Shafer Vineyards CEO Doug Shafer tells the story of his family’s winery in his recently published memoir, A Vineyard in Napa. In an exclusve interview with Decanter, he discusses the book, and his views on the wine industry.
How would you describe your taste in wine?
I started in this business as a winemaker and given that orientation, I like to try everything. My wife and I just came back from Italy and we were fortunate to spend some time at Ornellaia and Poggio al Tesoro and a few others. I loved trying wines you don’t see here often, like Vermentino, and I was interested in their take on familiar varietals such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It’s all fascinating to me. So that’s the winemaker side. As a wine consumer – in terms of what I buy and drink at home – I don’t have a lot of rules. I drink what sounds good with what sounds good in the moment – sometimes a certain night with a particular group of friends seems like a good time for a Bordeaux, a Chablis, a Napa Valley Cab, a New Zealand Pinot or a bottle of Champagne.
What is the most exciting grape variety you work with, and why?Hard to say. We only really work with five varieties at Shafer – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and the Syrah and Petite Sirah that we blend in Relentless. I’m about the millionth winemaker to say it, but they’re like kids. Each has their challenges, each offers their own rewards. And you never cross the goal the line and spike the ball with any of them. It’s always a work in progress, which is what keeps it exciting vintage after vintage. I think if you ever wake up during harvest and your heart doesn’t skip a beat then it’s time to find another line of work.
What is the most difficult part of running a winery?
For me it’s not working in the cellar and in the vineyard any more. I miss it.
What makes your wines special?
What makes them special to me is knowing what it took to get us here. I think that with Shafer you can buy a bottle and know what you’re going to get no matter what vintage date is on the label. And reaching that experience level as a team in which you can hit a certain mark every year takes a long time and a lot of hard work. What’s special is when I look around the winery I see our team in the vineyard, our team in the cellar and our team on the administrative side – we’re talking about maybe 19 or 20 people – and everyone shows up every day and does their utmost to get this right. What makes our wines special to Shafer fans?I hope it’s because the wines are delicious. I think that’s a wine’s job.
Do old vines make better wine?
With the vines we work, the varietals we work with on this property, I don’t see older vines offering better quality. I know other people have vines that are 80 or 90 years old and talk about getting amazing results. That hasn’t been my experience here. After about 25 years in this California climate with all the sunlight and great temperatures, I see vines getting old and tired. It’s like that saying about the light that burns brightest burn shortest. Out here the vines burn bright and then they’re done. They taper off.
What wines would you choose to drink if you were celebrating?
My wife, Annette, and I reach for a Billecart-Salmon Champagne.
What is the single most memorable wine you have ever drunk?
It’s hard to say that there’s been one. There’s definitely been a top tier. For example not long ago I had the ’78 Cabernet that my dad (John Shafer) made and it’s just rocking. Go dad!
Are there any wines you’ve never tasted that you really want to try?
I would love to try some of the wines made by John Daniels at Inglenook in the ‘40s and ‘50s. There are still a few bottles tucked away in the Valley here and there.
Is wine too expensive?
I’ve had wines I thought were overpriced for the quality they delivered. But I see a lot of really pretty, delicious, striking wines under $40 and $50. In some cases way under. Likewise I’ve enjoyed wines that were very special well over $150 or $200. I really think we’re in a golden age of wine. There are so many outstanding choices at so many price points I see no reason to be gloom and doom. Whatever you enjoy is available. How many times in history has that been the case?
Do you make wine for consumers, critics or yourself?
It’s probably some combination of consumers and what we like at the winery between Elias, Dad and me. I can’t imagine not listening to your customers – that seems like a bad business model. Likewise I don’t see any wisdom in making wine for specific critics. I know there are conspiracy theories out there that winemakers spend a lot of time trying to tweak their wines to please one critic or other. We’ve never done that and I haven’t heard any of our neighbors talk about doing that. For long-term success word of mouth from one consumer to another remains the best advertising there is. And I think you really only get that by earning it – making wines that people really enjoy drinking vintage after vintage.
What is the most exciting wine region of the world at the moment?
That’s a difficult choice as it seems like every region has something interesting going on. Argentina and the soaring popularity of Malbecs, New Zealand Pinot and Sauvignon blancs. I think South Africa has some interesting wines and winemakers. France and Italy always have something worth paying attention to. Areas of the former Soviet Union feel like they’re poised for a renaissance.
What is the one myth about wine that you would like to see buried?
I’d love to see the idea that there’s only one correct style of wine banished for all time. I think it’s time to strum some guitars, put some flowers in our hair, hold hands and agree that a world filled with lots of different styles of wine is a good thing.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making wine?
I’d like to think I’d be running a cowboy bar with live music, good food, and dancing on Friday night.
How has Shafer Vineyards’ success at Premiere Napa Valley changed the way you do things? [Shafer Vineyards has consistently donated one of the top lots to the Premiere Napa Valley auction that takes place annually in the winter in the Napa Valley. In 2013, their 5-case lot sold for US$50,000 and earned the highest per bottle price of the event.]
Premiere is one of my favorite events each year. It’s a lot of fun to see what our neighbors have put together for their auction lots and to see friends in the trade and media. As for success at Premiere, I don’t think it’s really changed anything for us. It’s one of many events we participate in throughout the year.
Why should people drink California wine?
People should drink what they enjoy. If it’s California, that’s fine. If not, that’s okay too. What we see is that people who buy Shafer wines are also buying wines from other great wine regions around the world so I don’t believe many consumers sees it as an either-or proposition. I think a lot of wine drinkers take a pretty expansive and eclectic view in terms of what they put in their cellars.
Why did you decide to write “A Vineyard in Napa”?
In 2004, we produced a self-published hardbound 75-page book called “From the Ground Up” by my dad to celebrate the winery’s 25th anniversary. A few years later my daughter Katie had an internship at a literary agency and showed it to an agent named Kelly Sonnack who called and said “I think you’ve got a real book in you.” I was pretty certain she was wrong. Who wants to read a book about one winery tucked away in one wine region? That’s a pretty small audience and I really wasn’t sure if anyone here had anything book-length to say. But when Kelly – and then my eventual co-author, Andy Demsky – started talking about the idea of making it more a memoir of the Valley and of Stags Leap District through the Shafer “lens” then I started to see it and started to come around. The incredible reception that book has received has been very nice and in some ways a big surprise.
What is the worst mistake (wine related) you’ve ever made?
There have been too many to count. I think it’s healthiest to learn from them and let them go.
[Image: Priscilla B. Upton Photography]
Written by Kyle Schlachter