What’s New at Shafer
The Story Behind A Vineyard in Napa
― By Doug ShaferTweet
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been surrounded by great storytelling. My dad has always relished recounting funny, surprising, and moving slice-of-life stories and telling jokes with obvious enjoyment. At family dinners or around holiday tables, it was always a noisy mix of funny, odd and unusual memories and anecdotes from uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins. Good stories have a timing and a cadence to them. The best ones are those that you can’t forget. They become part of you.
Here at the winery, without really thinking about it, storytelling became the basis for how we’ve run our business. We’ve never been geared toward hard sell. When Dad and I uncork a bottle with a distributor, sales rep, or a restaurant wine buyer, instead of doing a traditional sales pitch, we’d much rather tell you about the time Elias and I had to pull an all-nighter because our press broke down or when our sprinkler irrigation system blew up the first time we turned it on.
From the Ground Up
Almost 10 years ago Dad started work on a book that came to be called From The Ground Up. The winery was going to celebrate its 25th anniversary and Dad and I both thought it’d be fun to put some of our stories from the early days down on paper. Dad would write out long passages by hand and worked with a writer, Andy Demsky, who produces a lot of our printed material and website, to shape and help edit the material. Our long-term designer, Michael Kavish, did a beautiful job designing the book and overseeing its production and printing.
The year we kicked off our 25th anniversary, in 2004, we released 2,500 copies of this 75-page hardbound book, which we hoped was a fun, quick read that gave some background on life here at the winery.
The book got a nice response. We heard from a number of people who’d picked up a copy that they’d enjoyed it quite a bit. Of course, most of these were friends or fans of the winery and what are friends for if not to tell you that you’ve done a good job?
In 2007 my daughter Katie was an intern at a literary agency where she showed an agent, Kelly Sonnack, a copy of Dad’s book. To my surprise, Kelly contacted us and said “I think you guys have a real book in you.”
It’s hard to believe that was five years ago. In a few months the result of that conversation hits bookshelves – A Vineyard in Napa was purchased by University of California Press and will be released this November.
As it turns out the release of the book coincides with the 40th anniversary of my dad’s purchase of our vineyard estate here in Stags Leap District (before it was called Stags Leap District.) The memoir charts the enormous changes that have taken place both on our property and of course throughout the Napa Valley. When our family moved here in January 1973, we were arriving at a party that was just getting started. The Valley had been a pretty quiet, rural place after the devastating effects of Prohibition – lots of cows, hay fields and walnut orchards. Things in the wine world started to perk in 1966 when Robert Mondavi founded his now-iconic winery on Highway 29. Within a few years the Valley began to see a whole host of new faces and new wineries with names that have become very well known – Schramsberg, Chateau Montelena, Stags Leap Wine Cellars, and Diamond Mountain, among others.
Behind the Scenes
Of course it’s a personal story too. Our family experienced a lot of ups and downs when it came to, initially, becoming grape growers, and later building and launching a winery. The start of the winery in 1979 and then my arrival as winemaker in 1983 took us into unknown territory and was an era of tremendous difficulty.
I think even people who know us well will be surprised by how much of the curtain we lift with the book. We didn’t just struggle a little bit; there were times we struggled a lot.
As the book began to take shape we were fortunate to uncover an archive of documents related to the formation of the Stags Leap District — my dad’s handwritten notes, letters between vintners, drafts of petitions and other material that’s never before seen the light of day.
More than anything I hope what the book shows is that success for Shafer Vineyards has not been magical. We’ve worked steadily for decades to grow the best grapes we can, make the best wine we know how and to run a winery with the goal of being world-class. We’ve had many disappointments along the way, many setbacks, many nights when it’s been hard to sleep – but we’ve kept on. The whole team here has worked together, encouraged each other and challenged each other to be their best.
If you’d asked me ten years ago if I had a book in me, I’d have laughed off such an idea. It’s come about in an almost accidental fashion, and initially it seemed tremendously daunting, but it’s been a wonderful journey and I hope it’s a great read for those who add it to their bookshelves.Tweet
“Petite Sirah became an anonymous, workhorse variety, contributing depth and longevity to Zinfandel, breadth to Carignane, fruit and flesh to Mataro, stuffing and color into just about everything it touched...”
Syrah and Petite Sirah: their Curious History together
― By Patrick ComiskeyTweet
Blends of Syrah and Petite Sirah like Relentless, Shafer’s inky red produced since 1999, are somewhat rare in California, even though they seem like an inevitable pairing. Syrah, after all, is one of Petite Sirah’s parents, a cross between that noble variety and the relatively obscure Peloursin.
Petite Sirah was discovered and isolated as a seedling among Peloursin vines by a French nurseryman named Francois Durif. The vine yielded a deep-colored wine of stalwart black fruit and sturdy, gripping tannins, and proved to be especially resistant to downy mildew, a quality that evidently pleased Durif enough to name the cross after himself in 1880.
Coming to America
Four years later, in 1884, Charles McIver of San Jose imported Durif cuttings and planted them at Linda Vista, his 400-acre vineyard near San Jose, alongside a number of other progressive French varieties, including what we now know as the true Syrah, which had been in California as early as 1874, and was known by a bewildering number of names, including Sirrah, Syrah, Serine, Sirac, Petite Sirrah, Petite Sirah, and other variants. We don’t know why, but almost as soon as he had imported the variety, McIver started referring to his Durif by the name Petite Sirah.
We know about McIver’s name-swapping because of the confusion it caused his friend and fellow vintner, Hiram Crabb, a winemaker and proprietor of one of Napa’s largest and most prestigious properties, To-Kalon Vineyard, in Oakville.
In 1892 Crabb made a number of published observations about McIver’s new import, in which it’s plain that Crabb knows he is dealing with two different varieties, and tries at length to distinguish them. In April, Crabb reports in the St. Helena Star that McIver has imported a vine to Linda Vista Vineyard that was supposed to have been the true Syrah, but wasn’t. That same month, Crabb speaks of the variety again, this time addressing directly McIver’s confusion surrounding this variety in this curious passage:
“Called by C.C. McIver, Esq., of Linda Vista Vineyard, Mission San Jose, the ‘Unknown’, ” he writes, “it was imported eight years ago for the Petite Sirrah, but it proved to be a different variety. It is a very heavy bearer, excelling his other varieties (of which he has a large number) and a short pruner; makes a very fine wine, intensely dark and beautiful and retains its color for years.”
A Grape With No Name
Crabb’s persistent uncertainty on the matter is strangely compelling: eight years after importing it, it’s still known only as “Unknown.” Crabb may be poking gentle fun at his fellow grower, as if the two spent more than a few afternoons on the veranda vigorously debating the true nature of the wines, with McIver insisting that the wine was the Syrah of the Hermitage, and Crabb insisting otherwise. Unfortunately McIver’s opinions on the topic were never recorded.
Despite Crabb’s best efforts, the Petite Sirah moniker stuck. Most producers ended up adopting the name, and when Crabb himself planted Durif on his property, presumably from cuttings given to him by McIver, he too called it Petite Sirah.
In the period following the California phylloxera epidemic and the economic decline of the 1890s, California winegrowers rallied around two grape varieties, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah. Thousands of acres were planted in the decades leading up to Prohibition. Its range expanded into Lodi and the Livermore Valley, where it was planted in 1911 by the Concannon family; 54 years later, that winery would be the first to bottle a varietal Petite Sirah. NowherewasitmorecommonthanintheNapaValley, where it dominated vineyard acreage well into the 1960s, and was second only to Zinfandel in Sonoma County.
Varietal labeling was rare in California, and at the time varietal marketing mattered so little that vineyards, including the property John Shafer purchased in 1972, were rarely planted to not just one variety, but several – the so-called ‘mixed blacks.’
Petite Sirah became an anonymous, workhorse variety, contributing depth and longevity to Zinfandel, breadth to Carignane, fruit and flesh to Mataro, stuffing and color into just about everything it touched, possessing a Zelig-like capacity to fill out the whole but remain relatively impassive when other varieties had more to express.
It became such a valued component to the field blends of the era that the moniker Petite Sirah or “Pets” became virtually synonymous for all of the vines in mixed black vineyards, the adopted name for Beclan, Serine, Lenoir, Mataro, Trousseau, Poulsard, Carignane, Mourastel, and Mondeuse, Peloursin and of course itself – which is to say Durif. Only Zinfandel, with which Petite Sirah fused so seamlessly, retained its identity outside of this catchall term.
And oddly enough it’s here, in the haven of mixed black vineyards, that Syrah was preserved in California soil, well before its revival in the late seventies. For not all Syrah vines would have been ripped out in the late 1890s; not all succumbed to phylloxera, or to Prohibition’s ravages. Indeed, Syrah survived in old mixed black vineyards like Stags Leap Winery’s Ne Cede Malis block in the Napa Valley, like Rossi Vineyard, employed by Sean Thackrey in his Orion bottlings, like the Sonoma Valley vineyard plots used by Morgan Twain-Peterson, and countless other unmapped “Pets” vineyards, many of which contain at least some fraction of true Syrah in their vine rows.
And it accounts for UC Davis Professor Carole Meredith’s curious initial findings in the mid-nineties, when she tested for DNA in old Petite Sirah vineyards and typically found as many as a half dozen distinct varieties, including Syrah. Thus Syrah managed to survive not only the ravages of phylloxera and Prohibition, it survived within the ranks of the vine that usurped its identity, alongside which it hid in plain sight for decades.
Patrick Comiskey writes for Wine & Spirits Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, zesterdaily.com, the LA Weekly, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles. This story draws from a chapter of his forthcoming book on the American Rhône wine movement.Tweet
Californian wines also age well
A vertical tasting of Shafer’s Hillside Select lays to rest the idea that American wines cannot withstand the years
Who said that Californian wines don’t age well? In order to disprove this widely accepted idea of those in the French wine industry, the distributor Valade & Transandine, which imports some of the best foreign wines, organised an exceptional vertical tasting in Paris of 15 consecutive vintages of one of California’s greatest wines, Hillside Select, a cabernet sauvignon from Shafer.
Shafer Vineyards is situated in Napa Valley, 100km north of San Francisco. This 30km by 4km valley is divided into sections, one of which is Stag’s Leap. This is where Hillside Select is produced; the vines are situated on hillsides that eventually lead to San Pablo Bay at the end of the valley, a location that provides excellent airflow and freshness.
This part of the vineyard is planted exclusively with cabernet sauvignon, the greatest variety in Bordeaux and especially in the Médoc region. The vertical tasting of this wine, which has achieved a cult-like following in America, included fifteen consecutive vintages from 1993 to 2007, and was co-led by Doug Shafer, the President of Shafer Vineyards.
A first observation, each and every vintage was top-quality, a feat which very few of the world’s wines can boast, especially as the influence of each vintage’s unique characteristics was clear. Of the younger vintages, the 2001 is particularly impressive in
its vigour and vitality. Second observation, a good decade is needed before the wine reaches its peak.
The sumptuous 1998, for example, showed a stunning development and a near-peak maturity, a pattern confirmed by earlier vintages. In the great châteaux of the Médoc region it is common to blend cabernet sauvignon with a greater or smaller proportion of merlot, but cabernet sauvignon is the only variety used in this perfectly aging Hillside Select, something which suits it very well.
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS TO PUBLISH DOUG SHAFER’S
“A VINEYARD IN NAPA” IN FALL OF 2012
MARCH 15, 2012, NAPA VALLEY – Shafer Vineyards is pleased to announce the University of California Press will publish Doug Shafer’s winery memoir “A Vineyard in Napa” with a foreword by Danny Meyer in fall of 2012.
“In the forty year span since our family moved here and established our winery, we’ve seen Napa Valley transform from a rural backwater to one of the top wine-producing regions in the world. The book gives a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s been like for our winery and our neighbors to ride the ups and downs of the past four decades,” says Doug Shafer, president, Shafer Vineyards. “We’re referring to this as a winery memoir because the focus is more on the establishment of the vineyards, winery, wines, and the appellation.”
Doug Shafer’s father, John Shafer, purchased the family’s 209-acre vineyard in 1972 and the family moved from Chicago to Napa Valley early in 1973. Moving from a sprawling Midwestern city where he’d a been a top executive at the Scotts Foresman publishing company, John Shafer had to trade his three-piece suits for jeans and a pair of work boots to get a start in the grapegrowing business.
By the mid-1970s he began planting Cabernet Sauvignon on his hillside property and in 1978 harvested his first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon. John Shafer released that initial wine in 1981 and Doug Shafer joined him at the shaky family-run enterprise as winemaker in 1983. Doug hired Elias Fernandez as his assistant winemaker in 1984 and this trio worked together to create what they hoped would become a world-class winery.
“I think even people who know us well will be surprised, and maybe even stunned, by some of what we talk about in the book,” says Doug Shafer. “We had some extremely tough years and spent a long time on the thin line between success and failure. On top of that we owe a lot to some people who helped us along the way.”
Names who play a key role in “A Vineyard in Napa” are Louis P. Martini, Nathan Fay, Tony Soter, Warren Winiarski, Larry Hyde, Amigo Bob, Danny Meyer, and Tom Colicchio.
The book sheds new light on Napa Valley life in the early 1970s, the difficulty of winning the American public over to red wine, the up and down jolts resulting from economic booms and busts, the creation of appellations including Stags Leap District, wild fire, the creation of Auction Napa Valley, the emergence of cult wines, the changes forced by phylloxera, and scrambling to keep up with the Internet.
The book’s foreword is written by legendary New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, a long-time Shafer friend who, in the late 1990s, played a key role is helping Shafer formulate its own core values, a process which Doug Shafer believes played a vital role in the winery’s success.
“A Vineyard in Napa” was written with collaborator Andy Demsky, who has freelanced for Better Homes & Gardens magazine, Los Angeles Times Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle and is a former editor and columnist for the Napa Valley Register. In 2004 he produced Shafer’s “Line on Wine” book and today, among other projects, writes all the winery’s materials.
The book is represented by Kelly Sonnack of Andrea Brown Literary Agency and was acquired for University of California Press by senior sponsoring editor Blake Edgar.
Shafer Vineyards is a 32,000 case winery in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District managed by the father and son team of John and Doug Shafer. The Shafer family owns and farms 200 acres of vineyards, sources for Shafer’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Syrah.
Discovering Great Conversations About Wine Online
The new world of wine on social media
By Heather John
Each morning I check my Twitter feed, and it feels a lot like standing around the water cooler with some of the world’s greatest wine writers and bloggers. Want to know what New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov drank with dinner last night after his Tomiki aikido session, or listen in on the chatter between Jancis Robinson and Travel & Leisure’s Bruce Schoenfeld about Sine Que Non’s pricing, or perhaps what Vinography blogger Alder Yarrow — who pulls no punches — thinks of Beppi Crosariol’s latest column in The Globe? Thanks to blogging and social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, there are more voices joining the wine conversation than ever. But for those of us drinking the stuff, who do we trust?
When I was a student at UC Davis in the archaic early 1990s — you know, before the Internet — we relied on books, magazines and those relics we call newspapers for our wine information, which was written by a handful of big guns such as Jancis Robinson, Gerald Asher, and Robert M. Parker, Jr. As a result, wine — and those who wrote about it — became a deified and rarified commodity. But perhaps most frustratingly, wine was a one-way conversation.
Today, thanks in part to social media, information about wine is far more accessible. “It’s about building relationships with readers — that magic of having conversations with readers on Twitter or on your blog,” says Alder Yarrow, who founded Vinography.com eight years ago and is considered wine blogging’s greatest success story. He sees about 90,000 unique monthly visitors and recently signed on as a contributor at JancisRobinson.com. “I think traditional media is failing to connect as well with the younger generation of wine drinkers, who are much more likely to look online than in a magazine. Most of all, traditional media is failing the relationship game, the ultimate power of social media.” Compared to the 950,000 circulation of Food & Wine or 1.4 million of Bon Appétit, Vinography probably won’t run traditional print media out of business anytime soon, but the numbers do speak to a growing phenomenon: Social media and wine pair very well
Some of my favorite voices out there aren’t bloggers or journalists at all, but simply super-smart wine geeks with a Twitter feed, like Lou Amdur. A former software consultant and current owner of Lou on Vine restaurant in Los
Angeles, Amdur is passionate about natural wines and indigenous antique varieties and counts wine writers like Asimov, Ray Isle of Food & Wine and Alice Feiring of TheFeiringLine.com among his Twitter followers. He tweets about everything from the Jersey Shore’s Snooki to carbonic macerated Airén from Vinos Ambiz, and has enlightened opinions on both. Amdur agrees that crowd-sourcing and new media, particularly when it comes to wine, don’t always mix well. “The more noise there is out there, the more I crave authority,” says Amdur. “I don’t want to know about the delicious Madeira lyou drank llast night if you just tweet, ‘I drank this delicious Madeira (and you didn’t).’ That’s just an emotivist grunt of approval. On the other hand, if you tweet, ‘The old Sercial we had last nite was great w/oysters’ you’ve contextualized it, expressed something more than a grunt, and gave me a new idea of what to drink with oysters.”
Reporting vs. Opinionating
“There are a heck of a lot more voices out there,” agrees Tom Wark, a wine publicist and blogger at Fermentation.com. “But while they might not have the same reach as Wine Spectator and Bon Appetit, bloggers are having a much larger impact, particularly on influencing the trade.” With 25,000 unique monthly visitors, Wark’s blog reaches more readers than some trade publications, he says, “and I’m doing this in my pajamas with my computer and no budget. Today there is no barrier to compete with the mainstream media. As a result we have so many voices, many of them really good. One day, a former blogger will be editing the Wine Spectator.”
“I think at best wine blogs are kind of like a trade publication. I don’t think of myself as being in the wine trade,” says Bruce Schoenfeld, wine editor for Travel & Leisure. “When a blogger decides to take on the issue of synthetic corks, I don’t care. I care about wine because I care about the places and people and a means to tap into geography. The great stories have very little to do with trends and rarely to do with blogging.”
And Wark concedes that wine blogging is still finding its way. He recently tweeted: “I’m convinced that more original reporting (versus opinionating) by Wine Bloggers would raise the general profile of wine blogging.” It’s a comment that got a lot of play on Twitter and clearly struck a nerve in the community.
In fact, it is my old-fashioned belief that reporting versus opinionating is the very reason seasoned journalists like Asimov, Steve Heimoff of Wine Enthusiast and Jancis Robinson remain some of today’s most reliable and relevant voices — both online and in print. But they’ve also been joined by credible bloggers like Yarrow and Wark, as well as Tyler Colman of Dr.Vino.com, David White at Terroirist.com, Mike Steinberger at Wine Diarist, and Neil Dorosin from Brooklyn Guy’s Wine and Food Blog, to name a few.
Ultimately, like any fine wine, only time will tell who ages well online.
Heather John is a Los Angeles-based journalist, creator of TheFoodinista.com blog and the former wine and spirits editor at Bon Appétit magazine.
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.