We didn’t know much about Shafer until our friend and informal consulting wine guru, Suma, recommended the place to us. Located in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, turns out that we’d driven by the place dozens of times without ever realizing it: Shafer doesn’t have a sign on Silverado Trail. Business is that good.
Like much of Napa, Shafer is famous for their cabernet sauvignon. But they also produce some fine merlot, syrah and even chardonnay. We really enjoyed our tasting visit but this is something that requires a little planning. They’re only open by appointment on weekdays and they demand a $45 tasting fee per person, which they collect at the time the reservation is made. Kind of intense.
We didn’t quite know what to expect. Would they be fun people, or unpleasantly snooty? Years ago, we’d gone to Spring Mountain after making a reservation similar to Shafer and found our guide and tasting leader extremely condescending bordering on rude, though I must confess that I really enjoyed the haughty attitude. In fact, I even joined their wine club that very day, I was so impressed with both the wine and the drama. That stimulating level of narcissistically driven superiority seems so rare in Northern California. It reminded me fondly of my time in New York while simultaneously confirming the logic of our decision to move from the Big Apple to San Francisco.
Despite the lack of a sign, wild financial and critical acclaim, and the need to make an expensive appointment weeks ahead, the folks at Shafer were extremely nice. They haven’t let the fame go to their heads one bit.
After we found the right turn-off from Silverado Trail, we drove along a charming, tree-lined, narrow road overlooking mountains and vineyards till you come to a fork. At that point there is a sign, by now unneeded. It is fairly obvious that you’re almost there as you can see the vineyard gates and down the long drive, the tasting room, crush pad and building that houses the winery itself.
The property was shocking. It is completely open to the surrounding mountains, vineyards and the sky. It appears huge with sweeping views across Napa all the way to the Mayacamas Range. You can even see cars racing along Silverado Trail from the Shafer terrace. To me it seemed like an enchanted kingdom perched on the edge of Wine Country “reality.”
On the day that we went for our tasting, they were crushing chardonnay and merlot. So before we sat to try the wine, we had the pleasure of watching the hired crew, the Shafer winemaker, Elias Fernandez, and Doug Shafer himself at work. It was pretty fun and we were thrilled when Doug showed us how they separate the ripe grapes from the tiny green ones. We had hoped to talk a bit more to him and probably would have, too, had the huge hose with the merlot juice not clogged up suddenly requiring his undivided attention.
Instead we returned to the “visitors center” to try the wines. That building is truly lovely. It has high ceilings with exposed beams finished in a pale stain with large picture windows overlooking the stunning views. On the walls were various accolades about Shafer. I saw a few White House menus featuring their wines, medals for winning the James Beard Award, and even a framed article from somewhere that listed the winery as one of the top 25 of the entire world! To put that in perspective, the list included places like Mouton Rothschild and DRC ahead of Shafer, but, if I read right, Châteaux Latour and Lafite weren’t there at all and Château d’Yquem fell behind in 25th position. Wow! That is impressive.
We sat in a sun-filled room where all the wine was poured out and set before us prior to our arrival. I wonder if that means that the wine benefits from breathing a spell? We were surprised to try the chardonnay at room temperature but it was fine “warm.” Mid-way through the tasting, the winery founder, John Shafer, made a brief appearance. Hegui snapped his pic after asking permission. We both liked the personal touch.
This was a guided tasting. The winery thoughtfully provided everyone with a little booklet about the vineyards, wine making phoilosophy and wines with plenty of room to take notes. (Maybe that’s why I’ve so much to say this time?)
2008 Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, Carneros: This white is aged in 80% oak and 20% stainless steel without malo-lactic fermentation. Shafer produces about six thousand cases.
This was a transparent golden yellow. We noted green apple, green grape and ver-juice on the nose. It tasted crisp and citrusy with floral, papaya and other tropical fruits. I liked it but Hegui said at the time “It doesn’t seem all that.”
2007 Napa Valley Merlot, School Bus Vineyard: This is 85% merlot and 15% cabernet. It spends about 18 months in French oak.
It was an opaque purple color with camphor and berry notes. It had a complex body that we found lush and ripe. We noted cherry, chocolate, red fruit and a touch of pepper with a long finish that hinted of forest floor. We both liked this wine.
2007 One Point Five, Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon: This one is a blend of grapes from the Hillside and Borderline Vineyards in Stags Leap District. The first vintage was 2004. It was aged 20 months in French oak. The wine is 99% cabernet and 1% petit verdot.
It was opaque purple with coffee, tobacco, chocolate, mocha and dirty socks (chulé) on the nose. It was very smooth, rich, supple and delicate with a long finish. We tasted coffee, mocha with hints of pepper at the end.
2007 Relentless Napa Valley Syrah/Petite Sirah: This is 80% syrah and 20% petite sirah that ages 30 months in new oak. Shafer produces about three thousand cases.
The wine was a dark opaque purple that literally stained the glass (and our teeth!) On the nose we detected hot rocks and cola. It was supple and thick with juicy tannins that gave a pleasingly bitter edge to the black fruit, plum and blackberries. It didn’t linger like the One Point Five though had a respectable finish.
2006 Hillside Select, Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon: This is the most prestigious wine from Shafer. It is 100% cabernet from the Hillside Vineyard on the property. Our tasting leader suggested that it could age for up to 20+ years.
The wine was a dark opaque purple with chocolate, tobacco, cedar and moss notes. The wine was silky and wrap around your mouth and tongue to the point that it almost sends you into tasting shock. This was a marvelous wine.
A visit to Shafer is a total experience. We lingered there for more than two hours. Afterward, we chatted with a pair of newlyweds from Washington, DC. I had the sense that they found the Shafer approach too much and were looking for something more casual. We enjoyed it a lot but could see their point.