Shafer Vineyards traces its beginnings to 1972 when John Shafer left a 23-year career in the publishing industry and, with his family, moved to the Napa Valley to pursue a second career in wine. Adopting a hands-on approach from day one, John could be seen throughout the mid-70s riding on his tractor as he tilled the soil of his family's new estate in the foothills of the Stags Leap Palisades.
It was during this period that he, along with his son Doug, learned the intricacies of hillside grape-growing as they toiled many long hours terracing the hillsides, replanting and expanding the vineyards. With each passing year, they learned more about the nature of grape-growing in the Stags Leap District, one of the world's best regions for the cultivation of Cabernet Sauvignon. What began for John as a career in viticulture quickly expanded into full-scale winemaking.
Evolving from grape growers to vintners, the Shafers crushed their first Cabernet grapes in 1978 and began construction on their winery a year later. Spearheading a family effort, John sets the tone for Shafer Vineyards through his casual style. A visitor to the winery will most often encounter John striding through the winery, clad in blue jeans and boots with Tucker, the family dog, in tow.
The first Shafer Cabernet became a benchmark, winning the acclaimed San Francisco Vintners Club taste-off upon release and, over a decade later taking first place in an international blind tasting held in Germany, where it outranked such wines as Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour and Chateau Palmer.
Doug Shafer became winemaker in 1983 after graduating from the University of California at Davis with a degree in enology and viticulture. During his ten years as winemaker, Doug forged the trademark Shafer style of quality, consistency, and elegance. Vintage by vintage, he learned to highlight the natural character of the grapes from his family’s hillside vineyards, crafting wines that reflect the Stags Leap District character of rich fruit and silky tannins. During this period he also managed the estate vineyards, launching the winery on the road to sustainable farming developing a new 66-acre vineyard in the Carneros district, the source for Red Shoulder Chardonnay. In 1994, Doug took over the reins as president when his father John became chairman of the board and Elias Fernandez became winemaker. Together Doug and Elias have worked closely to forge the Shafer style of quality, consistency and elegance.
Elias has been making wine at Shafer Vineyards for more than 20 years. Working side by side with John and Doug Shafer, he has played an integral role in forging a style of boldness and elegance that has been embraced by wine lovers throughout the world. In 2002 both Quarterly Review of Wines and Food & Wine magazine named Elias “Winemaker of the Year.” Shafer Vineyards was selected as one of the “25 Great Vineyards in the World” by Wine & Spirits magazine.
From a modest beginning of 1,000 cases in 1978, the winery has grown steadily until reaching its present size of 32,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Syrah. Today Shafer wines are available in major markets nationwide and in many foreign markets. New vineyards have been added over the years, with acreage acquired in the Oak Knoll, Stags Leap and Carneros districts, bringing the total Shafer vineyard acreage to over 200 acres. Winery facilities have been expanded and extensive caves carved into the hillside for aging wine.
Shafer Vineyards’ signature wine, Hillside Select, is sourced from the slopes of an amphitheater-like structure of rock, where thanks to a series of knolls and outcroppings some vineyard blocks receive southeastern sunlight, while others receive southern, or western exposure. Each afternoon, cool breezes from San Francisco Bay channel into the box canyon. "The consistent heat helps to achieve ripeness, while the evening chill retains acidity," says Doug Shafer.
A main source for Shafer’s Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Borderline is a broad, sunny site at the southernmost end of Stags Leap District. When purchased a few years ago, it was the last plantable parcel of any size available within Stags Leap District. The Shafers carefully developed the site to ensure that it enjoyed the same quick drainage as a hillside vineyard. Each winter they plant heavy cover crops to compete with the vines for water and nutrients.
“The result is we are harvesting fruit with intense, lush flavors, great color, and the soft, supple tannins, you’d expect of Stags Leap District,” says Doug Shafer.
The source for Relentless is a remote, ridge top vineyard named La Mesa that touches the southern border of Stags Leap District. This location places it along the same breezeway as our Hillside Estate and brings the vines a daily cooling effect from San Francisco Bay.
"In spite of its name -- mesa means table in Spanish -- this vineyard is far from flat: eastern, southern and western exposures offer an ideal blend of heat and sunlight," says Doug Shafer, adding that the consistent sun exposure helps the fruit achieve ideal ripeness. The Syrah and Petite Sirah fruit for this proprietary blend grows side by side and are picked, crushed and fermented as one.
The two adjacent vineyards Ridgeback and School Bus are sources for our Merlot and One Point Five®. Located in dry, rocky knolls at the base of the Vaca Mountains, these parcels offer the fruit a beneficial variety of sun exposures as well as late-day chill from San Francisco Bay. Here Shafer’s sustainable farming practices are in full swing, utilizing cover crops to control erosion, fertilize the soil and create a habitat in which populations of vine pests are held in check by their natural predators. “Our earth-friendly agriculture means that these sites are still home to jack rabbits, wild turkeys, lizards and even bob cats,” says Doug Shafer.
Finally, the source of the Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay is a vineyard draped across rolling hills within sight of San Francisco Bay. A blend of five Chardonnay clones provides small clusters, low yields and abundant flavors.
"The long, cool growing season in Carneros allows the fruit to mature slowly and evenly, letting us wait for the right moment when sugar and acid achieve balance," says Doug Shafer. The vineyard name honors the red-shouldered hawks and other birds of prey that keep the root-eating gopher population under control.
Shafer Vineyards is proud to be a wine industry leader in the area of solar power. In 2004 it became the first winery in the U.S. to make the switch to 100 percent solar power. In 2008 the Shafers built a second array to power the vineyard system that is used to irrigate the 50 acres of vines that surround the winery.
On sunny days these two arrays produce, at peak, more than 200 kW of electrical power, or in other words, enough to meet the baseload needs of 160 average homes.
Going solar is Shafer’s way of treating the air as well as they treat the land. The generation of electricity is the number one source of toxic air pollution in the US. Most generator plants burn coal and pump millions of tons of greenhouse gasses and toxins into the air.
Over the lifetime of Shafer’s system alone (30 years) the greenhouse gasses that won’t be produced on its behalf has the air-purifying effect of planting more than 30,000 trees. In addition, of course, Shafer Vineyards has eliminated its electricity bill and it actually contributes power to the electrical grid.
Vineyards attract lots of insect pests; among the most troublesome are blue-green sharpshooters and leafhoppers.
“You can spray powerful chemicals to rid your vines of these particular insects, but we prefer to rely on the natural eating habits of songbirds and bats,” says Doug Shafer.
To attract some of nature’s hungriest eating machines, the Shafers have erected songbird houses throughout their vineyards. These provide homes for cavity-dwelling species such as swallows and bluebirds, which tend to eat the flying bugs that blight the vines.
These birds raise their young on Shafer property and feed their families on the bugs that would otherwise damage its vines.
After sunset, the vineyard benefits from the eating habits of bats, who consume anywhere from 15 to 25 percent of their body weight per night. Given Shafer’s location at the base of towering cliffs, called palisades, it enjoys some insect patrolling by bats.
To attract more, Shafer Vineyards has erected a 500-lbs bat roost, which is currently awaiting its first residents. The bat box is designed to house a maternity colony, meaning this will be a place where the bats can breed and raise their young.
Another key part of farming sustainably is the use of cover crops. Today our vine rows grow wild with clover, vetch, oats, bell beans and other vegetation that creates a lively habitat for insects.
“The cover crops create a healthy environment where “good bugs” prey on “bad bugs,” says Doug Shafer. “More specifically, insects such as spiders and ladybugs naturally kill off or consume vine-damaging insects such as leafhoppers and blue-green sharpshooters.”
Cover crops do double and triple duty. They control erosion while also choking back weeds we don’t want. They control the vigor of the vine and at the end of their lifecycle they’re plowed under and enrich the soil with nitrogen and other macronutrients. This combined with our own compost allowed us to say good bye to chemical fertilizers.