How John Shafer selected a hillside
Objectivity shmobjectivity. I was pumped to land an hour-plus last summer with one of the Napa Valley’s iconic figures, John Shafer.
In previous years, I had spent a good bit of time with his gregarious and hilarious son, Doug, and his gifted and meticulous winemaker, Elias Fernandez. Completing the Shafer trinity was going to be seriously cool.
A former World War II bomber pilot and publishing executive, Shafer came west in 1972 and bought some Stags Leap land with scraggly vines planted a half-century earlier. He ripped those up and replanted, and within a few years had a coveted vineyard. In 1978 he launched Shafer Vineyards.
Rather than get in the way, I’ll let John tell more of the story in his own words:
“In 1968 I was with [Stags Leap grower] Nathan Fay and had the best wine I’d ever tasted. I knew then I wanted to come to Stags Leap.
“I had a hankering for farming; don’t know why. And I wanted a hillside.
“In 1978 for the cab, we had to use electric blankets to get malo.
“Mike Robbins of Spring Mountain tasted our 1978 [cabernet] and said “˜I want a 20-year contract.’ We were in the same square-dance group. Aside from Taylor’s Refreshers, there were two restaurants in the valley: the Grapevine Inn [now Brix] and Wolfdale’s.
“Early on we were focused on finding the right grapes for the right place. In 30 years we’ve learned how to catch up with the Europeans.
“See that hill over there? That’s where they shot a wedding scene for “˜Falcon Crest.’ That Lana Turner, she was something.
“In Stags Leap we use little or no merlot because we don’t need it. [Wine writer] Bob Thomson always said that Stags Leap plays Margaux to the west side’s Pauillac.
“In 1989 I went to Italy. I wanted to do a red proprietary wine, but not an Opus or Insignia, more like Tignanello. I came back and told Doug, let’s try a sangiovese-cabernet blend. There were 150 wineries making sangiovese. We all thought it would be the next merlot.
“A wine has a responsibility to taste good. And if it does, it’s almost always because it’s in balance, the fruit, tannins, acidity.
“We’ve chosen not to be organic, because Mother Nature throws a lot of stuff at ya.
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