Recently I took part in a lunch tasting with Shafer Vineyards having Doug Shafer pouring wines and telling stories. Clearly a diaphragmental exercise. You laugh, you laugh some more, and then you want to go to Napa and start your own winery.
Stumpy little things
The often told story of Shafer Vineyards is that of the unexpected uprooting: John Shafer, at the age of 47, being a successful corporate executive living in a well off Chicago suburb, suddenly and very much unexpectedly moved to Napa valley with his family to become a wine maker. This without barely any prior knowledge of (a) growing grapes, (b) making wine, and (c) running a family business. Not entirely true, but, you know, close enough. Doug Shafer gives us the short background:
“I grew up in Chicago, Illinois. When I was 17 he moved us to Napa Valley, I had never seen grapevines before. I asked my dad: what are those stumpy little things? He said, Ah, those are grapevines! He replanted the vineyard, centre of Stags Leap, one of the best places, my opinion to grow cabernet. In 1974, I got the bug, went to UC Davis, ended up with a proper degree in winemaking. Joined Dad in 1983, in 1984 we hired Elias Fernandez, also a UC Davies graduate, mostly because he had better grades than me. Dad, me, and Elias have been working together since 1984. Thirty years. In my country, in Napa valley, in my business, that is pretty unheard of. Elias took over making the wines in 1995.”
We start off with some white, the 2012 Chardonnay. Barrel fermented, 75 per cent French oak barrels and 25 per cent stainless steel barrels. The freshness in this wine is dazzling! Not the type of crispiness you would get from a sauvignon blanc, it has more of a smooth, silky texture with lots of tropical fruit. “Sometimes you go wow, is that sweet? No, that is just the amount of fruit we have. Mellon, papaya, banana…“ The oak balances it all nicely up, giving the wine a firm composition.
My interest in chardonnays is just at the beginning, evolving gradually. When I first got interested in wine, one of my first try-outs was high-priced Burgundian chardonnays. They were appalling. Oxidized, overoaked, too much of everything. And of course: loved by everyone else. Am I in the play The Emperor’s New Clothes? But that was ages ago. Nowadays, I have discovered that the style has changed, much slender, less oak, more freshness, more crispiness.
I hear Doug going “personally I drink a lot of Sancerre, I drink a lot of Chablis. I would die to make Chablis!” Naturally, the obvious follow-up question is in what way the Shafer Chardonnay is going? Maybe an Chablis inspired wine, packed with fruit? No, not quite. According to Doug, their chardonnay is pretty set, style-wise. “Can’t make a Chablis in Napa… though would be fun to do. Place dictates style!” The chardonnay vines are grown in Los Carneros.
2011 Merlot and Sideways, that horrible movie
If you are a Californian winemaker with a rather large portion of merlot in your portfolio, I guess there is virtually no realistic way of avoiding a meticulous discussion of the film Sideways and its implications. The subject seems to be rather unliquefiable, like a die-hard movie thug. So let’s hear it!
The story behind the Shafer Merlot starts in the early 1980s. Up until then, the merlot grape in California was primarily used as a blending grape. If you thought your cabernet was a bit harsh, you added some merlot to soften the tannins. By the early 1980s, the attention and focus Californian wines had received since the Judgment of Paris started to level off and Californian winemakers were once again fiercely competing for market space. Aiming at being the ones sticking out, coming with something new, Doug and John Shafer decided to make a wine just with merlot. This worked out very well and others pursued. Shafer Vineyards has been making merlot since 1983.
But Californian merlots were not always good. As Doug puts it, “you could go a restaurant and the merlot section would be like twenty merlots. The pinot noir section, in comparison, would maybe consist of just a few pinot noirs.
“I knew these merlots, I would say to the restaurants, you got this and this, these aren’t that good and they would go, but we’ve gotta have ‘em. ‘Cause people want merlot. Get what you expect. And now you go to restaurants, there is 25 pinots and four merlots! Sideways, what is the good thing? The good thing is… short term it was horrible. It killed merlot sales. Not internationally. But the good was, merlot was so popular, these negociant winemakers, buying lousy merlot fruit, and lousy merlot bulk wine, bottling it and making hay. And when merlot is not good, trust me, it is bad. Weedy and green and thin wine. So all the negociants stopped making merlots, and they started making… lousy pinots, hahaha! But now, the long term, anybody from California making merlot, chances are it is gonna be a good wine. Because, otherwise, they’re otta business...”
2011 Shafer Merlot is… oh this is good. I love this wine! Dark colour, packed with ripe fruit, rich, lavish, truly quaffable. I cannot get enough of this wine.
What about the 2011 vintage? Doug does not spare his words in saying that it was the worst vintage in thirty years. “Cold, tough set, low crop, cold season, rainy harvest, mold and fungus. I saw colors of mold I have never seen before. I was, hey Elias, you gotta come and see this, its… orange! It was like Europe! I have a lot of respect for European wine makers. Can’t believe they still have their hair on.”
“I sent Elias out in early June because we could tell it was a short crop: Find any grape you can find and buy it. I didn’t see him for two weeks. All I got was texts: ‘I found two tons of cab franc up here, I found two tons of merlot here…’ One day he calls me up and says ‘I found 20 tons of sauvignon blanc, what do you think?!?!’ This is my winemaker. I tell him, ‘look, we do not do sauvignon blanc!’ He goes, ‘Doug, you told me to find any grape!’ Thirty years, it is like we’re married…”
However, blending wine is not an easy task. Robert Parker, founder of The Wine Advocate, had allegedly hinted that they should put some viognier in their Syrah. “When Parker tasted our Syrah for the first time, he was so funny, he goes, hey, this is really good, but, how about some viognier in here? By this time we knew him pretty well. So we couldn’t stop ourselves from exclaiming, ‘Hey Bob, you’re asking a couple of Californian guys to put some white wine in a red wine? Well that aint gonna happen!’ So that’s the merlot.”
2011 One Point Five and mysterious Stags Leap District
The next wine is 2011 Shafer Vineyards cabernet sauvignon, named One Point Five referring to the one hand a half generations of winemaking that the Shafer family has lived through. Doug explains, “dad started the business late, second career, I joined him early, so instead of two generations we have one and a half. Hence the name. That’s kind of cute. When we first released it we had some issues with warehouses, people thought they were ordering magnums…” One Point Five is essentially cabernet sauvignon, blended with small amounts of petit verdot and malbec.
The Stags Leap District is famous for many things, the war of the apostrophes being one. One the one hand Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, founded by Warren Winiarski, on the other Stags’ Leap Winery, established by Carl Doumani. In his book, A Vineyard in Napa, Doug Shafer notes that his father, John Shafer, did not have the stomach for legal battles and subsequently did not take side.
Common belief at the time John Shafer was scouting for vineyard sites in Napa Valley, was that the Stags Leap District was too cool for cabernet sauvignon. Most people argued that you needed to plant cab in the warmer areas of Napa, such as Rutherford or Oakville. But as it turns out, perhaps due to that the Stags Leap District is a boxed canyon, and thus a cooler part of Napa Valley, the tannin structure of the wines from Stags Leap tend to be softer.
2010 was a cool year, not as tough as 2011, but with Napa standards definitely cooler. 2010 Relentless is syrah and petite sirah, ninety-six percent syrah and four percent petit sirah. It is named after Shafer Vineyard’s winemaker, Elias Fernandez, in honor of his relentless pursuit of quality and making the perfect wine.
Elias Fernandez has been at Shafer Vineyards for more than 30 years, currently as winemaker. His father came from Mexico and his mother was born in Napa Valley. Both had worked as laborers in the grape farming business.
Privately a rather quiet guy, Elias Fernandez is often quoted as a brilliant winemaker and has been named “Winemaker of the Year.” In 2002 he accepted a prestigious “Hall of Fame” award from the Hispanic Scholarship Fund in Washington D.C. and attended a White House reception hosted by President George W. Bush.
Elias Fernandez is described with the words “no detail is too small. On bottling days he arrives at the winery at 5 a.m. and personally steam cleans every fitting and every hose that comes in contact with the wine. He inspects every oak barrel and mandates ultra-high quality from all our suppliers. To maintain quality in our corks he worked meticulously with our supplier to re-invent every step a cork makes from the cork forests of Portugal to their arrival on our doorstep. Our suppliers describe Elias as “disciplined,” “focused,” “extraordinarily organized,” “pain in the neck” and “very demanding.” In other words, relentless.“
The pain in the neck theme was actually a non-serious name suggestion by both John and Doug Shafer. Doug jokes about this in his book, supposedly John Shafer had very joyfully exclaimed “we can’t call it pain in the neck!” And Doug said at the tasting, also very joyfully, “I wanted to call it Junk Yard Dog… do you know what a junk yard dog is? It is a persistent little dog that goes around nagging everyone. That is Elias.”
2009 Hillside Select and 2003 Hillside Select
The Hillside Select is Shafer Vineyards’ premium wine. Made solely from vines growing on the rugged hillsides surrounding the estate. Basically a boxed canyon, facing south, southeast. Hillside select is 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. At the tasting, we are provided with the 2003 and the 2009 Hillside Select. Doug gives a short introduction to the wine:
“We have about eight or ten different vineyard blocks on the home range and we select the best gapes every year to make this wine. It is our top wine, we have been making it since 1983. It has had a wonderful success, it has been wonderful to have this happen with my dad and he’ll be 90 in October, to be a part on the world stage. At least people told me we are. That’s kind of cool, because let me tell you, the first nine years were damn pretty ugly.”
Both are stunning wines. Powerful, rich, beautiful fruit, lush, sweet tannins. Everything you want from a red wine. I do not give points, but it does not get better than this. The 2009 is of course more tannic, and the 2003 full-bodied and open. Such wonderful wines, such a privilege to have had the opportunity to taste them.
Reopening 9,000 cases of merlot and cab. Very romantic...
Being a winemaker, can’t be that difficult, can it? Well please allow me to share Doug’s story about the H2S-problem. Or as Doug puts it, “I can laugh about this now!”
The day before thanksgiving 1986, the Shafer team – this time John, Doug, and Elias did a comparative tasting of their 1985 Merlot and 1984 Cabernet, tasted blind together with their neighbors’ wines. Six merlots from different wineries, all concealed with brown bags. “You know, taking notes, doing it very seriously…”
They all agreed that wine number three was truly nasty. “Number three, ah, nasty! Geez! What’s wrong with that! Wonder who’s that is!” The brown bags were removed, and wine number three: Shafer Merlot. “Ah, shoot, must have been a bad bottle!”
They then went on with the 1984 cabernets. Same as with the merlots, six wines, six bags. Taking notes, doing it very seriously… “Number two… Ah, number two is nasty! What’s wrong with that one?” Brown bags removed, number two: Shafer Cabernet.
Doug continues with the horror and agony that proceeded. They opened more and more bottles of the 1985 merlot and 1984 cabernet, and they all reeked of rotten eggs and sewers. It became clear that the entire production of cabernet and merlot, some nine thousand cases, had during fermentation been contaminated with hydrogen sulphide, H2S. This had in turn evolved into ethyl mercaptan, the smell of sewer.
“So I am walking in this four day week end and I’m just OMG. The good news is, these wines have yet not been released. Got to the next day, Thanksgiving holiday, which is the Friday, and Dad’s inviting Louis Martini over. So Louis Martini comes up and I asked Dad, what did Mr. Martini say? He said, “Ah, it is just a little H2S, you can fix that!” God, embarrassing!
Doug recalls that neither he nor his consultant at the time had the slightest clue of how to deal with the problem. So Doug decided to call Tony Soter, whom he knew socially.
“My consultant didn’t have a clue. So Saturday night I called a guy called Tony Soter. He started a brand called Etude, sold it to Beringer. Then he moved up to Oregon. One of the most intelligent man I have ever met. I called him Saturday night. ‘Tony! It is Doug! TA! TA! UA! You know I’ve got two kids, a three year old and a four year old…’ he goes, ‘Shafer! Shut up! Slap yourself in the face! Calm down, go ahead, take a beer, take care of your family, I’ll see you Monday morning eight o’clock. ‘
Eight o’clock the following morning Tony Soter came in, and, using Doug’s own words, “Tony Soter saved our winery.” Tony stayed on at Shafer Vineyards as a consultant, and changed much of the winemaking. “We threw out everything. Here is Elias and me, both UC Davies graduates in wine making… we are making wine with a pH-meter. Tony taught us to make wine. It sounds really easy to say now, but he taught us to make wine with our senses. Look at the grape vine – does it need water? Yes/no. Does it need to be thin? Yes/no. Look at the clusters, you know… taste the wine. Smell the wine from the barrel. Does it need to be this or that? Does it need to be filtered? Taste it, taste it, taste it, smell it, smell it…”
But, returning to the H2S-problem, there was a lot of fixing left! Firstly, all those nine thousand cases of wine had to be reopened. “Do you know how you fix four thousand cases of merlot? And three weeks later, those five thousand cases of cab? A lot of opening! You should have seen the muscle I had!” A year later, in the December issue, Wine Spectator reviewed both those wines and one got a 91, the other 93.
By this, we had finished the wines for the tasting. Just dessert left, and of course Doug answering questions. First up, never thought of leaving the wine business?
“I tried to quit, seriously, I tried to resign twice. One time for sure. Once when the 1984 chardonnays got the same scores as the 1985 chardonnays… 68 points! Think about that. I didn’t know they gave scores that low! Anyway, I walked into my dad’s office, after the second 68: I’m done. What do you mean? I said, phhh, two 68s! I’m screwing up the family business. My brothers’ gonna beat me up, can’t have that. I’m out. I’ve blown it. He goes, what did you do wrong? Heck, I picked them too soon, I had way too much acid, I pumped too much, I shouldn’t… I overfiltered it… he goes, well, don’t make the same mistake twice.”
How about making Pinots?
I have to ask Doug about the Sideways film once again, “how about making a pinot?”
“Hmm… pinots… I drink pinots. I drink a lot of pinots! Tough wine to make. And for a while, I was thinking about it. But then one guy in a restaurant held up a bottle of Shafer merlot and said, ‘see this bottle? Think about this label with pinot noir on it. Make sense? They said, naaaa! No sense at all! I don’t want fifteen different flavours of wine. You know, I missed the pinot trail. Too many guys making great pinot out there, why… no I focus on merlot and cab. I’d love to. Maybe on the side. My garage. I don’t want to do 200 cases of something and someone writes it up and no one can get it.”
From making wine in the cellar to making wine in the vineyard
About a year ago I attended a tasting with Gunter Künstler, winemaker in Rheingau. He said that “I’m not there. I feel, as a winemaker, my job is not to press my style of winemaking into wines. My job is to convert nature into a glass. Without any force, it should be expressed, each soil individually. This is my goal.”
This has also been expressed in Doug Shafer’s book, that the movement is towards making wine in the vineyard rather than in the cellar. I asked Doug about this, and he said:
“Around 1990 we began focusing more on vineyard care and how efforts in vineyards could directly improve wine quality. The goal is to achieve as much uniform ripeness as possible. All areas of vineyard care are important in these efforts: pruning, frost protection, irrigation, leafings, suckering, fruit thinning, etc. Uniform ripeness leads to uniform (and high quality) wines.”
Maybe moving to Oregon?
Someone asks about what’s next, suggesting buying land in Oregon, one of the most interesting places right now from a winemaking perspective, Doug cannot but exclaim, with a very big smile, “hey, that’s like making wine in France, why would I do that!”
“Took me a lot of beer to understand terroir”
At last, we arrive at the ever eluding concept of terroir. What is terroir, and how is it expressed in a wine? Doug tells us that he used to go to Switzerland and hook up with other winemakers, drinking beer. He had many nocturnal and beer-filled discussions with Frederick Brunier of Vieux Télégraphe, especially about terroir. And then, after many beers, Frederick finally unveiled it: the concept of terroir is not everywhere, only in certain places. Doug explains this to us: “there’s no terroir in my merlot. But there’s terroir in our Hillside Select. Took me a lot of beers to understand that!”
A sweet wine?
Finally dessert. We are served a lovely rhubarb dish, and all I can think of is the oncoming spring. Being fond of sweet wines, I cannot but ask, “how about a sweet wine?” Doug replies that in fact, he does make a sweet wine, not included in the tasting though.
“I do make a sweet wine. A port. Ah, that’s another story! Back in 1986 I said, ‘hey, let’s do some fun this year! Hey, let’s make some port! We’ll make some port and we won’t tell dad.’ So we took some grapes from a vineyard which is called Sunspot, which is the building block of Hillside select. Port’s really easy to make. Boom, you’re done.
“I walked into his office and said, Dad, I want you to try something. Young port. Whats that? Dad, we’re making port! He goes: really? What grapes did you use? Sunspot! The vineyards he planted. He looked at me and said: ‘You took 300 gallons of my cabernet and you did this to it?’ Ouch! My next thought was, he’s gonna yell!”
But he did not. Instead, he asked Doug for production notes, marketing plan, how it will fit in the line with the other wines, etc. In other words, he got the polite version of “right back at ya!” Doug had to return to his co-conspirer Elias and hand over the bad news: “We’re in trouble – hide the port!”
The port was tucked away, not mentioned for four years. Then it needed to be bottled. Doug had to go back to his dad and give him the bad news a second time, that the previous stolen cab now had to be bottled. John Shafer just said, “just bottle it and get rid of it. No label, no cap. Just cork. Give it away.” So after bottling, there were a lot of “Merry Christmas, have some port! To the plumber, Merry Christmas, have some port! Mailman, merry Christmas, have some port!”
Somehow though, it got itself into a restaurant, and Doug was asked how much there was. “I tell the story, it picks up speed, and people start writing letters to my dad, ‘Dear Mr. Shafer…’ But still no, no. Then we’re sitting dinner one night, 1991, brother-in-law, who is a winemaker, they’re drinking some of this port, after dinner. Joe goes to my dad, hey, this is pretty good! And dad goes, you think so? Yes! You could sell this 90 bucks! Next day, dad goes, label the port!
I ask Doug if the grapes used for the port still come from the Sunspot vineyard, expecting a “no.” But yes – they still do! Shafer port, or Firebreak as it is called, is still made from the best grapes. Doug exclaims, “always great fruit year in and year out!”
Many, many thanks to Doug Shafer for sharing the story of Shafer Vineyards and for letting us taste the wines!