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A Controversial New Shafer Cabernet

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Jul 15, 2009 4:37pm ET

Even the best wineries can stumble. For me, the 2006 Shafer One Point Five Cabernet, priced at $70, is an example of a wine that's out of sync for the winery and out of character for the wine--which I thought was terrific upon its debut with the 2004 vintage.

After tasting the wine blind on six different occasions, I can't recommend it. I'm not sure what happened, but all of the bottles I tried showed off flavors. At times the wine displayed a high level of volatile acidity. Other times it exhibited a dirty barnyard character or a bitter metallic flavor. At its best, it was ruggedly earthy, green and herbal, and not showing any of the ripe, opulent, dark berry flavors that typically define Shafer's Cabernets.

In my tastings, the wine showed evidence of brettanomyces, a wine spoilage yeast that's considered a flaw. At low levels, some people find brett adds complexity to a wine. Yet at higher levels, it tastes barnyardy, metallic, dry and bitter.

Shafer, of course, has been one of Napa's most reliable wineries, routinely producing great wines, chief among them its Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet from Stags Leap.

I contacted winery president Doug Shafer about my experiences and concerns about the wine, and he was very direct in his responses. "That [vintage] was one where we had some higher brett counts [in the wine],” he said. “It’s an interesting wine and we battled [brett] in the cellar. We noticed in that flavor profile that it shows more earth [and a] dirt aroma. Not sure if it’s brett, but we think it might be. In some years you get brett counts that are higher than in other years.” He noted that it was puzzling, because “we’ve never seen grapes look so good” as they did from the 2006 harvest.

“It’s troubling,” he allowed, adding that “Out in the marketplace, we haven’t heard anyone say anything.”

Despite the initial presence of brett, he said, the wine had gone into the bottle "clean—there's no brett in the bottle."

"Is it as bright and fresh as it has been [in two previous vintages]?” Shafer said. “No. Is it flawed? No.”

We agreed to disagree about this wine. Ultimately consumers and the market will assess its quality and decide its fate.

Jim Holliman
July 15, 2009 8:57pm ET
James, thanks for letting us know the issues that are present in this wine. It is unfortunate when a reliable winery produces a potentially flawed wine. I understand the WS policy of not normally publishing scores under 75 and for the reviewers not often providing notes for wines scored under 85. The concern that I have is that I don't know if you have tasted a wine and the score would prevent it from being in the magazine or if you have not had the opportunity to taste it. It would be a great help if in the annual roundups of the different varieties of wine that the wines that did not achieve a high enough score to merit being in the magazine normally would at least be given an NPS - Non-Published Score (or something along those lines). If the list of wines would be shorter to tell us the ones not tested (but that are normally in your annual review), then you could use an NRY - Not Reviewed Yet.
Dana Nigro
New York, NY —  July 15, 2009 10:00pm ET
Hi Jim,

All our rated wines are published online, in the Wine Ratings Search database, even if they don't appear in the magazine. So as a member of WineSpectator.com, you can always doublecheck online if you're unsure.

Dana Nigro, managing editor, WineSpectator.com
Brad Paulsen
Saratoga, CA —  July 15, 2009 10:22pm ET
I could not agree more with Jim. His suggested addition to the ratings profile would be a good add. I am also extremely happy that you've included the verbatim comments from Shafer himself. This is more than refreshing. I do own the previous vintages and will likely buy a bottle of the '06 in an effort to educate my palate to this taste dimension. Thanks as always for your honest unvarnished perspective.
Elyse J Ward
Buffalo Grove, IL —  July 15, 2009 10:23pm ET
Jim - should Hillside Select buyers be concerned about the 2006 vintage? While I don't want to lose my allocation, I definitely don't want to spend $225/bottle for a flawed wine.
Craig Ernst
Naperville, Il —  July 15, 2009 11:03pm ET
James,thank you for being so honest.I always purchase Shafer wines. I was just going to buy 06 One Point Five since I have the 04, and 05.Thanks for saving me money ,because I will not try the 06.Craig.
Larry Schaffer
central coast, ca —  July 16, 2009 1:20am ET

I guess I'm a bit confused here. Doug S has said that they did have higher than normal counts of brett in the cellar, but that the wine was bottled 'clean' . . . What exactly does this mean?>

Do you know if they attempted to 'strip' the wine of brett using micro-filtration or some other technique? Or was he implying that wine was filtered and thus no additional brett could bloom in bottle?

Thanks for any additional light you can shed on this issue . . .

Mike Diercksmeier
chicago —  July 16, 2009 9:18am ET
"higher brett counts than normal" Sounds like trouble was detected.But.....
James Laube
Napa, CA —  July 16, 2009 12:21pm ET
Elyse, I haven't tried the 2006 Hillside; it's a year away from release. But many of the 2006 Cabernets have been very hard, earthy and tannic and it's best to be choosy about what you buy in a mixed year.
Chris Haag
vancouver, bc —  July 16, 2009 12:25pm ET
James, I find this interesting as your barrel tasting of the wine did not indicate any brett issues. Rather, I read the tasting notes as the wine being young and in need of time in barrel/bottle. Can brett get into the wine as it is being bottled from barrel?
Tim Schultheiss
Monrovia CA —  July 16, 2009 2:24pm ET
It is not clear how consumers and the market will now decide this wine's fate since devoting an entire blog will surely alter the market. Sales will reflect your opinion, at least in part, as well as the consumer's ultimate evaluation.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  July 16, 2009 2:40pm ET
Brett is a nasty little critter. But before I discuss it further, just a quick note to make sure everyone's up to speed on terminology.

Brettanomyces (brett) is a fairly common yeast. It produces an array of chemicals that are responsible for the flavors and aromas we associate with a wine "having brett". The two predominant ones are 4-ethyl-phenol (4ep) which creates the Band-Aid and/or sweaty saddle smells, and 4-ethyl-guiacol (4eg) which creates the smoky, spicy (clove) smells.

Often, you can't tell by smell that a barrel of wine has brett in it because it hasn't produced 4ep/4eg in sufficient quantities for you to notice them. That's why it's always important to do tests aimed at detecting the presence of the brett organism itself. That usually involves doing either DNA tests or doing lab cultures.

If you detect brett, you can easily filter it out of the wine. Yeast are fairly large, so you don't even need to completely sterile filter to get rid of it. But if you wait too long, you could have some build up of 4ep/4eg in the wine. So that's how it's possible to bottle a bretty wine that doesn't have any active brett in it.

It's also possible to bottle a wine that has no sign of 4ep/4eg, and have brett bloom in the bottle. That brett could have been in the wine in low amounts, or it could have been picked up in the bottling process.

Brett is one of those things that keep winemakers awake at night.
Loren Lingenfelter
Danville, CA —  July 16, 2009 3:09pm ET
This is why it is good to see a review or rating fisrt. Some guys will blast you on these blogs for doing that but it is just not realistsic to taste wines before you buy in all cases. I am glad I didn't spend the $70 off the mailing list. With luck I will be able to taste it myself somewhere down the line.
Loren Lingenfelter
Danville, CA —  July 16, 2009 3:10pm ET
FYI, Wine & Spirits gave it 94 pts and Steven Tanzer gave it 91 pts. What gives?
Don Noone
July 16, 2009 5:03pm ET
While I grant that Doug Shafer was giving his views in good faith, it is troubling that they knew of high brett counts and still bottled this as a $70 bottle of wine. If they are trying to build a brand around One Point Five, this was a bad call. Declassify the wine and wait til next year. As Brian points out, "bottling clean" is a nice thought but perhaps a false justification for making the wrong commercial decision.
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  July 16, 2009 5:41pm ET
I know some people say "brett" adds complexity but any time I detect it, it only seems to detract from the quality of the wine. Barnyard along with any menthol qualities seems to really tweek my palate in a bad way. In your opinion, how does "brett" add complexity?
Steven M Ruths M D
Santa Barbara, CA —  July 16, 2009 10:33pm ET
Or, maybe some amount of viable but not culturable (VBNC) Brett (or Dekkera) bloomed after bottling?
Steven M Ruths M D
Santa Barbara, CA —  July 16, 2009 10:59pm ET
Personally, I HATE Brett and think that quantitative PCR should be performed on all wine with results plastered on each bottle- similar to the Nutrition Facts on bologna!
Elyse J Ward
Buffalo Grove, IL —  July 16, 2009 11:15pm ET
Because of this blog, I had to open one of my '06 one-point-fives with dinner tonight and try it for myself; normally I would have waited at least another year before opening. In the end, it wasn't all that bad - a bit "earthier" than a normal Shafer wine, but there was still rich fruit and complexity. The key negative for me was that air was NOT this wine's friend, it became bitter as the evening went on and lost something the longer the wine was exposed; the finish vanished.
Jim Gallagher
Jim Gallagher —  July 16, 2009 11:38pm ET
James,I haven't tasted the 2006 Shafer 'One Point Five', but some of the descriptors you provided are also frequent characteristics of the "Stag's Leap" district Cabernet Sauvignon during an earlier stage of development. Particularly "earthy", "green", and "herbal" while the "metalic" and "barnyard" are commonly associated with Brettanomyces and not commonly associated with Stag's Leap.My question is that given that the 2006 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon appears to be developing in a much slower time course, has this awkwardness exaggerated the perception of the above components as Brett?
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  July 17, 2009 1:20pm ET
Interesting subject. I attended a Shafer tasting June 17 w/ Doug present. Love the winery & the 02 Hillside Select really was amazing. One of the top CA cabs that I have tasted this yr! I would hope the readers don't shy away from Shafer wines. IMHO this is one of the best producers in the valley. Each of you should try the 06 1.5 yourselves (as will I). Brian, thanks again for more insight into Brett.
Dorothy Thornton
Atlanta Georgia —  July 18, 2009 2:15pm ET
Its seems like only a few people are willing to say........Shafer went for the cash.....they knowingly bottled a questionable product....its says A LOT about the winery management's lack of integrity..... BV Tapestry.....anyone remember??
Brian Hays
Campbell, CA —  July 18, 2009 3:42pm ET
Pruchased .. 04s ..05s and 06s .. will need to pop an '06 tonight to find out for myself. Thanks to all for the information.
Chris A Elerick
Orlando, FL —  July 18, 2009 6:43pm ET
I went to a wine retailer last night run by a sommelier and an oenologist. I bought a bottle of '06 One Point Five for the three of us to open and drink in their store as a test. It was big and beautiful with loads of black fruits and chewy tannins. Neither of the guys I drank it with detected any brett. In fact, the oenologist described it as classically Shafer. I have tremendous respect for these guys. I'm not saying Jim's palatte was off, but maybe the bottles received by Spectator were from a bretty stretch of bottles. Fear not ... there is some gorgeous '06 One Point Five in the market right now!
Bruce Ornstein
July 19, 2009 1:01pm ET
I have tried the one point five 06 Shafer and found it very good. I think people need to step back and realize that this one person's opinion. I believe in the integrity of Shafer Vineyards. They have a long and fabulous track record. The wine I like best is based on my taste preferance not someone else's. While I respect Mr. Laube opinions I find it curious when he degrades a wine that other critics rate well. It is Mr. Laube opinion but try the wine for yourself. I opened up a 2001 Chateau Montelena Estate last week and it was wonderful. Much better than Mr. Laube's opinion. Closer to Steve Tanzer and Robert Parker. The moral is try any wine yourself because your taste is the most important.
Michael Tessmer
July 19, 2009 9:10pm ET
Bruce, I agree with you that it's best to try yourself and formulate your own opinion. However, let's be honest, the fact that Jim picked up on the brett while Parker and Tanzer missed it says a great deal about his palate. Doug admitted to the problem yet Parker and Tazer rated it a 90+ wine??? Something just doesn't make sense with this one. He degraded a wine that Doug said had issues, what's so wrong with that?
Dr Samuel Goldman
Bedford, New Hampshire —  July 20, 2009 10:48am ET
Tasted the 2006 last week and it was enjoyable yet not as much as previous vintages. It also did not last as long; as they flavor diminished over the next day.
Kc Tucker
Escondido, CA —  July 23, 2009 12:18pm ET
As a retailer, I'm concerned that my investment in this wine for sale to consumers could now be in jeopardy as a result of this discussion. To Mr. Shafer: Would you consider a rebate or buy-back option if you believe in this wine? When L'Aventure released its sulpherous 2007 Roussanne, Stephan realized the problem and bought the wine back.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  July 24, 2009 1:28am ET
James: I find this discussion educational. Yet, fear the far reaching ramifications on my friends at Shafer. I have the wine in my glass from a 375ml bottle. Aromatics muted. IMHO, the herbal character is savory with just a hint of dark chocolate, moist earth. spicey. I do agree that there is a lack of opulent ripe fruit. I find the wine somewhat appealing and would recommend it, but definitely not before feeling out a guest's stylistic preferences. Obviously, your palate is much more experienced than mine. To me, an interesting fact is, that while I find several notes similar to yours, I seem to enjoy them. The problem with this little experiment is that I am sure I have been influenced by your blog & my general feelings for The Shafer folks. Your job is different than mine, so I respect that you call it as you see it. I will continue to support Shafer and offer their wines, always with the assurance to take the wine back if a guest dislikes it. Cheers
Mike Verble
Lakeland, FL —  July 28, 2009 7:12pm ET
Dana and Jim,I searched Winespectator Online and have not found a rating or tasting notes on the 2006 Shafer 1.5. If you "don't recommend" a wine do you not publish the rating or notes?
Mark L Ellis
Houston, Tx. —  September 6, 2011 10:46pm ET
I have not been pleased with the 06' bottles that I purchased. I couldn't put my finger on it but I was certain it was not the usual quality of Shafer One Point Five. This helps me understand what I was tasting. This vintage is not a quality product.
Jagpinder Mundi
vancouver, bc, canada —  May 15, 2012 9:50pm ET
i think as disgraceful as shafer releasing a wine that they probably knew was flawed, is the wine spectator not publishing bad reviews, even online. if wineries are willing to take the publicity when their wines are rated highly, they should be able to accept bad reviews. the fact that the spectator does not publish a review of a wine it tasted six times, in order not to offend the winery and wine merchants, seriously undermines your credibility and makes me question my subscription.
Shelley Gans
Townsend, Ma U.S. —  December 30, 2018 9:08am ET
I opened the Shafer 2006 One Point Five for Christmas dinner after reading James’s review. I received the bottle as a gift several years ago and it was stored in a refrigerated cabinet. I was curious why this 2006 wine had not been reviewed by WS when I added it to my collection.
Well, James was right- something was very off. I had several guests do a comparison with a cab from Paso Robles and both experienced and not so experienced palates immediately spotted the barnyard taste. A whiff from the bottle also revealed another unpleasant odor. As my daughter so aptly pointed out, “it just goes to show that you don’t need to spend$70 a bottle for a great wine”. The bottle we compared it with was beautiful for $30.
The fact that the grower knew there was a problem with Brett but marketed it anyway speaks volumes - I’m just glad I didn’t buy it! Oh the other cab was a Daou 2014.

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