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John Shafer, Founder of Shafer Vineyards, Dies at 94

The Napa pioneer's Hillside Select cult Cabernet helped put the Stags Leap District on the map
John Shafer believed the Stags Leap District had a special terroir.
Photo by: Courtesy Shafer Vineyards
John Shafer believed the Stags Leap District had a special terroir.

Aaron Romano
Posted: March 4, 2019

John Shafer was 48 years old in 1972, working as a textbook publisher in Chicago, when he decided to pick up and move his family to California to pursue wine, despite knowing very little about the business. He went on to create one of Napa’s first cult Cabernets in his Hillside Select and was among the pioneers of Napa’s Stags Leap District. Shafer died March 2 at the age of 94.

“The world of wine always inspired Dad, and he loved nothing more than to work with the Shafer team to improve quality, enhance everything we do, and to discuss future projects,” said Doug Shafer, president of Shafer Vineyards, in a statement. “He also loved Napa Valley [and] worked to make it a better place for everyone.”

Shafer was an active and avid traveller and constantly pursued new interests such as learning to tango in Argentina and sculpting. Family members say that throughout his life, he remained a long-term planner, always more interested in what might be happening five years from now rather than reminiscing about the past.

Born in 1924 in a small suburb of Chicago, Shafer enlisted at the age of 17 for service in World War II, where he piloted a B-24 bomber. Following his service, he studied engineering at Cornell University, but ended up pursuing sales in publishing, rising to vice president of long-range planning at educational publishing house Scott Foresman & Co.

Shafer believed he had finally found his calling when he became a vintner. After packing up his family for California, he landed in Napa’s Stags Leap Palisades, and purchased a piece of property with old, unsuitable vines. He read up on the ins and outs of hillside grapegrowing and began terracing the hillsides, replanting and expanding the vineyards, turning the 30 acres into a prime site. In 1978, Shafer made his first wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon from his newly planted vineyard.

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His thorough winemaking studies were thrown out the window on his first vintage. As a new vintner in the valley, Shafer couldn’t find anyone to pick his grapes, which meant instead of picking at 22 to 23 Brix—the norm in the late 1970s—the grapes hung on the vine and were picked at nearly 28 Brix. Shafer thought he ruined his wine, but instead it turned out to be the ripe signature style that has defined Shafer wines for the past four decades.

The only problem was, Shafer didn’t know that yet. The next five vintages were hit-and-miss, as he continued to follow a blueprint of picking at 22.5 Brix. Then, in 1983, brettanomyces developed at the winery.

That same year, John asked his son Doug to be the winemaker, and the family would also produce their first vintage of Shafer Hillside Select, a wine that has become a Napa Valley legend. The grapes came from the estate’s best parcels, and the wine saw a long barrel aging. The result was a powerful, gutsy wine with tons of personality and big tannins.

The following year, Elias Fernandez was hired as the assistant winemaker, and Shafer made the shift back to riper flavors, which lead to success. With a winemaking team in place, John focused his energy on marketing his label, as well as spearheading efforts to turn Stags Leap District into an appellation within Napa Valley, working with neighboring grapegrowers Nathan Fay, Warren Winiarski, Dick Steltzner and Joseph Phelps. He believed that the valley between the Silverado Trail and Palisades Range was unique. In 1985, Shafer, with help from neighboring vintners, petitioned the government to designate Stags Leap as an official American Viticultural Area. It took four years, but Stags Leap was eventually recognized.

In 1994, John made Doug the new winery president, named Elias winemaker, and carved out a new position for himself as chairman. Fernandez was credited with steering the winery to a higher level of quality, including creating a Syrah and Petite Sirah blend dubbed Relentless to honor his quest for excellence. The 2008 vintage was named Wine Spectator's 2012 Wine of the Year.

As chairman, John shifted away from everyday management and became increasingly involved in philanthropy. Shafer was among the first vintners to support Auction Napa Valley, and he served a member of the board of Clinic Olè, a local nonprofit community health clinic for low-income and uninsured patients for more than 25 years.

More recently, he supported Voices, a nonprofit that helps foster youth successfully transition into adulthood, and over the span of the past three decades, Shafer has been the recipient of numerous awards for his philanthropy.

John Shafer is survived by his daughter Libby Shafer, sons Doug and Brad Shafer, 13 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

Bill Belkin
Edina, MN —  March 5, 2019 9:59am ET
Doug and family: My deepest condolences on the passing of your father, grandfather and a wonderful, inspirational figure that was beloved by all of us who love what Shafer does! He will be missed. I consider myself fortunate to have shook his hand and offered my meager comments on the fantastic legacy that is Shafer. RIP John!

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