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2006 Shafer Vineyards “Hillside Select” Cabernet Sauvignon, Stag’s Leap District, Napa

Napa Cabernet is getting a pretty bad rap these days from ordinary wine consumers, and from the economy as a whole. In some ways it has fallen from a pinnacle that may never be reached again — a place where people really didn’t blink an eye about paying $200 for a bottle of California wine.

While sales are down a little, they are picking up, and even in the darkest hours of the global financial meltdown, top Napa wines continued to sell, even if just barely.

At this point while there are probably less people willing to shell out more than a hundred dollars for a bottle of red from Napa, there seems to be a little light at the end of the tunnel.

And all economic factors aside, Napa continues to make some tremendous wines, as this particular bottle demonstrates.

Doug Shafer and his father John Shafer have been working together for more than twenty years. Shafer Vineyards represents the beginning of a wine dynasty, but quite unusually, not one where the younger generation has had to wait until the older generation steps aside.

When the young Doug joined the operation as winemaker, the winery had only been in operation for a couple of years, and so instead of learning at the knee of his father, the two have built the winery together as “one and a half” generations, instead of two.

What they have built, of course, is one of those rare wineries whose wines are highly sought after while still remaining relatively easy to come by provided one has the financial means. Shafer Vineyards is one of the best examples of a luxury wine that is in the reach of mere mortals. 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, often even in defiance of tough harvest conditions.

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.

Speaking of history, for decades Shafer Vineyards has been known, even defined, by a single bottling of Cabernet Sauvignon known as Hillside Select. The wine is culled from the winery’s steepest hillside vineyard blocks on their Stags Leap District estate, including the precipitous vineyard carved out of the rocky hillside whose expense and exposure earned it the name of John’s Folly when it was being excavated. Tucked up underneath the rocky palisades that dominate the eastern edge of the Napa Valley at this point, these vineyards make small berries and small clusters of fruit that are given the royal treatment as they make their way through the winery towards finished wine.

Hillside fruit is vinified and aged separately from the rest of the winery’s harvest, with special extended maceration and pumpovers, and specially selected barrels. The wine ages for 32 months in oak before being bottled, and then another year in the bottle before release. Roughly 2400 cases are made each year.

The 2006 vintage was wonderfully mild, even cool for some, which meant that the grapes lingered for a long time on the vines without building up too much sugar. The wine has a wonderful balance as a result, and very good acidity which means this will be a vintage that will last for some time.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of deep, rich, black cherry, tobacco, and chocolate. In the mouth it is difficult not to swallow, with rich, juicy black cherry, cola, and dark, black plum fruit flavors that play against a background of very fine grained, smooth tannins. Oak is present, but wonderfully integrated into the wine, merging with the earthy notes that emerge on the very long finish. Powerful, but not at any moment heavy in the mouth. Outstanding. 14.9% alcohol.

Food Pairing:
Kobe beef burger anyone? This wine would love charred fatty meat of any kind.

Overall Score: around 9.5

How Much?: $215

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.

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