Of Myth and Memory: Dave Miner on The Oracle Red Wine

Of Myth and Memory: Dave Miner on The Oracle Red Wine

When it comes to Miner Family’s flagship wine, The Oracle, Dave Miner is something of a walking almanac. 

Whether discussing growing and harvest conditions spread out over a decade’s worth of vintages or delving into a specific year in the life of this signature cabernet blend, Dave displays an impressive knack for recall. It’s no surprise, considering how closely The Oracle is tied to the identity of his winery.

On that subject, we asked him recently to name a couple of vintages that stick out in his memory going back to The Oracle’s debut vintage of 2001, just a few years after the winery’s founding. 

 “2001 is a vintage that I love because it’s super Bordeaux-like,” he said. “There’s not a lot of it left to try, but I had it not too long ago, and it’s still singing. It’s very old-world in style”—in part because of the two decades the wine has spent in bottle, and because a Bordeaux blend based on cabernet sauvignon, but not dominated by it, was his stylistic goal for The Oracle from the beginning.

“2005 was also a really strong vintage because it wasn’t super-hot, and there weren’t a lot of big, heat spikes. It was a long, even growing season. So for me, the 2005’s were really classic wines. They had beautiful fruit, with acids in balance and no rough edges—just really beautiful structure.”

Back-to-back, 2012 and 2013 also stirred some great memories for him. 

“I think they’re both fantastic vintages,” Dave said. “2012 was maybe a little rounder than the ’13. But in both of those years, there were huge crop sizes and great quality. We seemed to have a string of those vintages right around then, though sometimes things got a little more extreme.”

With his characteristic frankness, he recapped some of the battles he and his winemaking team have had over the years with Mother Nature—namely the rainy harvest season of 2011, along with Napa Valley’s dramatic, fire-challenged vintage of 2017. He was, however, upbeat about the wines that came out of those harvests, the 2017 in particular. “It was an unusual vintage because of the fires,” he remembered, “and it ended up being predominantly cabernet, about 80%, which was also an unusual blend for The Oracle.”

He explained that, in most vintages, the wine is typically between 50 and 60% cabernet sauvignon, balanced with merlot, cabernet franc, and small amounts of petit verdot and malbec—a classic, Bordeaux-inspired blend. Despite that varietal adjustment in 2017, “it was a very good vintage, and it’s a current release from the winery that I really like.” 

The great French wine region of Bordeaux has long influenced both Dave’s palate and his winemaking aspirations. 

Back in the late 80s, while working in the software industry, he started to dabble in wine collecting. His late uncle, Bob Miner, introduced him to what he called some “really profound” Bordeaux wines that are all blends. “I got to drink stuff like ’61 Figeac from Saint-Émilion, which I recall so distinctly as being one of those ‘ah-ha!’ moments. It was at a French place in San Francisco called Le Piano Zinc. I don’t know if they’re even still around. Probably not!”

That popular French bistro may be long gone, but Dave’s memories of those days in the 80s and 90s—and how cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc fit into them—have endured. 

“I got to drink Cheval Blanc with Bob a couple times,” he said, remembering how his uncle shared with him one of France’s greatest cabernet franc-based wines. “It was like one of those ‘religious’ experiences a wine drinker can have, you know? Cab franc was such a powerful, beautiful, elegant wine to my mind. It later became a big focus for me at Miner.”

The winery takes its name, of course, from Dave and Emily and the family winery project they started together in the mid-90s. But before this Oakville property acquired its current identity, Dave’s uncle owned and operated it as his and his wife Mary’s winery, Oakville Ranch, along with their large estate vineyard of the same name in the hills just southeast. 

When Dave left his position at Oracle Software in 1993, which Bob co-founded back in the late 70s, he moved to Napa to assume the role of President of Oakville Ranch for his uncle. With access to grapes from Oakville Ranch, he and Emily soon started to produce their first Miner Family-branded wines at the winery they would eventually take over after Bob’s untimely passing in 1994. 

All of this shared history, Dave explained, served as a foundation for The Oracle. 

“In the beginning they were pretty tied together, Miner and Oakville Ranch,” he recounted. “So the idea for The Oracle was already in my head long before we started to make the wine. Cabernets were the first things that we produced, but we didn’t really get enough fruit from Bob and Mary to make varietal Miner wines and a Bordeaux blend.” 

“When we started buying grapes from Jan at Stagecoach Vineyard, within the first couple of years my goal was to do a Bordeaux blend.”

The grapes for that 2001 bottling of The Oracle came entirely from Jan Krupp’s legendary estate high above Napa Valley near Atlas Peak—a rugged, mountain vineyard that Dave put in the same quality category as Oakville Ranch, and one that increased the amount of fruit he could purchase. From 2001  through the 2015 harvest, Stagecoach was the source of all the Bordeaux varieties that Dave and longtime Miner winemaker Gary Brookman put into bottle under The Oracle label. 

Starting in 2016, they began to look to other sources of grapes, while still relying on Stagecoach fruit. It’s a program that Dave and Michelle continue to this day. They also team up every year to finalize The Oracle blends through extensive tasting trials.

But what about the name? 

“In coming up with a brand and name for the wine, I would say it’s primarily a Greek mythology-inspired thing,” Dave told us. “And the reason that I say that is because Bob named the company ‘Oracle’ for the very same reason, because and he was a big fan of Greek mythology and Greek literature.”

It was an interest shared by uncle and nephew. As an English major in college, Dave studied and read Homer and other classic Greek literature (Miner Family customers and fans know that the winery’s white and red Rhône blends are called, respectively, The Iliad and The Odyssey). In Bob Miner’s case, having conceived in the 70s of a software language that could translate data into understandable information for its customers, he connected his work to the ancient Greek concept of an oracle: a person or entity that could offer people insights and even prophecies.

“So with the software, the data’s a mystery until they translate it into normal language,” Dave explained. “And for me, making The Oracle and blending wines is completely parallel to that: you’re taking all these lots of wine and these varietals, and you start putting them together, and then suddenly you discover what they’re supposed to be. That was a very powerful image to me, and it felt so right about how we do blends.”

One wine enthusiast who has gotten The Oracle’s message over the years is Dave Thompson. In 2006, the Santa Rosa-based wine writer launched The Napa Wine Project, an exhaustively researched website designed to profile hundreds of Napa Valley wineries. Under his detailed Miner Family entry, he highlights much of the same backstory around The Oracle that Dave related. 

“The Oracle is lovely in its youth, but it obviously has the ability to age,” Thompson told us over the phone recently after tasting two vintages, the 2013 from library and just-released 2019. 

He went into more detail, noting The Oracle program is “not one of these overly showy, opulent wines straight out of the gate, which some flagship wines can be. These two vintages I had recently, and others, they’re structured wines but not overly so. I think The Oracle is a very well-made wine for the price point. It’s probably a little undervalued for a flagship wine from a well-established winery.”

The hospitality team at Miner has recently begun pouring the 2019 vintage in the current release tasting line up. Like the celebrated 2012 and 2013, Dave is excited for its aging potential. He certainly has a track record to fall back on. 

“As I mentioned, I’ve had the ’01 Oracle recently, a wine that’s 22 years old. And that wine to me is almost perfect right now,” he said. “Every vintage is slightly different depending on a bunch of variables, but I feel they always have a sense of balance. And even in a warmer or riper vintage, the great thing about The Oracle is that we get to mix all of these different lots and varietals together. In the big picture, it brings a better balance to the whole program.”

From the get-go in 2001, and the preceding years when he and Emily were building Miner Family into the brand it is today, Dave wanted the wines “to be more elegant, more balanced, and have more layers of flavor.” 

“For me, I wanted it to be more of an old-world style wine,” he shared, “but with more power from California. Naturally, it’s just going to be that way.”

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