Shafer Vineyards (4/5): Opening 9000 cases of merlot and cabernet

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

#4 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 fourth of five articles it is question of the dangers of tasting wines blind and of the joys of reopening 9000 cases of merlot and cabernet sauvignon. And what it does to your physique.

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

Reopening 9,000 cases of merlot and cab. By hand…

But let us return to the first nine years! Does anyone still have romantic illusions about being a winemaker? Can’t be that difficult, can it? Well, allow me to share Doug’s story about the H2S-problem, verging on being an ultimate I can laugh about this now-story.

The day before thanksgiving in 1986, the Shafer team – this time John, Doug, Elias and somebody from the office – did a comparative tasting of their 1985 Merlot and the 1984 Cabernet comparing it with their neighbours’ wines. Blind tasting, all in brown bags. Six merlots from different wineries; “You know, taking notes, doing it very seriously…”

They all agreed that wine number three was truly nasty. “Number three, ah, nasty! Jeez! What’s wrong with that? Wonder whose that is!” The brown bags were removed, and number three: Shafer Merlot. “Ah, shoot, must have been a bad bottle!”

They then went on with the 1984 cabernets. Same thing 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 been contaminated with hydrogen sulphide, H2S, during fermentation. This had in turn evolved into ethyl mercaptan, the smell of sewer.

“So I am going into this four day week end and I’m just ‘Oh My God’. The good news is these wines have yet not been released. The next day, Thanksgiving holiday, which was the Friday, Dad was 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 (ed.: a winemaking consultant, but without any formal winemaking degree), 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 men 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 Monday 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 thinned? 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…”

Doug Shafer, Shafer Vineyards

Doug Shafer, Shafer Vineyards, copyright Ulf Bengtsson

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!”

“I had to rebottle these seven or eight thousand cases of wine. I found a glass recycler, out of Oakland, California. The company was called Encore. I am loading the empty bottles, and I am not happy. You know, I’m living on caffeine, Coca-Cola and doughnuts, slamming these pallets in the truck.”

“The guy goes, ‘Hey, hey, hey, you’re beating the heck out of my trailer, stop that!’

He goes, ‘Wait a minute, you don’t look too happy!’

I go, ‘Yeah, really?’ He’s been here for three days, he knows what’s going on inside, obviously.

He goes, ‘Come here.’ I’ll never forget this. Big dude, big truck driver. He says, ‘Get of that forklift.’

He puts his arm around me and says, ‘Come here. Look at that, the side that says Encore, you have ever seen this truck up here before?’

I say, ‘Well, at my winery for the last three days!’

‘No, on the road?’ He goes, ‘We’re up here all the time. Feeling better?’


A year later, in the December issue, Wine Spectator reviewed both those wines and one had 91, the other 93.

This is the fourth of four 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.

BKWine organises wine tours, with wine tastings and winery visits, for wine lovers to many of the world’s wine regions but currently we do not offer any wine tours to California. Contact us if you are interested in a custom designed wine tour to California or to any other wine region in the world.

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This post is also available in: Swedish

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  1. Shafer Vineyards (1/5): Becoming a winemaker, and Chardonnay 2012 | BKWine Magazine |BKWine Magazine - July 15, 2014

    […] Shafer Vineyards (4/5): Opening 9000 cases of merlot and cabernet […]

  2. Shafer Vineyards (2/5): A catastrophic vintage and the mysterious Stags Leap, and 2011 One Point Five | BKWine Magazine |BKWine Magazine - July 17, 2014

    […] Shafer Vineyards (4/5): Opening 9000 cases of merlot and cabernet […]

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