Friendship in a Bottle
The trio of John Shafer, Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez celebrate 30 years as a team
Big things were brewing in California in 1984. Los Angeles hosted the summer Olympics. From Silicon Valley, Apple introduced the Macintosh computer. Hollywood’s The Terminator dominated the box office and introduced many to a future state governor.
At Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley something much quieter and far less assured of success was taking place. John Shafer, Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez – three relative newbies – had started to make wine together.
Team in Training
The senior member of the group at age 59, and the one with the most experience, John Shafer, had already overseen production of several vintages of wine, beginning with the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon, which he’d released for $12 in 1981.
Doug Shafer, John’s son, had joined the family enterprise as winemaker about 18 months after that first wine release. Doug’s resume at the time included a degree in viticulture from University of California, Davis, and two years as assistant winemaker at Lakespring Winery. When he started at Shafer in 1983 at age 27, Doug had never run a cellar on his own.
This triumvirate was completed the following year, when Doug hired Elias Fernandez in March, 1984, three weeks before Elias graduated from U.C.-Davis with a degree in fermentation science. At 22, Elias, who grew up in Napa Valley, had a background that included working in vineyards with his dad and summers at Martini Winery in St. Helena. He’d never made wine outside his university setting.
These were challenging times at Shafer. While the 1978 and 1979 Cabernets that John personally oversaw had both hit a high mark and attracted positive attention among consumers and wine critics, the wines that followed were disappointments. The first winemaker John hired had let his eye off the ball in a big way and following his departure, new winemaker Doug Shafer walked into a cellar that was in desperate need of clean-up and whose wines were a long way from world-class.
“Every day I was showing up at 5:30 a.m. firm in the knowledge that I had 12 to 14 hours of work ahead of me,” Doug writes in his memoir A Vineyard in Napa (University of California Press, 2012). “One thing that contributed to the long hours was the fact that I’d hired a cellar rat who took more interest in his night life than in showing up for work in the morning.”
By the first of 1984 Doug knew that if he was going to move beyond survival mode he needed to work with someone he could count on. He placed an advertisement for an assistant on the job board at U.C.-Davis. A week later a quiet, young candidate named Elias Fernandez dropped by the winery to apply for the job. To help secure the job, Elias had brought with him his college transcripts, which he showed Doug.
“Turns out he and I had taken a lot of the same chemistry and biology classes, and in every case he’d gotten better grades than I had,” Doug recalls in his memoir.
Even with a strong work ethic at play, it took, by Doug’s estimation, most of the 1980s before they started making the kind of wines they’d envisioned.
Meanwhile, that 1978 Cabernet remained the benchmark at Shafer Vineyards. By the early 1990s it had matured into a gorgeous, enticing Cabernet, a beauty that won every tasting John Shafer put it in, winning out over the top wines of California and Europe.
“Every now and then Dad would goad Elias and me, in a friendly way, by saying, ‘Hey when are you two going to make another ‘78?’” Doug says.
Turning a Corner
By 1994 Doug and Elias felt they had finally produced they wine we’d hoped for, one that embodied everything they’d learned over the past 10 years together; it was the 1991 Hillside Select.
“Elias and I held out a lot of hope for this one. It felt like our Ph.D. project,” Doug says.
In the spring of 1994 Elias and Doug surprised John by walking into his office one morning carrying a wooden magnum-sized box of 1991 Hillside Select. On the side of the box branded into the wood were words, “We Think We Did It.”
“Dad saw that inscription and got a big smile,” Doug writes in his book. “After uncorking the wine, Dad was very pleased to agree with our assessment. What a great moment … to have slugged it out that long and finally to achieve something we felt was first-rate. Dad’s goal from the start – the very rocky start – was to create a winery that was world-class. And with the 1991 Hillside Select, that idea no longer seemed like a mirage.”
Today with 30 years under their belts the team of John Shafer, Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez enjoy more than just a partnership, it’s a friendship – which has thrived through lots of ups and downs in the cellar.
“We all feel incredibly lucky to be producing the kinds of wines we do today and to have achieved that together is beyond anything we could have hoped for,” says Doug Shafer.