Shafer's staff members refer to their winemaker affectionately as their "junkyard dog" because of his tenacity. Now, to honor Elias Fernandez, the leading Napa Valley winery is dedicating its first Syrah to him, calling it "Relentless," for his dedication and attention to detail.
Doug Shafer, president of the family-owned winery in the Stags Leap District, said Fernandez earned his nickname for his insistence on high quality standards -- whether thinning the crop, ordering barrels or corks, inspecting labels or overseeing bottling.
"Our philosophy is 'great wines come from great vineyards and great winemakers,'" said Shafer. The winery already has a stellar reputation, and Fernandez, who has worked there for 18 years, continues to push it even higher. "He's relentless in his pursuit of quality," added Shafer.
The winery's new Napa Valley Syrah, from the 1999 vintage, comes from an 18-acre vineyard that the Shafers bought and planted in 1994; the property lies south of the Stags Leap District, on a knoll south of Chimney Rock Winery. The plantings are mostly Syrah, along with some Petite Sirah that also goes into the Relentless bottling.
Tasted from barrel, the 1999 Relentless is a ripe, rich, elegant and complex wine, with layers of floral, blackberry and earthy fruit flavors. The wine is scheduled for a Jan. 22, 2002, release, on Fernandez's 41st birthday. There were 2,000 cases made, and the suggested retail price is $46 per bottle.
Well-known and respected in the industry, Fernandez has risen to prominence at one of Napa Valley's top Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay producers. Shafer's Hillside Select Cabernet, which now sells for about $125 a bottle on release, routinely ranks among the top dozen Cabernets from California.
However, few outside the wine industry appreciate the unique position Fernandez holds. In an industry where most Latinos work long hours in the vineyards and are rarely acknowledged in the accolades that accompany excellent vintages, he is unusual.
The son of migrant workers, Fernandez grew up in Napa Valley, where his father, Elias Jr., worked in vineyards and his mother, Rosemary, as a maid. After graduating from St. Helena High School, he earned a music scholarship to the University of Nevada, Reno. Yet after a year there, he felt the urge to return to wine. Rather than work in the vineyards, he decided to attend the University of California, Davis. There, after a brief struggle with complex chemistry classes, he excelled, eventually graduating with honors.
In 1984, Fernandez joined Shafer Vineyards. As founder John Shafer and his son, Doug, watched him progress, it soon became apparent that he would be best in charge of winemaking. Doug, who had been handling that part of the business, gladly turned over the reins to him.
Founded in 1978, Shafer Vineyards has always produced high quality wines, particularly Cabernet. The winery also became a leader with Merlot in the 1980s and eventually found success with Carneros-grown Chardonnay and a proprietary Sangiovese-Cabernet blend called "Firebreak."
But since Fernandez took over Shafer's winemaking in 1994, the quality has risen even higher. Not only are his contributions inside the winery held in high esteem, he is also a vital link to the vineyards because he is fluent in Spanish. "He not only can tell [vineyard crews] what to do, but why it's needed, and that has been real important," said Shafer.
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