oracle, Miner Family’s flagship red wine from the 2018 vintage and, according to her, “really the best of the best of what we make.” Like Emily’s, it’s a Bordeaux-style blend. Though instead of winemaking focused on valley floor sites and a significant percentage of Merlot, The Oracle is a cabernet sauvignon-based wine with a combination of power and concentration that reflects some different vineyard sources.
“We tend to gravitate toward the same vineyards each year, often toward the mountaintop sites, and there’s also going to be a component of some of our favorite vineyards from Oakville,” she noted.
Swirling her glass—and clearly enjoying the moment—she continued. “We’re looking for a wine that has a lot of structure, that’s going to be ageable, and that’s going to have a dark fruit character. I like to see a little bit of a mineral note in it. I know that for Dave, he really is a big cabernet franc fan, so he’s always pushing for more of that grape in the blend.”
Before heading back to her regular workday, Michelle shared a couple of last thoughts.
“Dave Miner is really passionate about wine, and he has strong opinions of what he likes and doesn’t like,” she said. “The wines we make are very much geared toward his taste and what his vision is.”
She credited Gary Brookman for teaching her a lot about winemaking and for setting up Miner Family’s winemaking program. “In many ways, I’m continuing forward with it. I’m not trying to totally turn things around or, you know, forge a new path. I just want to always be improving on what we’re already making.”
To her colleagues at the winery and, increasingly, to people who enjoy the Miner wines, it’s hard to think a winemaker as skilled and passionate as Michelle won’t eventually forge a path of her own.