The following post is the first in what will be the Vineyard Series, a collection of stories about viticultural sites—and the people behind them—in Napa Valley and around the state. From such vineyards, Michelle Shafrir and her winemaking team access some of California’s highest quality grapes to produce the Miner Family wines.
It isn’t just any viticultural site on Napa Valley’s map. Bonny’s Vineyard is one of the jewels in the crown of Oakville.
A 50-year-old property north of Oakville Cross Road and visible from the front balcony at Miner Family Winery, Bonny’s narrow strip of land runs parallel to Conn Creek. A tall, adjacent tree line serves as its landmark in an otherwise blended vista of vineyard blocks.
While less well-known than some other nearby plantings, the attention grabbed in February by an auction lot of Miner Family’s 2021 Bonny’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon reflected bidders’ awareness at Premiere Napa Valley that they were witnessing the “rebirth” of a legendary site. Planted in 1974 on a three-acre patch of clover by the celebrated vintner Justin Meyer and named for his wife, it has produced uniquely flavorful and age-worthy cabernet sauvignon for four decades. The acreage has been increased over the years, pacing the growth of Bonny’s reputation—always a low-key but noteworthy development.
During the past few harvests, Bonny’s Vineyard grapes have made their way to the crush pad at Miner. The fruit is incorporated by Winemaker Michelle Shafrir and her team into the winery’s Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon and its flagship bottling, The Oracle.
Since the 2003 vintage, Bonny and Justin’s son, Matt Meyer, has turned out a single-vineyard Bonny’s Cabernet as his own flagship wine at Meyer Cellars in Mendocino County. In fact, nearly all of the fruit goes to Matt’s winemaking; as vintner-customers for the grapes, Dave Miner and Michelle are in rare company.
“It’s a very important vineyard to us, and I know that it’s going to be a big component in the 2021 Oakville Cabernet,” Michelle told us recently. She’d just completed some blending sessions with Dave and Assistant Winemaker Rebecca Brookman. “We’re also right in the middle of tasting through a number of different possibilities for the ’21 Oracle. But it’s already been decided that Bonny’s Vineyard is going to make a good percentage of the base cabernet portion of that blend, which I think is exciting.”
“We really love the lushness and the complexity that it brings to the wine,” she added.
Those complex characteristics—ranging from what Rebecca describes as blackcurrants and “dusty” notes of red fruit to espresso and graphite—are key contributors to the multi-layered flavors and aromas that the winemakers and their cellar crew work to achieve with The Oracle. Michelle explained that sites like Stagecoach and Castlerock Vineyards, which are sources of mountain fruit, offer plenty of structure and tannin to the blend. From Bonny’s grapes, she looks for some balancing softness—“a little bit of velvetiness brought to the center of the palate,” as she described it.
Then, circling back to the recent auction, Michelle considered the vines and their location in one of the vineyard’s prime sections, Block Four. Miner gets fruit from these cabernet rows, which sit just a stone’s throw from a currently rain-inundated Conn Creek.
“It’s only one block, but it can really shine by itself,” she said. “Bonny’s is such an amazing site. It’s especially the case in the ’21, the vintage we were using for the Premiere auction lot. There’s just a completeness to the wine. I think having it as a component vineyard adds a lot to our program.”
A couple of days later, leading a walk through Bonny’s Vineyard during one of the few dry spells in February, Matt Meyer shared that, to him, the relationship to Miner Family is symbiotic.
“Michelle and the winery folks basically tell me, ‘Whatever you’re doing in the vineyard, keep doing it,’” he said, adding that “the way they want the grapes to be grown is much more similar to the way we want to grow them. It’s probably one of the reasons they’re so easy to work with as customers.”
Matt covered a variety of topics on that cool, clear morning: Napa Valley’s weather was an obvious one, but also the gravelly soil that he and his vines are so fond of, along with snow in the Sierras and beavers in Oakville. They were all interrelated.
He made his way across the damp, pebbly ground to Block Four, which he readily calls “the Miner block.” A crew of vineyard workers were busy pruning vines several rows over.
Pointing out the heavy mix of gravel in the surrounding soil, he noted its proximity to the north-south creek. “The reason we wanted the acreage right next to the creek is because that’s where all the gravel is. And you can see it standing right here: there’s physically a drop of about three feet in elevation as you go into the blocks that are near the creek. It’s just thinner soils over there.”
Those thin, cabernet-friendly soils are what comprise virtually all of Block Four—the Miner Block—which, in Matt’s opinion, is one of the sweet spots in Bonny’s Vineyard.
About the weather conditions, he was quite upbeat. “As long as stuff stays wet, I think rain really is our friend,” he said. “After three years of drought, some of these vines were struggling even when we were watering them. You just can’t overcome Mother Nature like that. You can’t water enough to beat a drought.”
Over this past winter, California’s drought has receded from people’s minds. With Napa Valley’s rainy weather of recent months very much on his, Matt switched gears to Lake Tahoe. He was recently told by a Tahoe local that “they really want early snowfall because it gets crushed by later snowfalls, which turns into ice, and then the Sierra snowpack lasts much longer”—the result being a boon to that region’s, and Northern California’s, water supply.
He made a comparison to the North Coast wine country and reckoned that, even with all of the current season’s rainfall, a warm, dry February and March would be detrimental to vineyards later in the growing season. So far this year, however, Mother Nature appears to be in a cooperative mood: the rain has been plentiful, and he predicted the vines would benefit.
Then he pointed to a nearby clump of trees, some of which were horizontal or angling wildly across Conn Creek, suggesting some dam-building had been taking place. Matt understood that the flora wasn’t alone in benefitting from the rain.
“The creek finally has water in it,” he observed with a smile. “I’m sure it’ll make the beavers happy.”
Of course, you can’t see these busy critters from Miner’s balcony. But the view lets you look out across almost all of Oakville and get a sense of what a special place it is—Bonny’s Vineyard and Block Four included.
Back at her winery office, Michelle came up with her own comparison—a literary one. “There’s a dark core to Bonny’s fruit that I really like. It has sort of a ‘dark heart,’ though not in a Joseph Conrad sort of way,” she laughed. “But there’s a density to it, there’s a richness at the center. And to have that, and being able to work with Bonny’s fruit, I feel it’s a great wine to show off what Oakville can do.”