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Fine-Tuning A Proven Winner

Daniel Sogg
Posted: April 5, 2000

John Shafer
Back to Cult Wines


Fine-Tuning A Proven Winner

Shafer Vineyards' first success came nearly 20 years ago in response to its stellar 1978 Cabernet. While phylloxera forced some replanting of that 1974 hillside block, those vines are still a significant part of the flagship wine, the Hillside Select Cabernet.

Just as it took John Shafer and his son Doug a few years to recognize the outstanding quality of those hillside vineyards, they needed a decade to hit full speed with their winemaking. "Sometimes we got it, sometimes we didn't," says Doug Shafer, president and co-owner of the estate. "Coming out of UC Davis, we were too tuned in to the numbers, like pH and sugar. We had to learn to taste."

So Shafer and Elias Fernandez, who came on board to help with the winemaking in 1984, learned as they went along. The fine-tuning really took hold in 1991, says Shafer, and the wines' popularity has been soaring for the last 10 years, with bottlings such as the Napa Valley Merlot and the Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay on strict allocation.

Although the 1978 Cabernet turned some heads, Shafer acknowledges that the Napa Merlot, first produced in 1983, made the winery's reputation. "Merlot put us on the map," he says. "We hit that niche on the upswing of the craze, and it gave us great exposure in restaurants and the trade."

Shafer believes that the "loony phase" (as he puts it) of the Merlot fad is fading. "People are figuring out that just because it has Merlot on the label doesn't mean it's great."

The winery will continue to focus on Cabernet and Chardonnay, with an occasional foray into more exotic varietals such as Sangiovese and, for the first time, Syrah. "We thought long and hard before doing Syrah because we wanted to keep our focus," says Shafer. "But these grapes are so loaded with stuff, it has Elias licking his lips."

John Shafer founded the winery in 1979 thinking that he was making a savvy investment. Vice president of long-range planning for a Chicago publishing house, he was used to predicting upcoming trends.

He foresaw the wine boom and bought 30 acres in the little-known Stags Leap District of Napa Valley. But after a few years as absentee owner, he decided to ditch the corporate grind and commit himself to grapegrowing.

Shafer Vineyards has the enviable dilemma of being unable to meet demand. Restaurants gobble up nearly half of the 30,000 cases, and even at $110 a bottle they could easily sell three times as much Hillside Select.'

Nonetheless, the Shafers don't currently plan major production increases. "WeÕll continue to fine-tune quality," says Doug. "We need to do what we do best in Napa and keep planting Cabernet."

-- D.S.

Shafer Vineyards
Stags Leap District, Napa Valley
Founded: 1979
Owner: The Shafer family
Winemaker: Elias Fernandez

93 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Hillside Select 1996

Release Price: $110
Current Auction Average: $NA
Production: 2,000 cases

Tight, dense and concentrated, with tiers of spicy cherry, cedar, currant and plum that fan out nicely and run long and deep on the finish. Best from 2001 through 2008.

-- J.L.


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