Shafer Vineyards is family owned and dates from 1978 (their inaugural vintage). John Shafer (died 2019) founded Shafer Vineyards after a long corporate career in the book publishing industry, based in Chicago. In 1972 at the age of 48 he and his family moved to the Napa Valley and purchased 209 acres which at the time had 30 acres of vines dating from 1922 (none of these old vines remain as they have all been replanted). John actually made wine for the first time in 1977, home wine from grapes from some of the old Zinfandel vines; this same year they also sold their first grapes to Spring Mountain Vineyards.
This is one of the Napa Valley’s finest older still family owned wineries. They define the word quality in everything they do.
Premium wineries must have excellent vineyard sources; it also helps to have a winemaker who is intimately familiar with one’s own vineyards along with retaining key employees on the winemaking side of the operations. All of these factors are sources of continuity and are a big reason why high-end wineries in the Napa Valley continue to produce premium wines regardless of the vintage. At Shafer a source of pride is the longevity of their employees; John’s son Doug is the President (used to be winemaker) and the head winemaker is Elias Fernandez; both have been with the winery since 1983 and 1984 respectively.
During our first visit and tour of the property, we briefly met Elias; on what was a fine first day of summer he was supervising the arrival of many new French oak barrels. His attention to detail is commanding in the industry with visual & smell tests of every single barrel that arrives, among other inspections.
Their highest quality fruit comes from the hillsides above the winery; the vines grow very scraggly clusters of tiny grapes rather then the often larger more tightly bunched fruit clusters more common on the valley floor. These clusters have a higher stem to grape ratio. However, looks are not everything when it come to grapes in the wine industry; these hillside plantings are the foundation for the Hillside Select wine.
One of the characteristics of Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon is its softness; their Hillside Select wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Shafer learned early on that this wine did not need to be blended with additional varieties. And over the years, John told us that some wine trade folks were persistent about questioning how much Merlot went into this wine, when in actuality it is 100% varietal. This wine has become popular among serious wine enthusiasts and collectors.
And while the focus of their red wines is on their Stags Leap estate property, in 1988 they pruchased 70 acres on Duhig Road in the cooler Carneros region. They planted this property, the Red Shoulder Ranch to Chardonnay and it supplies all the fruit needed for their Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay.
While the winery was completed in 1980 (their first two vintages were produced off site), over the years a number of improvements have been added to the property. Solar arrays provide all of their electricity needs (panels cover the roof of the main winery building) and a number of years ago Shafer completed a major remodel of the winery including building a larger barrel room.
Note the rusty looking metal till that sits in front of the main stairwell leading up to the office; this was the first till on the tractor John used to ride around in the vineyards. John is now in his 90’s (he took up sculpture in his 80’s (and tango, but that is another story), and one of his first works was of their wine dog Tucker. This bronze sculpture is located directly next to the main entrance.
Due to the demand for tasting, it is recommended you reserve up to 6 weeks in advance and perhaps slightly more during busy summer and harvest/fall months. Tasting is held in spacious room in which one side of the room opens accordion style to the outside overlooking the large lawn and vineyards.
Shafer offers two tastings per day at 10am and 2pm (note that they are closed on the weekends) and always limit these experiences to no more than 10 people per any visit. One of their hospitality team told us that they have learned that guests within larger groups of 11 or more tend to be more reserved but with smaller groups there is more social interaction occurs and guests have an overall better experience. It would be nice if all wineries who conducted tastings had this philosophy.
One episode of Falcon’s Crest was filmed here making this one of three Napa wineries that we know of to appear in that show (the other two being Spring Mountain Vineyards and Stags’ Leap Winery).
Despite being closed to the public, and being a gated winery, Shafer has a refreshing philosophy in allowing those who want to buy wine to drive in to the winery during their normal business hours (not always the case with gated wineries). Usually the gate is open during their weekday business hours.
Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez jointly produce another label called Eighty Four Wines – named in tribute of the year when both began working together at Shafer. These are Napa based, non Cabernet Sauvignon 100% varietal wines – including a very rare for Napa, 100% Albariño, a Malbec and a Petite Sirah.
Select Wines & Winemaking
Some of their wines are accompanied by interesting stories. One is called Relentless; this tasty Syrah is named after Elias and his relentless pursuit of perfection; the One Point Five is tribute to numerous wineries in which the 2nd generation takes over completely after the founding first generation retire – in this case, Doug is the .5 and John is the 1 as John never had to hand transition control of the winery since both have worked in tandem since the early years.
The Shafer Merlot tends to be a more robust wine then is commonly produced of this variety yet at the same time features a structure that is fairly supple across the palate; it is completely in balance. The One Point Five showcases their Stags Leap District fruit, the flavors are rich and layered and lead to a finish of great length.
Tasting notes coming by 2020 or 2021. Doug if you see this, drop me a note!
With his fathers book publishing heritage, perhaps it comes as no surprise that Doug co-authored a book in 2012 called A Vineyard in Napa. This excellent read is a detailed look at his fathers life and his decision to move his family across the country to start a new life and career. It describes the Shafer story of their success, many of the ‘bumps’ in the road faced over the years, their hard work and valuable contributions to the Napa wine world. Also details Doug and Elias’s significant efforts over the years. A highly recommended read. For a limited time, the winery will have copies of this book for sale on the counter next to their reception room.
And Doug is contributing valuable oral history to Napa Valley’s heritage through his podcasts with well-known winemakers and others who have made valuable contributions in the world of food and wine, primarily to the Napa Valley. Called, The Taste with Doug Shafer these podcasts are informal conversations with people that Doug personally knows lasting usually around 60 minutes but up to much longer for select individuals.
John Shafer spent a fair amount of time on charity work; he started the Napa Valley Vintners Community Health Center which is home to several health related non profits. And in 1985 he played an instrumental role in the creation of Stags Leap District becoming and official American Viticultural Area (AVA) – the third of Napa’s current 16 sub appellations.
Lastly check out John’s wine book, Shafer’s Line on Wine, a collection of interesting wine trivia (although note this book has not been published for many years). For more information about Shafer Vineyards, to schedule an appointment or to join their mailing list, visit: www.shafervineyards.com
My visit to Shafer was very early on in this project and was the first really high end Napa winery I had visited. The folks here were gracious hosts – after I arrived and checked in, unexpectedly I was soon alone upstairs in a private tasting with Napa statesman John Shafer.
John is an accomplished individual with an unbridled passion for life and people which has not been tempered in his elderly years.
This tasting was completely intimidating at first – here I was a total novice at this – tasting Shafer’s premium wines with the master who has been growing fruit and making wine in the Stags Leap district for many years and whose wines are very well regarded.
As we moved through the wines he asked my “educated” opinion about the vintages we were tasting. I vaguely remember stuttering out something like “these are very well made wines” but was unable to offer up any other introspective or tasting note details based on my untrained palate at the time.
I’ve thought back on my first visit here a number of times over the years and always treasured the fact John personally took time to conduct this tasting.