Shafer Vineyards and Winery is one of the most challenging to visit in the Napa Valley. They are not open on weekends and holidays, they only have 2 tastings per day and you need reservations many weeks in advance. They have been on my “must visit” list for quite some time as I had been to every winery along the Silverado Trail, a few several times, and yet had not visited Shafer until July 2013. My patience paid off for it is without a doubt, out of the 128 wineries I have visited in the Napa Valley since the year 2000, among the Top 10.
Although the estate has been used for grape-growing and winemaking site since the 1880s it wasn’t utilized to its full potential, growing the right varietals and farmed in the right way until after John Shafer purchased the property in 1972. In 1973, at the age of 47, John Shafer left his publishing career and he moved his family to Napa Valley to pursue a new life in the wine country.
The Vineyards and Winemakers
After John purchased the 210-acre estate in the Stags Leap District with a 30-acre vineyard on the site which was planted to a mixture of red grape varieties that were sold to Gallo to become a component of its jug-wine blend called Hearty Burgundy. John then terraced the steep and rocky hillsides and expanded the vineyard acreage to 50 acres. Five years later the Shafers produced their first Cabernet Sauvignon from their hillside vines and a year later began construction on the a new winery. In 1983 John’s son, Doug Shafer, joined the family business as winemaker after graduating from the U.C. Davis with a degree in enology and viticulture in 1983.
Elias Fernandez is the current winemaker and has been so for almost three decades. During his first year at University of Nevada, Reno he returned home to the Napa Valley where he grew up and his parents were farm workers. It was then that he decided to change his focus to winemaking so he transferred to U.C. Davis. In 1984, three weeks before graduation, he applied for a position at Shafer Vineyards and was hired as assistant winemaker. Ten years later he became the head winemaker at which time Doug became the president and John continued to serve as the Chairman.
Over the years the Shafers acquired additional property in the Oak Knoll, Stags Leap and Carneros districts, so that they now own over 200 acres under vine. In addition they expanded the production facilities and had extensive caves carved into the hillside for aging wine. In 1978 their initial productions was a mere 1,000 cases and today they produce approximately 32,000 cases a year of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Syrah.
But this success hasn’t been without its trials and tribulations. From difficulty with the first winemaker to labor shortages for harvesting grapes, bacterial taint (Brettanomyces), mold, phylloxera and other learning challenges that come with being pioneering winemakers they have come a long way. You can read more about the history of Shafer Vineyards in Doug Shafer’s memoir of his father John Shafer, A Vineyard in Napa.
While visiting I sampled the following wines:
The first wine was the 2011 Chardonnay, Red Shoulder Ranch - Carneros. Whole-cluster pressed and fermented with native yeasts. Aged 25% in stainless steel barrels with 14 months in 75% new French oak barrels and 25% in stainless steel barrels with no malolactic fermentation. This wine displays vibrant aromas of apples, pears, melon and a hint of orange blossom. On the palate it is very sharp and focused without being austere, it is medium bodied with crisp medium+ acidity with additional notes of zesty citrus and apricots on a lingering finish. If you do not like oaky, buttery Chardonnays and prefer them to be more Burgundian then this wine is for you for $50 per bottle.
The second pour was the 2010 Merlot - a blend of 84% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 6% Malbec. This wine is dark purple at the core to violet at the rim. On the nose it exudes intense aromas of blueberries, mocha, cassis, black cherries with subtle hints of earth and smoke. On the palate it is very silky on entry and fruit forward delivering concentrated blueberry pie and vanilla. It is medium bodied and well-rounded with refined tannins, mouth-watering acidity and a prolonged finish with more dark fruit on the return. An absolutely delicious wine, very complex and comparable to some of the best I have tasted at Duckhorn Vineyards. This was my favorite in the line-up so I brought one home for $50.
The third wine was the 2010 One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon, Staggs Leap District - A blend of 99% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1% Petit Verdot. This wine is intensely dark ruby purple at the core with staining sheet of violet tears. On the nose it is quite tight and needs a lot of patient aeration and constant swirling. Once it opens up the nose evolves with layers of black currants, dark cherries, raisins, a hints of herbs and vanilla. On the palate it has silky refined tannins that have a little grip, it is medium+ to full bodied, with ample acidity and a prolonged finish. This is without a doubt one of the best Cabernet Sauvignons I have ever tasted in the Napa Valley and many like it sell for $125+. A “must have” to add to my collection, I brought one home for $72.
The fourth wine was the 2009 Relentless - a blend of 82% Syrah, 18% Petit Sirah. On the nose this wine has medium intense aromas of black berries, bacon, smoke and a hint of maple. On the palate it is very intense and very rich with chewy tannins that have a very firm grip, it is medium bodied with medium acidity and a medium length finish that delivers additional notes of dark chocolate. The surprising thing about this wine is that it has 15.8% alcohol and yet it has no heat and is very well balanced. This wine sells for $63 per bottle.
The final wine was 2008 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, Staggs Leap District. This wine is inky black and the aromas on the nose are very tight but with intense swirling and patience it delivers layers of cassis, blackberries, black tea, dusty cocoa and vanilla. On the palate it is silky on entry, has good structure and is well balanced with medium tannins, vibrant acidity and a medium+ length finish. This wine sells for $240 per bottle, making it one of the most expensive Cabs I have tasted in the Napa Valley.
To visit or for more information:
6154 Silverado Trail
Napa, CA 94558