It was the lure of wine country farming that inspired John Shafer in 1972 to make a career change, leaving behind 23 years of corporate experience to begin work in a new field. And in the fields, or rather the vineyards, is exactly where John began his new career. Adopting a hands-on approach from day one, John could be seen throughout the mid-70s riding on his tractor as he tilled the soil of his family's new estate in the foothills of the Stags Leap Palisades.
It was during this period that he, along with his son Doug, learned the intricacies of
hillside grapegrowing as they toiled many long hours terracing the hillsides, replanting
and expanding the vineyards. With each passing year, they learned more about the nature
of grapegrowing in the Stags Leap District, one of the world's best regions for the
cultivation of Cabernet Sauvignon. What began for John as a career in viticulture, quickly expanded into full-scale winemaking. In 1978, the first Shafer wine
was made and a year later construction began on the family winery. The debut wine, a
Cabernet Sauvignon, was released in 1981 to a chorus of high praise and awards,
including a first place in the San Francisco Vintners Club Cabernet taste-off. Over fifteen
years later, this wine continues to prove its remarkable ageability, winning first place in a
1993 German blind tasting against first growth Bordeaux wines.
Spearheading a family effort, John sets the tone for Shafer Vineyards through his casual style. A visitor to the winery will most often encounter John striding through the winery, clad in blue jeans and boots with Tucker, the family dog, in tow.
In 1994, John moved from the position of president to chairman of the board. In his new position, he focuses on long-range strategic planning and export sales.
"I'll never forget the Napa Valley Vintners' 1981 Wine Symposium and the debut of our
first vintage, the 1978 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon. Because I was the new kid on the
block, all the big shots of winedom were coming by to taste my first release. Commenting
on how well-developed and soft this Cabernet was for a wine that hadn't even been
released yet, many asked the same question: 'How much Merlot did you add?'"
"'None' was my reply. The truth was the first wine I made was 100% hillside Cabernet because that was all I had. But the tasters kept asking about Merlot."
"One of them, a wine buyer, was especially persistent. Returning a second time, he slipped behind my table, lowered his voice and swore to secrecy if I let him in on it: 'How much Merlot did you blend?'"
"What I didn't know then, but realized later, was that the persistent wine buyer had identified the most prominent attribute of Cabernet grown in the Stags Leap District: the silky, supple, velvety tannins that don't require softening by the addition of Merlot."
"It was that distinct character so strongly identified with this region that prompted me, four years later, to head up a committee of growers and vintners in petitioning the government to designate this region the Stags Leap District appellation, now recognized worldwide for its Cabernet Sauvignon."
John played a pivotal role in the establishment of the prestigious Stags Leap District appellation. A dynamic leader, he tirelessly works to broaden international awareness of the nature and quality of the wines of the Stags Leap District.
Doug Shafer arrived in Napa Valley at age 17 when he moved with his family from the Chicago suburbs in 1973 to a new home in the rugged foothills of the Stags Leap Palisades.
His first few years in the Valley proved to be formative ones. Throughout his junior and senior years of high school he spent long hours helping his father replant and then clear land for new vineyards. The enjoyment he took working outdoors among the vines inspired him to enroll in the enology and viticulture program at the University of California at Davis.
While completing his university studies, Doug spent summers working with his father in the vineyards while further expanding his understanding of the wine industry working at Hanns Kornell and Robert Mondavi wineries. Meanwhile, his father was preparing to crush the first vintage of wine in 1978. Following graduation, Doug honed his skills as assistant winemaker at Lakespring Winery prior to becoming winemaker at Shafer Vineyards in 1983.
During his ten years as winemaker, Doug forged the trademark Shafer style of quality, consistency, and elegance. Vintage by vintage, he learned to highlight the natural character of the grapes from his family’s hillside vineyards, crafting wines that reflect the Stags Leap District character of rich fruit and silky tannins. During this period he also managed the estate vineyards, launching the winery on the road to sustainable farming developing a new 66-acre vineyard in the Carneros district, the source for Red Shoulder Chardonnay.
In 1994, Doug took over the reins as president when his father John became chairman of the board and Elias Fernandez became winemaker. As president, Doug continued to refine the Shafer wine portfolio working closely with Elias to develop a vineyard in the foothills of the Vaca Mountains that would be the source for the Syrah and Petite Sirah of Relentless, which in 2012 was named Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year. He also purchased a 25-acre hay field in Stags Leap District, developing it into the predominant vineyard source for One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon.
Doug Shafer has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors throughout his career including the 2010 James Beard Foundation Award for “Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professionals” which he shared with his father.
In 2012 University of California Press published A Vineyard in Napa, Doug’s critically acclaimed memoir, recounting 40 years inside the Napa Valley wine industry. Associated Press called the book “... [a] true-life story of one of the great success stories of the American wine industry.” Forbes declared it ”... a charming and refreshingly honest story with a happy ending.”
As president Doug Shafer continues to oversee the daily operations of the winery and vineyards as well as sales and marketing. He maintains a hands-on approach, personally meeting as many winery guests as he can and working closely with his father and winemaker Elias Fernandez to ensure both the quality of the wines and the future of Shafer Vineyards.
Long-term, Doug is committed to preserving Shafer as a small family winery dedicated to the production of world-class wines from the estate vineyards.
Elias Fernandez has been making wine at Shafer Vineyards for more than 30 years. Working side by side with John and Doug Shafer, he has played an integral role in forging a style of boldness and elegance that has been embraced by wine lovers throughout the world.
Elias earned his success in part because he knows Napa Valley vineyards from the roots up. He knows first-hand what it’s like to work in 100-degree heat among dusty vine rows as well as the difficulties of pruning vines in the freezing winter pre-dawn light.
Elias’ father came to the U.S. from Michoacan, Mexico and worked in the San Joaquin Valley as a farm laborer. His mother was born in Napa Valley where her father was a laborer who helped build the rail line that runs through Yountville.
Both parents picked prunes and walnuts in the days before wine grapes became the predominant crop in the Valley. Some
of Elias’ earliest memories are in these orchards.
In junior high, Elias started working in vineyards with his father where he learned to drive tractors, train and prune grapevines and from both parents he learned the value of hard work and self- reliance.
“From my dad I learned a lot of common sense things — working with people, driving a tractor, fixing trellis systems and everyday work in the vineyard,” Elias says. “From my mom I learned that I needed an education.”
In third grade with his mother’s encouragement he had started playing the trumpet in the school band. He played all the way through high school and distinguished himself to such a degree that he received a Fulbright music scholarship to attend the Jazz program at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is the first person in his family to go to college.
After a year in Reno Elias says something just “clicked” and he began to feel an urge to return to his agricultural roots.
“I started to look around Napa Valley and realized what a beautiful place this is,” he says. “I began to think, ‘what about winemaking?’”
His mother asked around to help Elias get an idea of what kind of prospects such a venture might offer. She came back to him shaking her head. The news wasn’t good.
“Everyone told her it didn’t look like there was a big future in winemaking,” he says.
Even so, in 1981 he enrolled at University of California, Davis to study enology, the science of winemaking.
“I went from studying music to science,” he says, recalling the difficulty of the switch.
His first chemistry class was held in an auditorium with 1,000 other students.
“It was overwhelming,” he says. “You have to remember where I came from — my graduating class at St. Helena High was just over 100 kids.”
During his college years, Fernandez grew more knowledgeable through internships at local wineries including Schramsberg Vineyards, Louis Martini Winery and Cuvaison — learning bottling lines, cellar operations, how to drive a forklift and more.
Three weeks before graduation, in 1984, he was hired as assistant winemaker at Shafer Vineyards working with Doug Shafer.
The winery was then just five years old. Those first ten years were some of the hardest of his life.
“We were still learning how a winery works — how to crush, how to get the juice into the tank, how to get it out. It was trial and error. We started off crushing white grapes like red. And we weren’t exactly ringing the bell on wine scores either,” he recalls. “Thank God we were young because we worked ourselves to death.”
For several years Elias shared co-winemaker duties with Doug Shafer. Then in 1994 Doug became winery president and Elias took on the winemaker title with all of its duties. Over time, life at Shafer Vineyards became less about logistics and more about constantly improving the way they crafted their wine. The team of John Shafer, who started the winery, Doug Shafer, his son, winery president, and Fernandez worked together to create a “house style” of wine that is bold and elegant.
In 2002 both Quarterly Review of Wines and Food & Wine magazine named Elias “Winemaker of the Year.” Shafer Vineyards was selected as one of the “25 Great Vineyards in the World” by Wine & Spirits magazine.
On October 2, 2002 he accepted a prestigious “Hall of Fame” award from the Hispanic Scholarship Fund in Washington D.C. and attended a White House reception hosted by President George W. Bush.