There are a few names in Napa that are synonymous with really high quality wine. Many of them, however, are elusive and rare — a few thousand bottles that sell for hundreds of dollars to mailing list customers only. There are a few, however, that make up a second tier of “luxury wines” that are much easier to get your hands on if you care to pay for them, but which must still be considered among the finest of Napa’s wines.
I’ve never made a list (and never plan to — I hate those sorts of lists) of the best Napa wines that mere mortals can get their hands on, but if I were going to Shafer Vineyards would be near the top of it. In a remarkable feat, this winery makes enough wine for a wide distribution (35,000 cases) while still ensuring a fantastic level of quality. That number of cases is a drop in the bucket for some of Bordeaux’s biggest producers, but in the world of luxury Napa wines ($50 and up) that’s a pretty huge production level. Yet despite the volume, Shafer (like a select few other wineries in the Valley) manages to make great juice every year, sometimes seemingly even in defiance of tough harvest conditions.
Shafer is, of course, known for their red wine, and in particular for their Hillside Select Cabernet, which in my opinion is one of the most consistently excellent Cabernets made in the valley. Since its founding in 1972 the winery has been a family run operation, and now the Shafer family is undeniably counted as one of the local dynasties who will likely be making wine for many generations to come.
in 1972 John Shafer left a career in the publishing industry and purchased land in what twelve years later would come to be known officially as the Stag’s Leap District. In the process of transforming the property into a viable, working winery, he began pursuit of what would become a full second career — first as a viticulturalist and then as a winemaker. Shafer, along with his son Doug (who know runs most of the day-to-day operations of the business) and the family dog, Tucker, personally and painstakingly revitalized the estate to its current 200-acre size. In the thirty years this work required, Shafer also built a reputation as one of Napa’s best producers of red wine.
I’ve watched, and tasted, Shafer wines for as long as I’ve been able to afford good quality Napa wines, and I’ve always been impressed with the consistency and quality of the wines under the hand of winemaker Elias Fernandez, who has been with the winery since 1984.
Fernandez is a remarkably talented winemaker with an equally remarkable personal story, having started work with his parents in the orchards and vineyards of the Napa Valley over thirty years ago. His father was a first generation migrant worker from Michoacan, Mexico, and his mother was born in Napa, to a family with similar roots. Some of his earliest jobs involved picking and pruning in the valley while attending school in the Valley.
A short period of time studying music at college in Nevada was enough to convince Fernandez that he missed both the beauty of Napa valley as well as the agricultural life. He transferred to U.C. Davis, and began studying oenology, despite indications in the early 1980’s that there wasn’t much future in a career as a winemaker. With summer internships spent working on bottling lines, in the vineyards, and in the cellars of various Napa wineries, Fernandez learned enough and showed enough promise to be hired at Shafer as assistant winemaker right after graduation. The rest, as they say, is history. In the last 10 years, Fernandez has proven consistently his ability to make fantastic wines even in years with less than optimal conditions.
In keeping tabs on Shafer’s wines over the years, I’ve also been thrilled to see the winery’s commitment to innovation and environmental responsibility. Last year the winery dropped completely off the grid, becoming one of California’s first completely solar-powered wineries. They’ve practiced sustainable (though not organic) farming for years, including the use of raptor houses in their vineyards to combat rodent pests. The winery also always seem to be experimenting with new technologies, the latest of which is apparently a NASA commissioned technology which uses UV light and some other classified technology to eliminate up to 99% of airborne nasties — bacteria, mold, and yeasts — which can cause problems at various stages of the winemaking process.
Shafer produces Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, and and Chardonnay. The estate also used to make a Sangiovese, which recently saw its last year of production — one of the few experiments by Fernandez that didn’t seem to prove out suspicions of a Midas Touch when it came to everything wine.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as a press samples.
2004 Shafer Vineyards “Red Shoulder Ranch” Chardonnay, Carneros
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of bright pineapple aromas with hints of golden delicious apples and a light floral quality. In the mouth it is crisp, with lively acidity that brings a freshness to the flavors of lemon zest and grapefruit that are the core of this tasty, but not overly complex wine. There is a little bit of heat (the wine weighs in at 14.9% alcohol) on the nice finish, which would likely be minimized by thorough chilling. As usual, I tasted it at room temperature. Score: 8.5/9. Cost: $35 Where to buy?
2003 Shafer Vineyards “Relentless” Syrah, Napa
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a lovely dark nose of blackberry aromas shot through with scents of wet earth and stones. In the mouth it is smooth and tight, with nice acidity and flavors of blueberry, minerals, and a brooding moody complexity that seems like it wants to express something further. The wood tannins in the wine are very well integrated into the wine and disappear in a finish that has a pleasant, if indeterminate aroma. After the second sip, while it’s delicious, it’s also clear that this wine is too young at this point, and needs another five years before it can say everything it wants to. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $60 Where to buy?
2004 Shafer Vineyards Merlot, Napa
Medium purple in the glass, this wine has a sumptuous nose of plum and vanilla aromas. In the mouth it is silky and round, with a delicious combination of chocolate, blackberry and juicy plum flavors. Barely perceptible tannins support the wine and give it a depth that lingers through a substantial finish. A classical expression of Napa Merlot, and a good reminder for anyone who has turned their nose up at the varietal recently just how stupid that is. Score: 9/9.5. Cost: $40 Where to buy?
2002 Shafer Vineyards “Hillside Select” Cabernet, Napa
Dark garnet in the glass this wine has a powerful nose of cherry, vanilla and dark espresso and tobacco notes. In the mouth it is rich and full, a booming baritone of a wine with great acids and silky tannins supporting a pure ripe cherry and tobacco essence, a touch of earthiness, and a gorgeous sustained finish. Obviously still young, like the Syrah, but lacking any of its tightness, making it a joy to drink now but a great promise for the future as well. A great Cabernet. Score: 9.5. Cost: $190 on release, often twice that at retail. Where to buy?
Real fans (and lucky patrons) of the winery also know that Shafer produces a second Cabernet called Sunspot, which is a single vineyard designate from the vineyard that makes up the majority of the Hillside Select blend. This wine is often bottled and sold only at auction, though some small quantities are available, no doubt, to the winery’s best customers. In my barrel tastings of this wine at past auctions I rated the 2003 a 9 out of 10 and the 2004 at somewhere between 9 and 9.5. I haven’t had the opportunity to try the 2002.