What’s New at Shafer Archive
25 Vintage Retrospective
The Evolution of Hillside Select — One Woman's View
— By Karen MacNeil
What can be learned after 25 years of doing something? Maybe it takes 25 years to know you've learned anything. Quite possibly, what you've learned is more easily tasted than told.
On a cold spring day in 2011, driving down the Silverado Trail, I found myself thinking these circular thoughts. I was on my way to Shafer to taste every vintage of Hillside Select ever made. The thought alone was thrilling.
I know the Hillside Select cabernets fairly well. For the last 15 years, I've taken my wine students to Shafer multiple times every year. Each time, John and Doug Shafer have poured three different vintages of the wine. Tasting a wine this way, over and over again, over years, pulls you deeply into it. You begin to see something elemental about it; its personality, if you will. And you begin to see vintages for what they are — the mood of the wine at different times in its existence.
I knew Hillside's personality. I knew — or so I thought — what to expect from the retrospective tasting.
Evolution of a wine
But here is where time comes in. The last 25 years have been a time of enormous learning in the Napa Valley. John and Doug, along with winemaker Elias Fernandez, have been a part of that intellectual odyssey. What they've taught themselves through three decades of trial and error — their story — is the story of the evolution of Hillside Select. And in many ways, it's also the story of the most ambitious decades in the history of the Napa Valley. Here, in brief, is how that story unfolded, interspersed with my notes on some of the Hillside Selects I find the most remarkable.
The progenitor of Hillside Select was Shafer Vineyard's very first cabernet sauvignon. Made in the extraordinary vintage year of 1978 (and released in 1981 for $11 a bottle), it was a wine that astounded John, a businessman who had (no less astoundingly) made it himself, more or less by the seat of his pants with the help of other vintners.
The thousand cases he made sold out immediately. For John and Doug, a light bulb went on. They looked around their ranch — then planted also with zinfandel, golden chasselas, carignan — and thought: Cabernet. From a strategic planning point of view, it didn't hurt that their neighbor Stag's Leap Wine Cellars had, just a few years before, won the renowned Judgment of Paris tasting for their own cabernet sauvignon.
By 1983, John had taken out the remaining zinfandel on the small steep hillside beside the winery — a vineyard known as Sunspot — and planted the slope to cabernet. It was Doug's first year at the winery as winemaker.
Something about that first cabernet from Sunspot — its blueberry-sized berries; the rich fruit core of the wine — impressed Doug. He kept it separate, and that year, the winery made two cabernets: the fantastic "regular" one, and the…what? He didn't want to call it a reserve. During those heady commercial days of the early 1980s, everybody, it seemed, was making a so-called reserve. In a moment that may have been as much about good luck as good marketing, he decided to call the wine "Hillside Select." Each year, he'd make it from grapes grown on the best hillside lots on the ranch. Hillside Select was born and, though the Shafers didn't know it, so was the course of the winery's destiny.
1983 Hillside Select: Deep primordial perfume of forest floor and soft cherry. Showing almost pinot noir-like in its elegance. Bright acidity appears to be carrying the still sweet core of fruit. Luscious and frail (not a word typically associated with Hillside Select).
By the time the 1984 vintage rolled in, Doug had hired Elias Fernandez as his assistant winemaker. It was a hot, grueling vintage. Doug and Elias took turns sleeping on the floor of the office when they weren't tending the wine. It was the giddy era of winemaking technique in the Napa Valley. Hillside Select was adjusted, acidified, and heavily filtered. Doug and Elias, still new to the game and desperate to do things right, used just about every winemaking trick in the book. "We didn't trust our intuition yet," recalls Doug. "We were doing things by the numbers; by a formula." The character of Hillside, alas, was apparently irrepressible.
1984 Hillside Select: Sweetly aromatic with a lifted and enticing complex bouquet. Sappy and plush on the palate. The almost chewy, soft texture and dark espresso-like flavors suggest a wine much younger than this. A very warm vintage. The grapes were quite ripe, but the wine's commanding structure has preserved it well. (John's favorite among the old vintages.) The only vintage of Hillside to ever have a small amount of another varietal. In this case, about 3% cabernet franc.
And then came the vintage that changed the terms of engagement: 1987. It had been a warm vintage, and the thick, sweet, black Hillside juice tasted great. Their confidence building, Doug and Elias added less acid and kept the wine longer in new oak. They were sure this would be their best wine yet. "A year and a half later," says Doug with still visible disappointment, "it tasted all green."
1987 Hillside Select: The most Bordeaux-like in structure, aroma and flavor of any Hillside ever made. Beautiful notes of green tobacco. Impressive and sleek on the palate. Tannin is still sporting some grip. (Doug and Elias both strongly dislike this vintage's style. I, however, find the wine spectacular and am happy to take any remaining cases off their hands.)
Enter the 1990s and a string of great vintage years. The 1987 Hillside Select behind them, Doug and Elias began to redefine their own concept of perfect ripeness. Sunspot and their other rocky hillside vineyards basked in sun. And because they faced mostly west, the vineyards remained in the sun until it finally set over the Mayacamas across the Valley. Sun, Doug decided, was their asset. They began to let the grapes hang longer. The tannins grew riper, and Hillside's remarkable cashmere softness began to emerge.
Focusing on Vineyards
With a new focus on their vineyards, Doug and Elias cut back on what was happening to Hillside in the cellar. No longer was it acidified or tightly filtered. The percentage of new French oak grew, and time spent in that oak lengthened.
With Doug and Elias apparently hitting their stride, John suggested they go to Bordeaux, every cabernet maker's ultimate pilgrimage. Somehow they never found the time. "In retrospect, I'm glad we've never gone," says Doug. "As it was, we had to figure out this ranch, these vineyards, instead."
1993 Hillside Select: A difficult vintage, but one that paid off handsomely because of a lot of careful work in the vineyard. The wine is languorous on the palate, supple, and very long. In many ways, the model for all of the modern Hillsides. Wave after wave of complex ripe flavor. A "choreography" on the palate that's sensual.
With the 1995 vintage, Doug, John and Elias began to see the power and density Hillside Select was capable of. At the time, conventional wisdom had it that really ripe grapes would lead to unbalanced wines that lacked structure and aging potential. Conventional wisdom clearly didn't apply in this case.
1995 Hillside Select: Atomic density. Monolithic structure and superb softness. Wave after wave of complex, molten-lava-rich fruit. The wine seems spring-loaded, it's so vibrant. Possibly the best Hillside ever made and drinking magnificently now. (Doug's top scoring wine.)
And thus the bar was raised. During the 2000s, Hillside Select has continued on the path ushered in by that 1995 wine. "We now know our hillside vineyards really well," says Elias. "We know that the grapes must be fully ripe, and that the color of the wine when it's first made has to be so saturated and dark, you can't see through it. We know that early on, Hillside Select is often brooding and closed. But with time, it comes out of that state with explosive flavors and a texture that's unreal in its softness."
2002 Hillside Select: Massively structured, powerful. Hillsides this young still possess a lot of primary fruit drama. Dark chocolate, wild berries, and vanilla bean swirl together in a kaleidoscope of dense flavor. The wine's texture is already as soft and unctuous as tiramisu. But best of all with this vintage, as with all of the top Hillsides, the wine has a commanding presence.
A commanding presence. In the end, that may say it all. For in a world where too many cabernets seem all too homogeneous, Hillside Select stands apart. It possesses what is perhaps the highest attribute a wine can possess: it is utterly distinctive.
Karen MacNeil is author of The Wine Bible, appears regularly on national broadcast outlets, has won countless honors including a James Beard Foundation award, and teaches a legendary class on wine at The Culinary Institute of America, Greystone. Be sure to visit KarenMacNeil.com.
The Film Producer
Wine holds a top spot for collector’s ongoing celebration of life
Lorenzo di Bonaventura has been involved behind the scenes in some of the most well-known movies of the last decade or so. When he was president of worldwide theatrical production at Warner Brothers he secured the rights to The Matrix films and the Harry Potter series. As a producer he’s brought to the screen The Transformers, GI Joe, Red, Salt, Stardust and many others. The name di Bonaventura dates back to 12th century France and Italy and means ‘one who enjoys the good life.’ It’s an apt description for this film producer, one of Hollywood’s most prolific, who is committed to incorporating time for family, friends, food and wine into his busy work life. He grew up in a world rich with travel and music; his father Mario di Bonaventura was a symphony conductor and his uncle Anthony was a well-known concert pianist. This Shafer collector recently spoke with us about how wine plays a part in his ongoing celebration of life.
Growing up was wine a part of the world around you?
It was, yes. I grew up in New Hampshire and went to school in Boston, so my background is mostly East Coast. I also spent a lot of time in Europe because of my father’s work. He usually had a glass or two a night, though I never saw him drink more than that. As a 12 or 13 year old I was allowed a little wine from time to time, which is pretty common in Europe. And I’d say because of where we lived and traveled, the wines I heard the most about were French and Italian.
When did you start being interested in the wines of California?
That was in the early to mid 1980s, when I was in my 20s working on Wall St. I became interested in the boldness of California wines, but even so I always gravitated toward the older vineyards that had a more traditional approach. For example, one of the things I love about Hillside Select is that it reminds me of an Haut-Brion. It has that complexity that I like.
How did you go from someone who enjoys wines to becoming a collector?
You know, I was always doing it. In my 20s I always had four or five cases on hand.
Over time what’s changed most about how or what you collect?
Some things have changed and some really haven’t. One of my earliest jobs was a white water rafting guide and back in the ‘70s at the end of the day we were cracking open Heinekens. These days when I go we’re opening up great red wines. The other thing is when I was younger I probably bought two or three bottles of things I liked and today I’m buying three or four cases. Overall though, I’d say that my collecting hasn’t changed so much as it’s branched out. At this point I have about 4,000 bottles which are California reds, Brunello, Barolo, Bordeaux and some Spanish wines.
What’s the oldest or most precious bottle in your collection?
The oldest is an 1845 Maderia. I had a chance to try a bottle of this with friends and it’s liquid gold. Just spectacular. I’d say though that among the most precious are some bottles I bought at the only auction I’ve ever attended. It was here in Los Angeles and they were auctioning wine from Frank Sinatra’s cellar. I couldn’t pass that up. I ended up with a double magnum of 1985 Latour and three bottles of ’85 Petrus and I opened one with some friends and it was incredible. The wine was beautiful and we couldn’t believe this had come from Sinatra’s cellar.
Sounds like one of those ‘wow’ moments with wine.
There’ve been so many moments like that. One of the best was at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where Jim Morrison is buried. It was a beautiful day; I was there with three or four friends with wine and cheese, just celebrating life. It wasn’t about any single wine; it was that the wine made it something more. I’ve also had some wonderful times in Napa Valley. I have a group of friends and we get together once a month for a dinner that’s all about the wine. Not too long ago we spent a day in Napa visiting a few vineyards and that night at the restaurant we opened bottles from all the places we visited. What a great way to enjoy wine – to have seen the vineyards and the cellars and the people behind the bottle and hear all their stories and to taste all of that in the glass. Just incredible.
When you visit Napa do you plan things out or do you like to be spontaneous?
It’s a combination. What I like to do is just let things happen but these days I have to schedule things out. So I try to set up a few places to visit and then leave some time to just drop in on wineries that I might discover along the way.
Okay, here’s the Barbara Walters question ...
[Laughs] I’ll try not to cry.
You’re in the business of finding and telling great stories. Is there a connection between what you love about a great story and what you love about a great wine?
They affect very different parts of your brain but they’re both about a sense of enjoyment. They both enrich the moment. When the right story clicks it transports you to its reality. Wine, I’d say, heightens the reality you’re in. What’s also similar is how exciting it is sharing a movie you love and sharing a wine you love. My son is now 13 and I love putting on an old movie that spoke to me or that impacted me when I was young and it’s the same kind of feeling giving a bottle to a friend. You get that phone call a few days later and they say, “Where do you get this? It’s fantastic.” I’m a glutton for living life in all its forms and things like great wine and great stories make it all richer.
The General Manager
A collector who believes that passion and commitment are the keys to success whether it’s football or winemaking
Since 2009 Mark Dominik has been the General Manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, helping to steer the team in 2010 to the greatest single-season turnaround in franchise history, going 10-6. In addition to an intense professional schedule, he and his wife Amy are the parents of three children under the age of four. In spite of all this, he was happy to devote some time to talk with us about his passion for collecting and enjoying great wines of California and France.
When did you first get into wine?
It’s my wife’s fault. [Laughs] When I was attending the University of Kansas in Lawrence, I was dating Amy, now my wife, when she was working as a server in a great steakhouse in Kansas City called Plaza III. She’s the one who really first got me into the idea of how well you can pair great steaks with different reds.
Do you remember a single ‘wow’ moment?
Yes — and I can tell you exactly when it was for me. We moved to Tampa in 1995 and in 1998 we were at Emeril Lagasse’s place in Orlando where I had a lobster dish with a Rochioli Chardonnay. And it’s like ‘this food-wine pairing thing is real.’ It was amazing. I really started collecting wine from that point.
What did you start collecting?
I started with Bordeaux and California reds.
And do you have it all at home or is some stored offsite?
The one downside about Florida is that we don’t have basements so we have a 500-bottle cooler at the house and then the rest is stored offsite.
Since you started collecting do you find yourself exploring new things?
You know, I’ve started buying some great Italian wines but for the most part I’m still into Bordeaux and California. I really think there’s something to getting to know the wines you love.
You’re a wine monogamist.
[Laughs] I guess so. I just think that when you stick with the same vineyards vintage after vintage you can learn a lot — what a hot summer or a wet growing season will do. I think I learn more that way than by chasing after lots of new ones.
How often do you visit here in Napa?
I try to get there about once a year. And same with my approach to collecting, we really enjoy revisiting places where we’ve got some great relationships, like Shafer, Darioush, Chimney Rock. Amy and I really like wines from Stags Leap District. You can smell it and taste it, there’s a special character. I’d say overall we like to take it nice and slow — like grabbing a couple sandwiches and going up to Joseph Phelps. We like places with a more casual approach. Basically like Doug says, it’s all glorified farming.
When did you first visit Shafer?
I think it must’ve been at least ten years ago. I ran into Doug during that first visit and we started talking. This was back when I was scouting for the team and I had more excuses to see San Francisco play, visit some of the colleges out there. I remember in 2004 I got to visit the winery four or five times during the season so I saw the vineyards in the early spring, late spring, mid summer and then at harvest. Doug invited me to go out to the vineyards before sun-up and taste the grapes and then hang out with him and Elias in the lab while they were talking about which vineyard blocks were ready for picking.
Got your hands dirty?
Yes, I got to work a little at the crush pad and de-stem some of the ’04 Merlot. Any success they had with that Merlot that year is all thanks to my de-stemming [Laughs].
Does winemaking remind you at all of football?
Sure it does — it’s a labor of love. In both cases to really get it right you have to have passion for what you’re doing because it’s grueling. Long hours, a huge commitment, very intensive — when to pick, when to barrel, when to bottle. It’s a lot like sports in that there’s a lot that has to happen, a lot of intensive hard work behind the scenes, before you get to Sunday.
First Napa Valley Vintners to Receive 'Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional' since 1996
May 4, 2010 – Shafer Vineyards is pleased to announce that on Monday, May 3, in New York John and Doug Shafer received a historic James Beard Foundation Award at a high-profile awards ceremony dubbed "the Oscars of the food world."
The award is 2010 "Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional."
John and Doug Shafer, a father and son team, are the first Napa Valley vintners awarded this honor in 14 years and are thrilled to join previous Napa Valley recipients: Robert Mondavi ('91), André Tchelistcheff ('92), and Jack and Jamie Davies ('96).
Napa Valley LEGACY
"It's a big nod for their Napa legacy," said San Francisco Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonne of the award in coverage of the event.
In his acceptance speech, John Shafer paid tribute to the longtime efforts of his son, Doug, and to Shafer winemaker, Elias Fernandez. (Doug was not able to attend the event.)
"It's an incredible honor to be mentioned in the same category as luminaries such as André Tchelistcheff and Robert Mondavi," says John Shafer. "We have a great, dedicated team at the winery and everyone feels very fortunate today."
More than 600 culinary professionals are involved in the voting process for the James Beard Foundation Awards. Recipients receive a bronze medallion etched with the image of the late James Beard as well as a certificate from the Foundation.
OSCARS OF THE FOOD WORLD
The May 3, 2010 awards event was held at New York's Lincoln Center and was attended by some 1600 guests, including some of the best-known names in the world of food and wine. Time magazine has called the event, "The Oscars of the food world."
Shafer Vineyards traces its beginnings to its first vintage in 1978, a Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the rugged hillside vineyards that surround the winery in Napa Valley's Stags Leap District. John Shafer was joined by son Doug Shafer in 1983, who went on to craft the first vintages of Hillside Select, Shafer's signature wine. Elias Fernandez completed the team in 1984, and was named winemaker in 1994. Shafer Vineyards owns 204 acres of vineyards in Napa Valley sources for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay.
Established in 1990, the James Beard Foundation Awards are a program of the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to celebrate, nurture, and preserve America's culinary heritage and diversity in order to elevate our appreciation of the culinary arts.
For more information visit: www.jamesbeard.org.