2015 Shafer "Red Shoulder Ranch" Chardonnay


In the Stags Leap District, Cabernet Sauvignon is king. The well-drained volcanic soils and climate cooled by regular San Pablo Bay fogs produce cabs that are silky, supple and voluptuous: “an iron fist in a velvet glove.” While the Stags Leap District is now world class, when John Shafer moved his family there from Chicago in 1973, it was a place of rocky hillsides and rundown vineyards and orchards. At that time, “up-valley” was the focus of premium winemaking whereas this rocky corner of the valley did not even have an agreed-upon name. But as the land was affordable and had supported vineyards in the past, John Shafer decided it was the place to pursue his dream in wine. Shafer Vineyards is a moderately-sized, family-owned operation whose pursuit of quality in both viticulture and winemaking helped define not only their own winery but the Stags Leap District as well. At the start it was just John and his son Doug doing everything, from terracing the hillsides, to planting vines, to making and selling the wine. Doug was only 17 when he began helping his father transform the old farm into a modern vineyard. He went on to study enology at UC Davis and became Shafer’s winemaker in 1983. Success came quickly to Shafer Vineyards, with its very first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon winning the prestigious San Francisco Vintner’s Club taste-off. Shafer’s Hillside Select, the winery’s showcase made from 100% Cabernet grown on the steep slopes surrounding the winery, became a benchmark that epitomized the complexity, richness and elegance of the Stags Leap District. While Shafer built its reputation on its Cabernets, the winery also produces Merlot and Syrah from estate vineyards just outside the Stags Leap District as well as Chardonnay from Carneros. Shafer’s 2008 Relentless, a blend of Syrah and Petite Syrah was selected as Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year for 2012.  Despite success and high demand for its wines, Shafer Vineyards chose to remain small enough to be manageable, capping growth at about 32,000 cases. In addition to John and Doug Shafer, that team includes Elias Fernandez, who joined in 1984 and has been winemaker since 1994. The charm of drinking a glass of Shafer wine comes from knowing that the folks who made it are so intimately acquainted with the land, the vineyards and even the individual vines. In this age of global conglomerates, it is a quality that deserves to be cherished.


Shafer’s Chardonnay is sourced not from Stags Leap District but Carneros, the coolest of Napa AVAs that suits this early-ripening variety to a T. By fermenting the wine in new French oak but forgoing a second, malolactic fermentation, Shafer has produced a Chardonnay with exquisite balance, being luscious and rich but also fresh and vibrant. Robert Parker has called Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay, “one of the best non-malolactic, barrel-fermented Chardonnays in California.” As with all of Shafer’s vineyards, the Red Shoulder Ranch is farmed sustainably, with pests controlled by natural predators – such as the Red-Shouldered Hawks that prey upon gophers. The vineyard is planted to several low-yielding Chardonnay clones that produce small, flavorful bunches. According to the winemaker, the dry conditions in 2015 produced a lighter crop of smaller berries that were packed with flavor and excellent color. Full-bodied and rich yet bright and focused, the wine has bright acidity and minerality to balance out and give structure to the sensual aromas and flavors. 


Pressed as whole clusters and fermented on natural yeasts in 75% new French oak and 25% stainless steel barrels. Aged 14 months sur lie with frequent battonage (stirring); no secondary malolactic fermentation in order to retain natural acidity.

Tasting notes

93 points – Wine Spectator; 94 points – Wine Enthusiast. Aromas of honeydew melon, pineapple and notes of jasmine give way to a rich palate of baked apple, pear and crème brûlée. A subtle creamy texture evolves into an expressive, crisp and persistent finish.