Shafer Vineyards (1/5): Becoming a winemaker, and Chardonnay 2012

Being Relentless – Shafer Vineyards’ Doug Shafer Shares his Views on Wine, Sideways, Hydrogen Sulphide, and How to Steal 300 Gallons of Excellent Cab to Make a Port

#1 of 5. John Shafer started Shafer Vineyards in 1974. In 1984 he was joined by his son Doug Shafer, who now runs the winery. BKWine’s Ulf Bengtsson met Doug Shafer over a wine tasting and lunch. In this first of five articles Doug tells the story from the beginning and Ulf starts tasting wine.

This is the first of five in a series of articles on Shafer Vineyards. Read them all!:

Meeting Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards over lunch and a wine tasting with Doug pouring wines and telling stories is clearly a diaphragmental exercise. You laugh, you cry. 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 move: John Shafer, at the age of 47, being a successful corporate executive living in an affluent Chicago suburb, suddenly and very much unexpectedly uprooted his family and moved to Napa valley to become a wine maker without hardly any prior knowledge of (a) growing grapes, (b) making wine, and (c) running a family business. Not entirely true, but close enough.

Doug Shafer, his son, gives me his side of the story:

“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, in my opinion to grow cabernet. In 1974, I got the bug, went to UC Davis, ended up with a proper degree in winemaking.”

Doug Shafer, Shafer Vineyards

Doug Shafer, Shafer Vineyards, copyright Ulf Bengtsson

“I joined dad in 1983. In 1984 we hired Elias Fernandez, also a UC Davies graduate, mostly because he had better grades than me. Dad, I, 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.”

Although Napa Valley turns out to be the ideal place to live and grow grapes, Doug Shafer seems to be unable to conceal certain secrets: “Personally I drink a lot of Sancerre; I drink a lot of Chablis. I would die to make Chablis!” Doug jokes about becoming a European and buying five acres in the Loire Valley, “it is so not going to happen”.

Shafer Vineyards produces around 35,000 cases annually, and has done so the last twenty years. Mostly with its own grapes, and five different wines: Red Shoulder Chardonnay, Merlot, Relentless, One Point Five, and Hillside Select. No more, no less. They have no plans on expanding the output of 35,000 cases.

Well, as you might have guessed by now I am taking part in a lunch tasting with Shafer Vineyards, having Doug Shafer pouring wine, telling stories and revealing the hush-hush things. It became so interesting that I had to read his book, A Vineyard in Napa. Here and there I have picked up bits and pieces of information from the book. But mostly it is Doug Shafer talking.

But first some wine!

2012 Chardonnay

We start off with some white, the 2012 Chardonnay. Barrel fermented, 75 per cent French oak barrels and 25 per cent stainless steel. Doug notes that it used to be a hundred percent oak, but then the oak became too overpowering. The stainless steel part is also aimed at making the wines stay fresh longer. To make it creamier the lees are stirred.

Ah, the freshness in this wine is stunning! 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 on the nose. Doug explains, “Sometimes you go wow, is that sweet? No, that is just the amount of fruit we have. Melon, papaya, banana…“ The oak balances it all nicely up, giving the wine a firm structure.

Shafer Chardonnay, Napa Valley

Shafer Vineyards Chardonnay, Napa Valley, copyright Ulf Bengtsson

My interest in chardonnays is just at the beginning, evolving steadily. When I first became interested in wine, one of my first try-outs was high-priced Burgundian chardonnays. They were terrible, oxidized, over-oaked, too much of everything. And loved by everyone else. The feeling of being the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes could not be more present! But that was ten years ago. Nowadays, I have discovered that the style has changed, much more slender, less oak, more freshness, more crispiness.

I ask Doug about in what direction Shafer’s chardonnay is moving, given the preference for Chablis. Maybe a Chablis-inspired wine, although with a truckload of fruit? No, not quite. Doug replies that their chardonnay is pretty set, style-wise. “Can’t make a chablis in Napa… Although it would be fun to do. Place dictates style!” The chardonnay vines are grown in Los Carneros.

This is the first of five in a series of articles on Shafer Vineyards. Read them all!:

Ulf Bengtsson writes about wine under the pseudonym Red Scream on his blog Red Scream and Riesling, on wine, food, photography and other things that are important in life. Like detective novels, taking long walks in Stockholm and the occasional burst of exercise. He is also on Facebook.

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