Tag Archives: California

A family, a place, a passion. The Shafer Vineyard in Napa.

It’s not that often, surfing into a wine producers website, you find the registered trademark logo next to the names of the wines. You do at Shafer Vineyards’. And if you are lucky to have a bottle of one of their wines, for example the One Point Five, the Relentness or the iconic Hillside Select, you will find the ® on the label too. Reading Doug Shafer’s “A Vineyard in Napa” makes you understand why.

The book came into my hands some months ago, borrowed from an enthusiastic friend. “You get such a good feeling reading it,” he said. “The enthusiasm, the early years and all those interesting details. Did you know there were companies specialised on buying used bottles from the wineries, cleaning them and selling again?”

Doug Shafer, A Vineyard in Napa“Shafer had to use one of those back in the mid ’80s when a hydrogen-sulphide problem forced them to unscrew all bottles by hand to get the wine back into tanks, fixing and filtering before going back into bottle.”

Yes, I did get a good feeling. Reading it first before Christmas, and now, “thanks to” a week in the sickbed, once more. (Guess I have to return the book now. Thanks P for the loan!)

I love these kind of stories. That is why George Taber’s “The Paris Judgment” is one of my favourites, and now this book continues the California wine story. While Taber puts a big focus on the time up till the 1973 event and a bit past it, Shafer’s story overlaps as it really starts off in January 1973 when John Shafer, Doug’s father, puts his family in their car and drives from Chicago to the newly bought vineyard in what is now the Stags Leap District, California.

Doug was 17 then, and did not have a clue of what was waiting him. Did not know that his father’s obsessive search for a hillside vineyard, would lead the family to a place so suited for Cabernet Sauvignon that their Hillside Select now is considered to be one of the California iconic wines. Something of course not possible without a constant quest for quality from the Shafer family, their employees and not least winemaker Elias Fernandez, who has been on the Shafer ship since 1984. Passion.

The book takes us through the ups and downs of their enterprise as well as the valley’s, spiced with many anecdotes. For example how a film star funeral on the estate gave name to one of the plots and how the troubles establishing another, including exploding sprinkler heads on a completely unnecessary overhead sprinkler system, made Mom Bett call it “John’s Folly”.

We also learn how lack of picking crew contributed to the greatness of John Shafer’s very first Hillside Select, the 1978, which by the way became the long time benchmark as it was not until the 1991 that Doug and Elias thought they made a comparable vintage. Other stories tell about process to create the Stags Leap District AVA, the phylloxera return and its effect in the ’90s and how Amigo Bob advised them during the first steps into sustainable growing.

I like the stories, I like the personal voice, and, I do like to follow the Shafer’s and the development of their vineyards, winery and practices. Of course it is subjective, the story is from Doug Shafer’s perspective and gives a flavour of the Napa history from the ’70s up till now. However, I like this genre of the wine literature, and in this one especially the personal touch and the heartwarming enthusiasm. A warm reading recommendation for this winery and Napa chronicle.

Hey, I hear the attentive reader shout, “what about the registered trademark?” Well, this is how Doug describes the importance of the brand and I think this quote is a good example of the passion expressed throughout the book.

“Your brand is your promise to the consumer. It’s your reputation. It’s the encapsulation of your core values. At a winery of our size it’s not just a logo. It’s those long hours I spent in the early ’80s trying to make wine and learn the art of winemaking at the same time. It’s the weeks Dad spent in airports and rental cars to sell our wine. Our brand is the hundreds of times Dad, Elias, and I have gotten up in freezing, predawn hours to taste grapes in the vineyard. It’s the all-nighters. It’s the vintages that wouldn’t let us sleep. It’s the days I missed with my family because of a sales schedule that had me in New York or London or Hamburg or on a cruise ship in icy rain. When someone attempts to steal our brand it’s personal, as though some part of my family has been assaulted.” (p. 148)

Doug Shafer, A Vineyard in Napa

And Doug, if I ever got the opportunity to come to California and Napa, I would love to visit Shafer Vineyards. Even if this is one of those probably thousands of  wine blogs you’ve never hear of, I think I fall into the category you describe as the passionate and diligent who do this for the love of wine. I would gladly book me into one of the “max ten people visit tastings” and enjoy myself. And, when coming, guess I don’t have to go up and down Silverado Trail to find the entrance to the Shafer driveway as you did the very first night driving home from basketball practice in St. Helena back in 1973. Forty years later it is another Napa, an established spot of fine wine making on our globe.

“A Vineyard in Napa” by Doug Shafer with Andy Demsky;
Foreword by Danny Meyer. (2012) University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. ISBN 978-0-520-27236-1

The wines of history – 1976

I am really fascinated by wine and history. It may be thousands of years back or just some decades, it does not matter. History gives perspectives. Histories bring the wine to life. History is histories about wine and the characters of wine.

On top of the pile of wine books right now is George Taber’s “Judgment of Paris; California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine”. It is the second time I read the book and it is just as interesting now as it was the first time, perhaps even more. So much information and historical details, so many small stories within the history. So captivating. It is hard to stop reading.

Taber was the only journalist present at the historical blind tasting in Paris, where the Californian wines beat the French. This is his story about the tasting, but also the story about the people behind the wines. Taber puts The Paris Judgment in an historical perspective by letting us follow him on a time journey before and after the tasting.

We get to follow Steven Spurrier who arranged the tasting together with his collegue Patricia Gallagher. We get the details of how the wines were chosen, about the tasting and the effects of it. (And the story was not as in the movie Bottle shock. The movie may be a light entertainment, but it is not an historical document. Read the book!)

The part of the book I appreciate mostly, is the one telling the background of the Californian winning wines. It is the stories about the different winemakers and the winery owners. But it is also the story about the pioneering spirit of Napa Valley, about helping hands between wineries and about the desire to experiment, renew and improve the winemaking methods. “What is good for Napa and California, that is also good for my wine and my success.” That was the attitude during a time when people not regarded the Californian wines very highly, not even in the US, and when consumers were led to the French shelves in the wine stores.

The 24 of May in 1976, a beautiful sunny day in Paris, history was written. California brings home the victory for the white Chardonnay wines, as well as for the red ones made of Cabernet Sauvignon. The tasting confirmed what few knew, something that almost had been a secret reserved for the most knowledegable. The fact that California could make great wines. That knowledge was from this date spread over the world.

This day also became a milestone in the development of the New World. If California can, we can. That was the conclusion. And France was shaken. Those who embraced the result, travelled to California to experience and learn from their winemakers.

Quite recently I had the opportunity to taste the winning white wine from Chateau Montelena. Then it was the 1973 vintage. Now 2009. 

It was a winner today, just as it was back in 1976. Elegant, austere, fresh fruitiness with notes of lemon. On the palate almost fullbodied, a lovely buttery character with fruit, exotic notes and lemon. Very well balanced and concentrated. Lingering in the mouth for a very long time. Delightful, lovely, wonderfully tasty.

In 1973 it was Jim Barrett who, together with his winemaker Mike Grgich (now Grgich Hills Estate) were the men behind the winning wine. Today it is Jim’s son Bo Barrett who is main responsible for the winemaking.

If you get the chance to taste a Montelena; take it, enjoy it and feel the history of wine.

Addition March 2013: The news has reached us that Jim Barrett died on March 14, aged 86. Chateau Montelena will remain in ownership of the Barrett family, now with Bo Barrett as CEO.