Shafer Vineyards: A Star of the Stags Leap District

Attractive Vineyard in Northern CaliforniaShafer Vineyards traces its beginnings to 1972 when John Shafer left a 23-year career in the publishing industry and, with his family, moved to the Napa Valley to pursue a second career in wine.

It was the lure of wine country farming that inspired Shafer to make that career change. After purchasing a 210-acre estate in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District, the Shafer family faced the arduous task of replanting the existing vineyards, which dated to the 1920s, and terracing the steep and rocky hillsides, eventually expanding vineyard acreage to its current 50 acres.

Adopting a hands-on approach from day one, John could be seen throughout the mid-1970s riding on his tractor as he tilled the soil of his family’s new estate in the foothills of the Stags Leap Palisades.

Evolving from grape growers to vintners, the Shafers crushed their first Cabernet grapes in 1978 and began construction on their winery a year later. The debut wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon, was released in 1981 to a chorus of high praise and awards, including a first place in the San Francisco Vintners Club Cabernet Taste-off.

That first Shafer Cabernet became a benchmark wine. More than a decade later, it took first place in an international blind tasting held in Germany, where it outranked such wines as Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour and Chateau Palmer.

“I’ll never forget the Napa Valley Vintners’ 1981 Wine Symposium and the debut of our first vintage,” Shafer says. “Because I was the new kid on the block, all the big shots of winedom were coming by to taste my first release. Commenting on how well-developed and soft this Cabernet was for a wine that hadn’t even been released yet, many asked the same question: ‘How much Merlot did you add?’”

“’None,’ was my reply. The truth was the first wine I made was 100% hillside Cabernet because that was all I had. But the tasters kept asking about Merlot.

“One of them, a wine buyer, was especially persistent. Returning a second time, he slipped behind my table, lowered his voice, and swore to secrecy if I let him in on it: ‘How much Merlot did you blend?’

“What I didn’t know then, but realized later, was that the persistent wine buyer had identified the most prominent attribute of Cabernet grown in the Stags Leap District: the silky, supple, velvety tannins that don’t require softening by the addition of Merlot.”

Adds Shafer: “It was that distinct character so strongly identified with this region that prompted me, four years later, to head up a committee of growers and vintners in petitioning the government to designate this region the Stags Leap District appellation, now recognized worldwide for its Cabernet Sauvignon.”

With each passing year, the Shafers learned more about the nature of grape growing in the Stags Leap District, now acknowledged as one of the world’s best regions for the cultivation of Cabernet. What began for Shafer as a career in viticulture quickly expanded into full-scale winemaking.

Doug Shafer became winemaker in 1983 after graduating from the University of California at Davis with a degree in enology and viticulture. A year later, Elias Fernandez joined the winery as assistant winemaker. Together, Doug and Elias have worked closely to forge the Shafer style of quality, consistency and elegance.

New vineyards have been added over the years, with acreage acquired in the Oak Knoll, Stags Leap and Carneros districts, bringing the total Shafer vineyard acreage to more than 200 acres. Winery facilities have been expanded and extensive caves carved into the hillside for aging wine.

In 1994, Elias was appointed winemaker, and Doug took over the reins as president when John became chairman of the board.

From a modest beginning of 1,000 cases in 1978, Shafer Vineyards has grown steadily until reaching its present size of 32,000 cases of Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and, yes, Merlot.

Beyond that, John Shafer will always be remembered for the pivotal role he played in the establishment of the prestigious Stags Leap District appellation. A dynamic leader, much like Robert Mondavi before him, he works tirelessly to broaden international awareness of the nature and quality of the wines from that special part of the Napa Valley.

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Posted in Wineries of Distinction
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