A California First-Growth

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.





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Wines from this Winery

2019 Shafer

Named for the Red-Shouldered Hawks that soar above the vineyard, controlling pests and scaring away grape-thieving birds, the Carneros site features clay soils in which several low-yielding Chardonnay clones are planted. A cool climate endows the wines with characteristics of fresh citrus, minerality, and texture. But Shafer’s practice of fermenting in new French oak without any secondary malolactic provides the balance, adding texture and spice without any butteriness. About the 2019, Shafer’s winemaker, Elias Fernandez, said “No matter what time of year you open this wine, you’ll have a taste of summer in Napa Valley. Lush aromatics fill the glass with white flowers, lemon zest, honeysuckle, clove, and flint. There is a rich balance of liveliness and density in the mouth with abundant flavors of apricot, white melon, grapefruit peel, ripe pineapple, and minerality, with a beautiful finish that goes on and on.” Seared halibut, grilled salmon, or a salad with a light honey vinaigrette would pair well with this Chardonnay. 

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¥10,120 (incl. tax)
2019 Shafer TD-9 Napa Valley

TD-9 is a classic Bordeaux blend, comprising 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Merlot, 8% Malbec, and 4% Petit Verdot. So what’s with the name? The TD-9 was an old International Harvester tractor John Shafer used to cultivate the rocky hillside that would become Shafer Vineyards. Because Shafer knew little about farming when he bought the land, learning to operate the ancient machine symbolizes the adventurous spirit needed to start a winery. TD-9 is a full-bodied, juicy wine. Winemaker Elias Fernandez describes the wine as filling “the glass with vivid aromas and flavors of summer berries, black tea, rose petal, lavender, and black cherry. All this juicy radiance is knit together with ripe Napa Valley tannins, offering abundant enjoyment today while promising even more beauty with time in your cellar.”

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¥11,990 (incl. tax)
2019 Shafer
2017 Shafer

Named for the spirit and drive of Shafer’s winemaker, Elias Fernandez, the adjective, Relentless, brilliantly captures the energy in this wine, with flavors that seem to explode on the palate and go and go and go long after you’ve put down your glass. The blend of 85% Syrah and 14% Petite Sirah is sourced from two hillside sites just south of Stags Leap AVA. Although the dark-skinned Petite Sirah (a.k.a. Durif), no longer exists in France, its ability to deepen color and add tannic structure makes it an excellent “blend partner” with Syrah. Despite the power (e.g. 15.8% abv), Relentless has excellent balance and soft, fleshy tannins. Critics love this wine. Jeb Dunnuck awarded the 2017 Relentless 94 points, describing it as “a beautiful Syrah that offers lots of smoky dark berry fruits, barbecue notes, spice, and meaty nuances in a rich, pure, nicely textured, medium to full-bodied package.” Relentless will improve for a decade or more, but right now you would not regret opening a bottle to enjoy with braised ribs, lamb shanks, duck or beef - especially with syrah-based sauces.

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¥18,480 (incl. tax)
2019 Shafer

Two vineyards in the Stags Leap District, the Hillside Estate and the Borderline Vineyard, provide the fruit for this fine wine. But One Point Five is named to commemorate the 40+ years that John Shafer and his son, Doug, worked together to build one of Napa Valley’s premier estates. About One Point Five, Robert Parker offered high praise, saying it is “for my money, one of the best wines in Napa Valley in its price range...Year in year out, this is one of the superstar wineries, not only in Napa Valley and all of California, but in the entire world.” The 2019 vintage is crafted as a left-bank style Bordeaux blend, comprising 83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 3% Malbec, and 2% Petit Verdot. Describing the 2019, Antonio Galloni opined, “Bright, red-toned fruit and effusive aromatics lend striking brilliance to a Cabernet that is gracious and light on its feet. The 2019 stands out for its freshness and red fruit profile. It is beautifully done.” This is young Cabernet at its most intense and powerful. Cellaring for a few years would be wise, but if you can’t resist opening a bottle, be sure to decant and give it some time to open up.  

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¥19,140 (incl. tax)
2018 Shafer
2017 Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon

Shafer Hillside Select regularly makes the list of Napa Valley “cult” wines. But unlike some overnight sensations that seem to fetch stratospheric auction prices, Hillside Select is a true wine of place with a track record of quality and age-ability stretching back to the 70s. Hillside Select is made from the rocky vineyard the Shafers planted in the early 1970s. Throughout the growing season, the vineyards are meticulously managed – to the point where even individual berries are snipped off their bunches if not up to par. Because the vineyard’s topsoil layer is so thin, vine roots don’t travel far before hitting bedrock. Whether it’s the struggle to survive or the picking up of mineral elements, the flavors of the Hillside fruit are so intense, the wine can spend 32 months in new French oak without picking up a woody taste from the barrels. The result is a wine with classic richness, youthful elegance and texture. Jeb Dunnuck wrote,“In the running for the wine of the vintage, the 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select is an incredible success and offers more depth, opulence, and purity than just about every other wine out there … a seamless, pure, incredibly layered mouthfeel, building tannins, and a great, great finish …” If possible, wait five to seven years before opening! 

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¥58,300 (incl. tax)
2017 Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon (1.5L)