binNotes | a food, wine & travel blog
by L.M. Archer, FWS | Bourgogne ML
Wine making pivots on people plush with passion.
Passion that may not make much sense to others.
In 1973, Chicago publisher John Shafer uprooted his family and a successful career to grow grapes in northern Napa Valley. 1973 proved quite a year, not just for John Shafer and his family, but for the ‘valley within a valley’ he chose to plant his vines, a region he would later help designate as Stags Leap District.
In 1976, fortune smiled when the Judgement of Paris blind tasting awarded first place to a 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon from this region of Napa, overshadowing illustrious French entries such as Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion. That day launched a legend.
So named for a stag once observed leaping over a cliff, Stags Leap District (not to be confused with Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, which won the 1976 Judgement of Paris, nor Stags’ Leap Winery, both Stags Leap District wineries) stands out as America’s first viticultural area so designated due to its unusual terroir. A complex combination of volcanic, erosive, and river soils, sheer rock palisades, rolling hills, flatlands, and proximity to the Napa River, Stags Leap District boasts silky, textured wines.
Shafer Vineyards wines share these intensely supple flavor profiles. Today, John Shafer’s vision includes vineyards in other regions of the Napa Valley, his passion passed along to son Doug Shafer and wine maker Elias Fernandez. The family philosophy is simple: respect the vines, respect the wines – and never take success for granted.
Here the Red Thread ™ talks terroir with Doug Shafer, President of Shafer Vineyards, part of the Napa narrative.
R/T™: Who or what brought you to Shafer Vineyards?
DS: Our family moved here from Chicago in January, 1973. My dad was making a big career change from the corporate publishing world to life as a grape grower, and eventually a winery owner. For the first couple of years here I was a kid in high school. Dad put me and my younger brother, Brad, to work in the vineyard, mostly picking up rocks or as Dad called it “contouring the land.”
After high school I attended UC Davis and majored in viticulture but before coming back to Napa Valley, I made a career detour as a junior high teacher in Tucson, Arizona. By 1981 I was back in the Valley and working as Randy Mason’s assistant winemaker at Lakespring Winery. My dad asked me to work for him as winemaker in 1983 and I’ve been here ever since.
R/T™: Tell readers a bit about the history of Shafer Vineyards (such as Batista Scansi’s original vineyard) as well as Shafer’s unique place in the Napa narrative.
DS: The Shafer property has been the site of grape growing since about 1880, when a wine country was first carved out of a wilderness. In fact, if you put the deed that my dad got in 1973 and the deed from the 1800s side by side, you’ll see they describe the same property boundaries, so not a lot has changed.
One of the property owners (and there’ve been about a dozen), was an Italian immigrant named Batista Scansi, who planted vines in 1922, the same vines we inherited when we moved here.
Dad bought the property because it had a beautiful hillside, perfect for his plan to establish a hillside vineyard. Initially, he wasn’t sure which grape variety he’d plant. He wanted something that suited the site.
At dinner one night with our neighbor, Nathan Fay, he tried one of Nate’s homemade Cabernet Sauvignons from a small vineyard located less than a mile from our house. That sealed the deal. Dad planted Cabernet on our hillside and by 1978 he had his first harvest and released that vintage in fall of 1981. From there it was a long learning curve as I came on as winemaker in January of 1983 and I hired Elias Fernandez as my assistant winemaker the following year. He came to work for us March 1984 after graduating from U.C. Davis.
In 1985, Dad helped organize our neighbors to submit a petition to the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) to establish Stags Leap District as an AVA. After a long process, the petition was approved in 1989.
In the 1990s Elias and I started to hit our stride in terms of getting things right in the vineyard and in the cellar. Ever since it’s been a matter of looking for every possible way to continue to improve wine quality.
R/T™: Shafer Vineyards recalls an Old World domaine with its extensive holdings and infrastructure, including caves. Did John Shafer envision such a legacy when he first purchased land in Napa back in the early 1970’s?
DS: The Shafer Vineyards you see today is the result of a long evolution. There were no caves and no winery structure in 1973 – just 30 acres of vines that were long past their prime, an old stucco house and a few aging outbuildings. My dad is a long-range thinker and his goal was to create a winery that produced world-class wines.
As for creating a legacy, that was not part of Dad’s plan. He was just following his dream. If one of his kids went along with him, that was even better. But he’s said a number of times that he didn’t come into this with any vision of founding a dynasty. He just really fell in love with wine and the wine business and he wished the same for each of his children and grandchildren – he wanted us all to follow our dreams, whatever they may be.
R/T™: Terroir seems an important consideration for Shafer Vineyards. Can you speak to the similarities and differences between your various sites – Hillside, Borderline, La Mesa, Ridgeback, School Bus, Red Shoulder Ranch?
DS: While our Hillside Estate Vineyards (the single source of Hillside Select) are in fact a contiguous 54-acre site, we think of it as 14 vineyard blocks as each has different slopes and faces in different directions, offering varying solar exposures meaning that some face west, others southwest, south, etc. The soil depth on the hillside ranges from 18 to 22 inches of rock-choked volcanic soil. When we have rain, run-off is quick, so that vines are never afforded much by way of moisture or plant nutrients.
The extra work required of a hillside vine for survival results in small, intensely flavored berries, in this case Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine reflects this, loaded with concentrated, rich, dark layers of aroma and flavor while saved from being over-brooding by classic Stags Leap District softness and suppleness.
Our other main Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard, called Borderline (a main source for One Point Five), sits just inside the southern boundary of Stags Leap District. This 25-acre site provides a contrast to our Hillside Estate Vineyards as it is a nearly flat, valley floor vineyard with loam soils that range from 3 to 4 feet.
Normally this would provide a paradise for plant life – lots of water and deep soils full of nutrients. To offset this, before planting the vineyard we installed an extensive drainage system to equate the kind of run-off we get on our hillsides. In addition we established narrow vine rows and tighter planting to pit the vines against each other. The wine that results from this site, like other valley floor Cabernets, certainly has the dark, rich black-fruit aromas and flavors of Hillside Select but with that I think you find more red fruit on the palate. I would say it’s brighter in character.
La Mesa, Ridgeback and School Bus are a cluster of vineyards, all adjacent to one another, just south of Stags Leap District, largely in the foothills of the Vaca Mountain Range that creates Napa Valley’s eastern border. These are sites all on slopes with fairly shallow gravelly loam and volcanic soils in which we grow Syrah, Petite Sirah, Merlot, and Malbec. If anything they represent a half-way point between Borderline and our Hillside Estate Vineyards in terms of slope, solar exposure, and soils.
In terms of a unifying terroir, I think what you see in the wines from these sites is a nice balance of richness and liveliness, intensity of varietal character and flavor yet with a sense of lift. Remember these sites all lie in the cooler southern end of the valley. These sites get warm days and chilly nights in very uniform fashion throughout the growing season that typically offer the potential for good sugar development as well as very nice acidity.
Finally, there’s the outlier, Red Shoulder Ranch. When we first grew and produced Chardonnay, starting in 1980, it was all Stags Leap District (or adjacent) fruit. Over time though we began to realize that the best Chardonnay fruit, and therefore the best wines, were emerging from farther south in Carneros. We purchased a Carneros site in the late 1980s and by the mid-1990s were producing a single-vineyard Chardonnay from this site we called Red Shoulder Ranch to recognize the Red Shoulder Hawks, who we had integrated as part of our approach to sustainable agriculture. This hilly vineyard, which is 66 acres, lies within sight of the northernmost reach of San Francisco Bay. The climate and soils are marine-influenced. The soil is a dense Diablo and silty clay, which makes root penetration slow and difficult. The climate tends to be sunny, clear, and breezy with moderate temperatures on the cool side. The resulting wine is bright, zesty Chardonnay with a purity of varietal flavor.
R/T™: Most consider Napa America’s preeminent wine region. In a sense, Shafer has ‘grown up’ with Napa. How has Napa’s rise in status impacted Shafer Vineyards, if at all?
DS: I see the rise in status as being tied to wine quality. It was a step first begun by Robert Mondavi with the winery he built in 1964 and his vision for what Napa Valley wines were and could become. This was rapidly built on and expanded by the pioneers who came here in the late 1960s and early 1970s – names such as Duckhorn, Spotteswood, and Chappellet.
My dad came here to plant a hillside vineyard, which no one else at the time was doing. You couldn’t buy a book on planting a hillside, you couldn’t Google, “How to establish hillside vines.” There were a lot of mistakes but there was also a great deal of learning and of excitement about what Napa seemed on the verge of becoming if we all got creative, worked hard, and helped each other out.
The Shafer story and the story of Napa Valley intertwine. The same things we were struggling with were the same challenges facing our neighbors. I think that largely remains true today.
R/T™: What are your greatest challenges at Shafer Vineyards?
DS: Once you’ve learned how to do something well, the temptation is to continue doing the same thing over and over. There’s also a temptation to rest on your laurels. Both lead any business directly to stagnation (do not pass go, not collect $200).
It is of paramount importance to keep learning, keep pushing yourselves, and keep experimenting.
If I’m not excited about coming to work in the morning, if our vineyard and winemaking team aren’t into what they’re doing, it shows up in the bottle.
R/T™: One final question: “If wine making in Shafer Vineyards has taught you anything, it’s taught you…?”
DS: Two expressions. First in terms of getting right the cellar: “Check it. Check it again. And check it again.”
And then in terms of selling wine: “A great wine seldom mentioned is soon forgotten.”
All photos courtesy of Shafer Vineyards.
Doug Shafer – President
Elias Fernandez – Wine maker
Andy Demskey – Media Relations
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