If you had told John Shafer, when he moved from Chicago to Napa Valley in 1973, that his winery and one specific vineyard would earn the highest critical acclaim, bring in top bids at wine auctions and create a formidable fan following, he would probably have scoffed, being the practical vintner that he is. But Shafer’s success in the wine world wasn’t instant and wasn’t easy going at all. In fact when you learn the stories of harvests where they couldn’t get pickers on time, or the vintage with a stuck fermentation that he had to get started using electric blankets, well, you wonder how Shafer ever made it to where the winery is today with a cult-like status.
These are the stories that unfold as you read A Vineyard in Napa, a book written by John’s son Doug, with Andy Demsky, PR consultant at Shafer Vineyards. John and Doug are a father son team well-known and well-regarded in winery circles. “We felt our story with Shafer kind of paralleled the Napa Valley story in the last 40 years and it’s been quite a ride,” says Doug. “There was nothing here, grapes were 200 bucks a ton, a high priced wine was 10 bucks a bottle. There was no French Laundry. To go from there to where we are now it was like oh my gosh, we were looking at Shafer and our 1978 Cab was 11 bucks a bottle. Lots of starts and stops to be where we are now. We don’t take that lightly.”
I was invited to join a small group of journalist at the winery in Napa Valley, where we had lunch with John and Doug. They chose a few wines to pour for a perspective tasting. The 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon was their first vintage. “So who made the ’78 Cab?” Doug asks, knowing full well that his father made it. “I haven’t had it in about six years or so.”
“I had it two months ago,” says John.
“He must have a stash,” Doug says, “that I don’t know about.”
“I won’t tell you what my wife told me,” John teases. Doug bites, “What is it?”
“She told me to get down there and get a case of that ’78 Cab and bring it up to our house,” John replies. We all laugh at the good natured back and forth between Doug and John. You get the feeling Doug likes being an instigator.
That Cab, the ’78 Cab is amazing to drink now, 34 years later. Lots of vibrancy to it and velvety smooth. But the harvest for the 1978 vintage was anything but smooth. John had purchased the land and planted the grapes in 1975 and 1976. “As a new kid on the block in the ’78 vintage I didn’t have any influence on getting pickers. In those days you were picking at 22 brix, and I got to 22 brix and we couldn’t get any pickers.” (Brix is a measurement of the sugar levels in the grapes.)
“Saturday went by, Sunday went by. By the time I got the pickers the brix was 24 and a half and I said oh my god we screwed up.” John continues, “the interesting thing is inadvertently I picked those grapes at very ripe physiologically ripe which what we’re doing today but I wouldn’t have done back then.”
After harvest there were more problems.
“February came and we had this cold spell and we had no way of getting the wine to undergo malolactic fermentation. So I’m getting some heaters and blasting those and then I went up to our house and I took the electric blankets off the beds and brought them down and wrapped them around the barrels. That caused a little family stir so some people refer to it as the electric blanket vintage.”
With that auspicious start it’s amazing that John Shafer didn’t just throw in the towel. Even more amazing is how well the wine has aged.
Call it luck or fate, but the ’78 established Shafer as a serious contender in the wine biz.
In the vintages that followed, Shafer came to the brink of disaster many times. In June 1981 there was a wildfire that threatened both the winery and the Shafer’s home.
Then there was the alcoholic winemaker – who is no longer there. And there’s the disappointing 1980 vintage that Wine Spectator rated only a 73 (ouch).
Doug joined the family winery in 1983, after studying wine at UC Davis, and a stint at Lakespring winery. It took lots of prodding from John to get Doug to come on board. “Not a good idea,” Doug writes. “I’m not ready.” John kept pushing and Doug finally relented.
Doug could not have imagined the problem awaiting him in the winery. He noticed a funny smell coming from the large oak upright tanks. He found two inches of mold growing on top of the new 1982 wine. In fact all the tanks filled with the ’82 had this mold. “One of the chief problems,” he writes, “was that all the wines and therefore the cellar itself, was shot through with Brettanomyces,” which is a spoilage yeast. For days he had to get the wines out of the tanks, clean out the tanks and scrub the entire winery. He also did filtering and racking. Finally Doug felt the wine was in good shape. The ’82 vintage turned out to be so good that one block, the Sunspot vineyard block, stood out among all others. So for the first time, Shafer bottled a “Reserve Cabernet.” This wine would be renamed “Hillside Select” starting with the 1983 vintage.
We’re tasting the 1983 vintage, Doug’s first crush at the winery, and the first Shafer wine to carry the label “Hillside Select.” It comes from the Sunspot block, which is on the hillside next to the Shafer winey. When tasting the wine that was still in barrel, Doug discovered that the wine from this block really stood out, with “an attractive, perfumy aroma. In the mouth it had richness and concentration and even softness at this youthful stage.” He knew he couldn’t blend it in the regular Cabernet, but had to highlight it on its own. More than just a reserve, Hillside Select is the wine that is revered among all Shafer fans.
In the years following the 1983 vintage, Elias Fernandez joined the winemaking team, and today he’s the winemaker. He’s pushed the quality level of Hillside Select ever higher. This is a wine that sets records for purchase price at wine auctions.
We tasted that, and a few more vintages up to the 2006 Hillside Select, representing the 25th anniversary of that special bottling.
John and Doug are not content to sit on their laurels. They continue to push the winemaking higher and higher. They were one of the wineries that converted to 100% solar power early on, in 2004. The latest tool in their toolbox is an optical sorter. Instead of sorting the harvest grapes by hand, picking out stems, leaves and green berries, the optical sorter scans the fruit and kicks out any unwanted mog (material other than grapes). The result is an unrivaled purity of fruit. We’ll have to wait a few years to taste that in the wine, but given the Shafer track record, it should be even better.