John Shafer - Decanter interview

John Shafer california People & Places Articles
  • Wednesday 15 September 2004

In 1979, a former Chicago businessman fermented his first Napa vintage in electric blankets. The wine’s success persuaded John Shafer to build a winery, and 25 years on, Shafer Vineyards is one of Napa’s top names. GUY WOODWARD hears a Californian success story

In 1979, a former Chicago businessman fermented his first Napa vintage in electric blankets. The wine’s success persuaded John Shafer to build a winery, and 25 years on, Shafer Vineyards is one of Napa’s top names. Guy Woodward hears a Californian success story.

Chicago, 1972, and a 47-year-old executive, in charge of long-term planning for a publishing company, is about to make an impressively far-sighted move. There’s just one problem. It’s not for the company. It’s for himself.

John Shafer had reached that time in life when corporate politics had become stifling. Frustrated at the conservative nature of business (Shafer: ‘How about we take a look at video as a medium for education?’ Board of directors: ‘No, we’ll stick to textbooks, thanks John), Shafer started reading a few textbooks of his own. He discovered two things: California’s fledgling wine industry was being heralded as the next big thing; and if you want to have a second career, you have to make it happen before you hit 50.

‘I was ready,’ says Shafer. ‘I wasn’t retiring, nor could I afford to. My motivation was to be in business for myself, and to be in on the ground floor of what I perceived would be a growing phenomenon. Plus I wanted to work outdoors.’

At this point, Shafer’s knowledge of wine extended as far as a few bottles of Mateus Rosé. But he had developed what he refers to as a ‘gnawing interest’ in the future of wine in California, and started reading up on grape-growing and winemaking.

In May 1972, Shafer trawled the Napa Valley in search of land. Together with a real estate agent, he visited a number of unpromising sites. Shafer had read up on Italian varieties, and had concluded that they needed dry, gravelly hillsides. The agent licked his lips, and casually mentioned a derelict hillside site in a district called Stags Leap, planted to unfashionable varieties such as Carignane and Sauvignon Vert.

Stags Leap was virtually unknown at the time, this being before either Clos du Val or Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars had released their first vintage. The site had been on the market for three years, and had been turned down already by a host of established winery owners. Shafer snapped it up.

Six months later, the Chicago businessman, who a year earlier had never been within ten miles of a grapevine, moved his family – and their inheritance – thousands of miles west.

STARTING AFRESH

‘I’d only ever seen him in a suit and tie getting the train,’ says Shafer’s son Doug. ‘Suddenly I was coming home to find him in a straw hat on a tractor.’

Doug Shafer was a basketball-mad teenager whose idea of California was beaches and girls. By comparison, Napa was rural and primitive. Yet he quickly adapted, and despite turning out for the local team in St Helena, Shafer Jr’s primary exercise yard was soon the vineyard, rather than the basketball court.

The early signs were not good. Shafer Sr had landed himself vines which, by his own admission, were ‘decades past their prime’. They needed to go. That done, ‘I was faced with the roulette-like task of deciding upon which new varietals we would stake our future,’ he recalls. In the meantime, Doug was faced with the back-breaking task of ripping up gnarled old Carignane vines.

The learning curve was steep. Soils concealed huge erosion problems. New rootstocks were chewed back down to the soil line by deer. Weeds were partially cleared by a primitive French plough, pulled by a tractor, driven eratically by the new owner. ‘More than once in less watchful moments I took out an entire vine,’ he says.

John Shafer was soon dissuaded from any romantic notions he may have held about making wine. ‘I realised it was too big a job and I couldn’t afford the resources,’ he says. ‘So I backed away and became a grower.’

Today, Shafer sells a range of six wines, comfortably produces 32,000 cases a year, and has no problem finding homes for its top wine, which retails for $150 a bottle.

The transformation can be traced to one decision – to plant Cabernet Sauvignon. In the early 1970s, Napa had yet to forge its reputation, and Shafer tried Zinfandel and Chardonnay before finding the correct formula. With hindsight, it was obvious – Shafer’s instinct had been correct.

If ever there was a case to prove that wine is made in the vineyard, rather than the cellar, Shafer is it. In 1978, the nascent firm had no winemaking facilities (these were put in place in time for the 1979 vintage). John Shafer had managed to coax around 15 gallons of Cabernet from the previous harvest – ‘It showed promise,’ he says – but most of his crop was sold on. 1978 changed all that. It was, says Shafer, ‘a dream – one of those years when everything goes right’.

Even so, Shafer was ill-equipped to take advantage. Seeing his grapes ripening dramatically, and sugar levels rising fast, he was desperate for pickers. By the time he assembled them, Shafer felt it was too late.

They picked 17 tonnes, and took the load over to Markham Winery to be crushed. From there, the juice was transported to Round Hill to be fermented. Finally, Shafer borrowed a truck from Joe Phelps to haul the 40-odd barrels back to his cellar for malolactic fermentation. Even then, the process didn’t run smoothly, with a bitterly cold winter preventing the wine from going through secondary fermentation. Shafer only overcame the problem by wrapping the barrels in electric blankets.

When the wine was first tasted by the trade, in 1981, Shafer recalls, ‘The big shots were commenting on how well-developed and soft it was. Many asked, “How much Merlot did you add?”’ When Shafer replied, ‘None,’ they didn’t believe him.

The wine’s development taught Shafer two valuable lessons. Firstly, he realised just how fortunate he’d been not to get a picking crew ‘in time’ back in 1978. ‘As it turns out,’ he says, ‘I had harvested the fruit the way we do now – waiting until it reaches maximum physiological ripeness and offers up abundant flavours and lush, rich mouthfeel and colour.’ Secondly, Shafer had hit upon what he now calls ‘the key characteristic of Cabernet grown in the Stags Leap District: the silky, velvety tannins that don’t need softening with Merlot.’

Meanwhile, Doug was learning the trade at neighbouring wineries, and he eventually joined the family business as winemaker in 1983. He describes his early years as ‘rough’. ‘We were still learning. It’s not like being a chef, where if you spoil the sauce one night, you can fix it the next. With winemaking, you get one shot a year. If you mess up, that’s it till next year. ‘We had to learn fast – and we did. By the late- to mid-1980s, we started to figure it out.’

What they figured out was that they had to let the grapes do the work. ‘All the experts were telling us that to make wine that was stable, we had to pick at a lower sugar level and add acid later,’ says John. ‘So we added acid to an already green wine and wondered why it didn’t win over wine lovers.’ It was only when they began to trust the fruit, and its ‘viscous, lush, hedonistic’ character, as John Shafer calls it, that they started to reap the benefits.

The philosophy helped them exploit ‘a string of exceptional vintages’ in the 1990s. By then, Shafer had recruited Elias Fernandez, who took over from Doug as winemaker when he became president.

Today, Shafer offers a Chardonnay (made from Carneros grapes); a Cabernet; a Merlot; a Sangiovese-Cabernet blend named Firebreak; a Syrah-Petite Sirah blend called Relentless; and the premium wine, the Hillside Select Cabernet.

The Shafers feel the winery has now reached its optimum level. They have no plans to extend output, and growth will have to be through new markets and, as the cost of resources increases, by justifying higher prices. ‘Doug and I agreed from the start that if we weren’t going for quantity, we would strive for the highest quality,’ says John. Which means higher prices. ‘You can’t make 2,500 cases of a wine (Hillside Select) and sell it for $30 a bottle.’

Doug admits some people buy Hillside Select as a trophy wine. But he believes they buy it to drink, not trade. ‘I don’t want it to be a trophy, an item to be traded. I want it to be a wine where someone says, “We’re having our best buddies over for dinner, we want to celebrate, we want a special bottle, we’re having a Shafer.” That’s the ultimate.’

Website: www.shafervineyards.com

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