In a family wine business, one of the most crucial moments in the history of the enterprise will always be when the parent decides to hand over control of the family’s winery to the next generation. This is a time honored tradition, and one that has marked wine dynasties old and new.
In Napa’s short modern history (following the end of Prohibition) only a few families have achieved or are even trying to create the kind of family legacy that has ensured the continuing success of many old world wineries.
Doug Shafer and his father John Shafer have been working together for just over twenty five years. Shafer Vineyards certainly represents the beginning of Napa’s version of a wine dynasty, but quite unusually, it is 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.
I recently had the opportunity to taste the very first bottling of Hillside Select, and hope to eventually fill in the gaps of those historical years that I have not yet tasted. But I’ve been tasting this wine consistently for the past five or six years at least, with pleasure.
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 2007 vintage was, by all accounts, a stellar vintage, if somewhat on the dry side. No real extreme weather events factored into the year, and the lack of moisture going into the summer simply meant smaller berries and lower yields for most growers, Shafer included.
Despite this being a stellar year, I felt this wine to be a bit out of joint. I may have encountered it at an odd place in its evolution, I may have gotten a slightly off bottle, or, of course, I may just not love this effort as much as I have previous years. I certainly wish I had a few bottles to watch over time and tast again in a few years.
Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, cassis, and graphite. In the mouth black cherry, leather, and wet dirt mix with a cool stoniness and some surprisingly high-toned notes of tobacco and cassis that aren’t fully integrated with the body of the wine. Very fine grained tannins are quite restrained. Excellent balance apart from the twanginess of some of those flavors. Powerful and long. 15.5% alcohol.
Kobe beef burger anyone? This wine would love charred fatty meat of any kind.
Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5
How Much?: $225 on release
This wine is available for purchase on the internet.
Note that the 2008 vintage has recently been released.