The Vineyard Series, Number Two: Gibson Ranch & Miner Family Rosato + Sangiovese

The Vineyard Series, Number Two: Gibson Ranch & Miner Family Rosato + Sangiovese

In the summer of 1997—the early days at Miner Family Winery—Dave Miner signed a contract with a North Coast grape grower to purchase several tons of sangiovese grapes. The fruit was destined for what he envisioned becoming a unique bottling of Mendocino County wine.

Little could Dave or that grower, Bob Gibson, have guessed at the time that they’d still be working together in 2023 to turn out one of Miner Family’s signature wines: the Mendocino Rosato of Sangiovese. But twenty-six vintages later, neither of them has ever looked back.

In hindsight, the endurance of the winery’s program for the Rosato—along with the red version of sangiovese from Gibson Ranch, also produced since ’97—makes perfect sense. While Miner is an Oakville property with wines from different Napa Valley appellations, its reach has always extended to growers in other corners of California, from just across the Mayacamas Mountains in Sonoma County to the Central Coast and the Sierra Foothills.

Over the years, the wine grapes in production have become structured around three of the great French regions that influenced Dave and longtime winemaker Gary Brookman—and continue to inspire his successor, Michelle Shafrir: Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhône Valley. But, as Michelle likes to point out, the famous vine of Tuscany also fits neatly into the program.

“If you look at it from the history of what Miner has been doing in past years,” she told us recently, “I think at this point, with the way things here have migrated and the choices Dave has made about which wines he wants to make, he’s kind of narrowing down the ones he thinks are doing really well.”

Comparing Italian sangiovese to other, non-French varieties, she summed it up. “I mean, we’re making grenache,” she said. “But grenache in Spain is called garnacha, and our grenache is as different from a Rhône red as it is from a Rioja. And I know that we’ve done zinfandel in the past. We’ve done tempranillo. So, I think it’s not totally crazy that we’re making sangiovese.”

On this subject, Bob Gibson would certainly agree.

We found out how much in early May, when the career farmer hosted a visit on a cool day at his family’s 32-acre vineyard in Mendocino County’s Sanel Valley. The inland property, where he and his wife, Tiffany, raised four grownup children, sits just south of the town of Hopland. It’s been planted to wine grapes since the 1920s, though the Italian vine is a relative newcomer.

“I probably hadn’t thought much about it until someone actually asked me about growing sangiovese,” Bob said over a slight wind, which he noted kicks up most afternoons, whatever the temperature. He led the way around a couple of the vine blocks that supply Miner with grapes, closely tracked by the curious vineyard cat, Oliver, while he discussed his history with the variety. “A light bulb went off. It was like, ‘Well, why not? That seems like it would be a natural fit.’”

Then he shook his head and echoed Michelle. “I don’t think I ever thought about planting sangiovese as being a crazy idea. The only thing I was concerned about was the soil here being too heavy for it.”

Bob’s understanding of the vineyard, like any experienced grape grower’s, is intimate, both above and below the surface. What sets him apart is the generational aspect of his relationship to it. “I know how I got started,” he said. “Really, it was because of my ancestry.”

He added that, as a fourth generation Italian-American, he grew up with sangiovese—on the table, he meant, as opposed to in the vineyard. It wasn’t surprising to hear.

The ranch’s first owner in Bob’s family was his Italian great-grandfather, Achille Rossetti, an immigrant from Genoa who planted rows of prunes in 1908. It passed to his grandmother, Mary, born in Willits, California and wed to Vincenzo Milone, a southern Italian from Brindisi. It was Vincenzo who installed the first grapevines a century ago. Bob’s mother, Della, was later born on the ranch. She married a Mendocino native named Robert Gibson and farmed the grapes with him before their son.

“The place was originally called Red Gables Ranch, because of the red gables on the old house, which I kept in the new design of my current home,” Bob informed us in an email. “Grandpa would cultivate the vines and prunes using a horse and plow, and at harvest he used a horse and sled to drag the wooden lug boxes out of the field.”

“I grew up on the ranch my entire life, other than going away to school, and I’ve been basically running the vineyard completely ever since 1986 when my father passed away.”

Bob was just in his early 20s at that point. The family property he got a crash course in managing was comprised mainly of chardonnay, carignane, and petite sirah: vines still closely associated with Mendocino County today. Sangiovese came along several years later when he grafted over to it from a block of chenin blanc, another variety planted on Gibson Ranch.

“This was quite a while ago, back in the early 90s,” he recalled. He was working at the time with Anderson Valley vintner-clients whose winemaker was the first to make Gibson sangiovese, “and then that’s what led to Miner: once the couple sold to a Napa Valley winery, that’s how I got started with Dave back in ’97.”

The fact that he has more than a quarter-century-long relationship with the same winery must prove that Bob isn’t “crazy” for growing sangiovese. But, he noted, “I’m still pretty unique in that respect. I’m probably one of three Mendocino sangiovese growers that I know of.”

Stopping near the block of sangiovese grosso, a clone of the variety that Michelle uses for the Rosato, he started to relate a story about his Brindisi-born grandfather, who emigrated at 26 and was, like Bob, working the vines as a young man. Then he paused. “Look how late we are in this year,” he half-exclaimed, raising his hand to chest height. “Typically right now, I mean, I’d have this much shoot growth. I’d have about 16 inches, or more.

“I think it’s the rain and the cold weather combined, “he continued. “You know, we had snow here earlier this year. There were five inches of snow here on the ground. We have pictures of that. It’s late everywhere.” His observations were reminders that he’s as attuned to the vineyard’s natural inputs as he is to his personal history. They seem in fact to be intertwined, especially when it comes to sangiovese, the heritage grape he’s learned how to grow despite varying weather conditions in Sanel Valley.

“We’ve been getting sangiovese since the beginning of time from Bob,” Michelle said during our conversation, informing us that he also replanted small sections of the vineyard with counoise and cinsault for Miner a few years ago. These two important, but less well-known, red varieties from France’s southern Rhône Valley figure into Miner’s grenache-heavy red blend, The Odyssey. “2021 was the first vintage that we got the grapes from him,” she explained.

Michelle pointed out that Gibson Ranch’s location in Hopland is about 500 hundred feet above sea level, a higher elevation than Napa Valley’s and with less of a coastal influence on the vines.

“It’s pretty hot, which is actually really great for sangiovese and also for counoise and cinsault being from the Rhône valley, where it gets very warm. So I think it’s a really great place for these grapes. And being in Mendocino County, the nights there can be pretty cold, so you do get that retention of acidity, which is so key for sangiovese.”

Later in the afternoon, moving to Bob and Tiffany’s house a stone’s throw from the vineyard, we were offered glasses of a sangiovese rosé made from Gibson ranch grapes by another winery. The paler and drier wine was a counterpoint to Michelle’s deeply hued and juicier version.

From behind their well-stocked wine bar, Tiffany shared that Bob’s and her youngest child, Juliana, is still living at home and helps out in the vineyard. She’s currently taking photographs and doing geotagging as part of a healthy soils grant Bob was recently awarded by California’s Department of Food and Agriculture.

“It’s not easy to keep the next generation excited about farming these days,” she confessed. “So, it’s wonderful we can do something that’s interesting to them, as well. They can see based upon their environmental sensibilities that there’s something happening they can feel strongly about.”

With Juliana and her three siblings having grown up at Gibson Ranch like their father and grandmother did before them, involved hands-on in its viticulture, it could bode well for the fifth generation at this special location in Mendocino County.

“I hope to continue and keep a long relationship with Miner,” Bob said with genuine feeling. In the meantime, he reminded himself, “I need to call down there to the winery and get more wine shipped up. We go through rosé quickly!”

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