INTERVIEW Doug Shafer, Shafer Vineyards, Napa, California
The Sommelier Journal
October 2009 Catherine Fallis, MS
For this premium producer, it’s all about sustainability, balance, and paying attention to the little things.
Wines from Shafer Vineyards, in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, are highly sought after year after year by top collectors and restaurant wine directors around the world. These awe-inspiring bottlings, particularly the flagship Hillside Select, have shown the world just what Napa can do. And like the wines, the winery itself is imposing, formal, and well structured.
With their celebrity status assured, it would be easy for John Shafer and son Doug to adopt the snobbish attitude of many of their high-flying neighbors, yet father, son, winemaker Elias Fernandez, hospitality staff, and dogs could not be more friendly and welcoming. Like anyone dealing with a large, adoring public, the Shafers meet and greet new people almost daily, making it nearly impossible to remember names—yet, somehow, they do.
I interviewed Doug in a conference room upstairs at the winery. Trim, fit, and as full of boyish charm as ever, he answered my questions easily and thoughtfully, often breaking into a hearty laugh over a particularly amusing anecdote, or letting a curse word fly and then looking slightly guilty about it. He is obviously passionate—and truly happy—about what he does.
CATHERINE FALLIS, MS, ACWP
How did your father get into the wine business?
I grew up in Chicago, and Dad worked for a textbook publisher, Scott, Foresman and Company. They published “Sally, Dick, and Jane” readers, that type of thing. He was with them for 22 years. He worked his way up to vice president in charge of corporate planning, so his job was to research what’s coming in all areas of life, not just publishing. In the late ’60s, he came across two things: video-tape and the budding technology boom, and the impending wine boom in California. Now remember, this is a guy who was not a wine connoisseur. He’ll disagree with me and say, “We drank wine; we had a little Mateus once in a while,” but he was basically a bourbon and beer guy. He came out to California and researched the wine business in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and he ended up buying this property with the idea of being an absentee owner for 10 years and then moving out here to semi-retire and grow grapes. But then in Chicago, his company shut him down when he was pitching this videotape technology. They said, “Look, we’ve lived with the workbook reader and we’ll stick with it.” So professionally, it was very frustrating.
Meanwhile, the seed had been planted for Napa Valley. So after a year or so, he said, “The heck with it. Let’s go.” He quit the corporate world when he was 48 and moved us out. I was 17, a junior in high school. I had never seen a grapevine. And we pulled into here in January 1973, on a day like today where it’s just brilliant green and 65º, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh.” That was a pretty wild change from a great little community in suburban Chicago, with a high school of 2,500 kids, to St. Helena High with 500 kids.
What brought him to Stags Leap?
It was interesting how Dad found this property. He was looking around, working through a local Realtor, and there were places for sale—Spottswoode was available. To this day, my children are all talking about that house: “We want to live in that house, Daddy.” “Well, talk to your granddad about that,” I tell them. This place was kind of a last-minute deal. The Realtor said, “Let’s go and look at the Philips place down in Stags Leap.” It had been on the market for years. Different wineries, Heitz and Phelps, had looked at it and hadn’t bought it. It was 30 acres of 50-year-old vines—Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Chenin Blanc, Carignan, just a mix. No winery, just an old, funky barn and an old, funky house. And that’s where we moved to, from this beautiful suburban home in Chicago to this little place with no air conditioning, no heat, one bathroom—so it was kind of doing the pioneer thing.
What this property had that Dad was fascinated with was hillside potential. Hindsight’s 20-20, but at the time, very few people planted hillside vineyards because at that time, and still to this day, hillside vineyards cost twice as much to plant and to work, and you only get half as much crop. And at that time, growers got paid by the ton and only by the ton. Growers sold their grapes to the Napa Valley co-op, which made a tank of red and a tank of white and sold it to Gallo. It was like your North Coast blends: higher acids, but absence of quality. Dad had read some books about Italian wines, where the better grapes come from the hillsides—plant them there, and then save the good soil for the crops. He replanted the original 30 acres and started developing the hillsides, which added maybe 20 acres, so this ranch is now about 50 acres, most of it hillside Cabernet. Dad started making wine in ’78; the winery was bonded on Valentine’s Day 1979, so we just had our 30th anniversary recently.
I don’t know where the time has gone, that is for sure. I finished up high school working with Dad on the weekends. I got the bug. I saw these guys make their living driving a pickup truck, wearing boots and jeans—you know, living outdoors. So I went to the University of California-Davis and pursued viticulture and enology, and halfway through, I realized I really wanted to teach, so I finished my viticulture and enology degree, got a minor in education and my fifth-year teaching credential, and got a job teaching junior high school in Tucson, Ariz. Meanwhile, summertime in college, I’d work at Hans Kornell Champagne Cellars; one summer, I worked as a tour guide at Mondavi. Working with Hans Kornell was neat. This guy escaped from Auschwitz when he was 13 years old. He was that crusty, old style of German; I loved him. After a couple years of teaching, I realized I wasn’t going to change the world. Since my other big career interest was grapes and wine, I called up Dad in 1981 and said, “I’m thinking about coming back to Napa.” And he said, “Well, that’s great, but I don’t have a job for you.” I said, “I don’t want to work for you anyway, Pops.”
Dad’s first wine was the ’78, then he custom-crushed in ’79 at other places, and then he built the original winery buildings in 1980. He had a consultant early on and then actually had a winemaker for a few years, Nikko Schoch. I got a job with Randy Mason over at a place called Lake Spring, which later became Havens Wine Cellars, just south of Yountville. I was Randy’s “assistant winemaker”—a glorified cellar rat. I worked with Randy for two-and-a-half, three years, and he really taught me how to run a cellar. That’s something we never learned at Davis. How do you wash barrels, how do you fix a bottling line, how do you hot-wire a fork lift? The press goes down at 11 at night, and you’ve still got 15 tons of Chardonnay to press—how are you going to make it work? Back then, no one had much money for really top equipment, so you had equipment that broke down. There were a fair amount of all-nighters. I’m glad we were young.
In January ’83, Dad’s winemaker left, and he said, “Come on over.” And I said, “I know enough to know that I don’t know how to do this.” He said, “Well, listen: It’s a small valley. How am I going to go find a winemaker when they know you’re in the wings?” So he talked me into it. We had a consultant, a guy named Chuck Ortman, who helped us out a lot. It was just Dad and myself and a couple of field guys. A year later, in the spring of ’84, I needed a cellar rat, so I put an ad out at UC-Davis for an assistant winemaker, and this guy shows up from Davis. He hadn’t graduated yet, about two weeks away. It was Elias Fernandez. All he had was his transcript. He’d taken the same classes I had taken, but in biochem, he got an A; I got a B. Viticulture 115, he got an A; I got a B+. It’s like, this guy’s smarter than I am, so I gotta hire him. Basically from March 1984 until today—25 years later—Dad, Elias, and I have been doing it, which is a pretty cool story because there is a lot of continuity.
What was Elias’s experience in the industry?
He grew up here. From St. Helena High School, he got a Fulbright scholarship to play trumpet at the University of Nevada-Reno. He realized after doing a year of music that what he really liked was working the vineyards; he had worked in the vineyards with his folks growing up. So he transferred to UC-Davis.
At Shafer, the ’80s were tough because we didn’t know all the answers. We’d make a pretty good wine, and we really weren’t sure how we did it. And we’d make a wine that wasn’t really good, and we really weren’t sure how that happened, either. That is a scary place to be. So we worked hard, a lot of trial and error, and got to know our vineyard. After a few years, right around 1990, things really started coming together for us.
How did Stags Leap become a prime location for Cabernet Sauvignon?
The first guy to plant Cab here was Nate Fay in 1968. He has passed away, but we got to know him pretty well through the years. He was a wonderful guy and a big influence on lots of people’s lives—Dick Ward, David Graves, John Kongsgaard, Paul Hobbs. Some of these guys would tell stories about being at Davis, and they would come over and pick grapes for Nate. They’d spend the night, cook dinner, drink Nate’s homemade wine. He was a really wonderful guy. At the time he planted Cabernet down here, everyone thought he was a fool. Cabernet was going up-valley in Oakville, Rutherford, and St. Helena, so he was a real pioneer. They thought it was too cold “down there in Stags Leap.” But the wood wasn’t that clean, so we had a fair amount of virus. In your cooler regions, the leaves turn red, and you don’t get ripe grapes. Over time, as the cleanliness of grapes and stock has improved, you can grow grapes in cooler regions. I remember back when we moved out here, we had these old head-trained spur vines, and in the fall, everything was red, compared to now, when they turn yellow and orange. If you see a vineyard like that now, you know there’s a lot of virus out there. Bernard Portet was setting up Clos du Val around the same time we came out, and Warren Winiarski—I think his first wine was a ’76 vintage, so he was just getting going, too.
If your father was looking for hillside vineyards, a lot of Stags Leap is not on hillsides.
It’s true: the majority is not. The uniqueness of this appellation is being in a small valley, which used to be the Napa River channel. So even though it’s flat out there, there’s a lot of rock, and the hillsides are volcanic. When I came here in ’83, we had 10 acres of Chardonnay on this ranch. That’s pretty good Chardonnay, but in ’83 and ’84, no one knew where Carneros was. There weren’t any grapes down there. At that time, there wasn’t the awareness that Chardonnay does a lot better in a cooler climate. It was more, “Hey, we need white grapes.” It’s fascinating—the whole emphasis on quality has just happened in the last 25-30 years, a very short time. The strides we’ve made are actually incredible when you think about it.
How does the terroir affect your viticulture and winemaking?
Basically, our philosophy is to pay attention to your place, your climate, your soils, plant the proper grape there; and then our approach to winemaking is to maximize what the fruit can do in a place. In Napa Valley as a whole, we have a wonderful rich, warm climate just about every year, and the wines to me should reflect that. For the consumer on the world stage, Napa has become known for rich, flavorful, extracted wines, which is great. But if I want a nice, lean Sancerre, I’m not going to Napa Valley. Or if I want a lean Pinot Noir, I’m going to New Zealand or to Russian River Valley. And that’s happened across the world of winemaking big time. We had Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Sangiovese at one point here, but this ranch is all Cabernet now, as it should be. This is the home of Hillside Select. It’s the best thing that we can do, so we maximize that.
How have the vineyards and winery evolved over the years?
The other big thing in the vineyards is the move to sustainability. I started doing it in 1989, when Dad had turned the vineyards over to me. John Williams at Frog’s Leap is a good friend, and he was a great influence on me to get away from chemicals, to create ways to grow grapes, and to just exist. It’s very common now; all the growers will farm sustainably for you. Back in 1989, I remember sitting in a meeting with a bunch of growers. We had some pest that was causing an issue, and they were talking about getting the helicopters out and spraying. The guy was saying, “Now, if we all spray on this certain day, this whole area, 15 square miles, we’ll knock it back.” I remember raising my hand and saying, “I’m not so sure I want to spray.” You should’ve seen the looks I got. Everybody was like, “Who is that young punk?” So that has been an evolution for us in the vineyards, and it has transferred to the winery. What’s just wonderfully heartening is that it’s spread to other wineries and to other industries throughout agriculture in California.
How would you describe your philosophy of sustainable agriculture?
The philosophy here at Shafer is to really look at all the things we do. We’ve got a lot of kids running around, our dog running around the vineyard. Back in the old days, the chemical usage around this valley was just scary. So if it’s traditionally been a chemical-oriented solution, is there another solution? Is there another way to solve the problem by not using chemicals, not harming the environment? It goes from all the benefits you get with cover crops—erosion control, increasing micronutrients to the soil—to habitats for beneficial insects, to hawk perches, to owl boxes to control the moles and gophers, to songbird boxes because songbirds go after insects that can be vectors of disease. We built a bat box, which we call the Ritz-Carlton of bat boxes, and guess what? We’ve had it for seven years and there’s not one damn bat in there, so sometimes things don’t work. They’ll hang out under the eaves of the buildings, but they won’t go into our bat box. At the winery, we are 100% solar-powered. We recycle all our water and compost all our skins and pomace and stems to reuse as fertilizers. It is an attitude.
Does that attitude translate into the quality of the wines?
It’s a very tough question to quantify, but what is interesting is throughout history, we’ve always supplemented our juices. If they might be lacking in ammonia or other nutrients, we’ll add yeast nutrients to the must to help keep the yeast happy, which most people do. And we’ve noticed that we’ve had to add less nutrients to the must through the years. In other words, the cover crops over time are breaking down. It doesn’t happen in just a couple of years. It has increased some of these macronutrients and amino acids so we’ve got healthier juice, if you will—more nutrients in the juice—which makes for happier yeast. The point is we’re having to do less manipulations and less supplemental additions to the juice these days than we used to.
Do you see yourselves as “hands-off” winemakers?
I would say we are pretty hands-off in the winery, but boy, are we hands-on in the vineyard. The amount of time Elias spends in the vineyard these days compared to 10 years ago is incredible. He’s out there all the time. Traditionally, in the old, old days, the winemaker and the vineyard manager were in two separate worlds. Our steady, full-time crew of seven or eight guys, they know exactly what Elias wants, because we’ve taught them. We taste with them once in a while, but it has taken a lot of time, and it has taken Elias out there. The fact that he is bilingual is wonderfully helpful; he explains everything. Now some of these guys come to us with ideas. So we’re very hands-on in the vineyard. By the time the fruit comes into the winery, it’s golden.
As far as intervention in the winery, what are a few things that you would do?
We work on extraction. The pumping over, tannin management, is important. The time to take care of that is in the fermenter, not afterward. You have to make good decisions on the amount of extraction you are trying to get—color, flavor, non-oak tannins—so that whole regime and when to press are important. Oak usage is big. I think Elias is working with 12-13 different coopers, different woods, different toast levels; it’s like a spice rack in the kitchen. Filtering is important. It should be a gentle, light filtration, not something heavy-duty. We’ve been fortunate over time, being in business so long, that as we’ve become profitable, we’ve been able to afford new equipment. We’re really oversized on equipment for the amount of cases we produce, but the larger, higher-quality equipment does a better job, giving us better-quality wine.
Is it inevitable that a Cabernet from Stags Leap will have relatively high alcohol? Have you tried any alcohol-reduction methods?
Well, it is not inevitable that you’ll get high alcohol in Stags Leap or anywhere else—it’s a matter of ripeness. I don’t care if you’re in Carneros or Stags Leap; in most areas of California where you grow grapes, if you want high alcohol, high sugars, you can get them, so it’s not an appellation deal, it’s a winemaking decision. We have not tried any alcohol-reduction methods on-site here. We have tried de-alcoholized wines at seminars, and what we have tried we are not that impressed with. That is a manipulation we don’t choose to pursue. I really, truly think, quite honestly, that the alcohol issue is a non-issue. I just don’t understand it. Go to a wine shop and look at the wines on the shelf. There are wines from all over the world. What do you feel like tonight? “I feel like that heavy-duty Barolo; I feel like a nice little Grenache; I feel like a bright Chablis; I feel like an over-the-top, big-dog Napa Valley Cab.” The consumer gets to choose and doesn’t have to pick that high-alcohol wine. One can say, “They’re all high alcohol now,” but I don’t agree. Different regions have different styles of wine. Why don’t we focus on what wonderful wine there is out there? What a great place for the consumer to be in.
In the early ’90s at Shafer, we started to explore ripeness for ripeness’ sake. We didn’t know if anybody else was doing it, but it seemed like we were making better wine. The Cabs weren’t herbal and veggie. Suddenly, we got that black fruit, licorice, dark chocolate—aromas that we really like—but we were pushing the ripeness level to where we had never been before. It was scary, because we did it two or three years before the wine was out on the marketplace. We were fortunate: it worked. But I felt like maybe we were getting slammed for high alcohol. As Elias took over the winemaking in ’95, he was around other winemakers more than I was, and he said, “Oh, Doug, don’t you know? There are guys picking at 29º and 30º Brix,” while we were at 24.5º or 25º. So the pendulum has swung far, and it is coming back. I see it out there, and I’m sure the somms do, too. People say no to it, so producers are dialing it back. As a wine lover in a store, I’m not going to buy that one with too much alcohol, because it doesn’t taste good. But there are many high-alcohol wines out there that have balance. I feel strongly that if a wine has rich, luscious fruit, good acid, and good oak, it can handle higher alcohol nicely and be in good balance. Yes, it will be a bigger wine, but if it has that balance, then it works.
How did Hillside Select become one of the premium labels in California?
That’s a good question. No. 1, the grapes off this ranch are pretty unique, and even in “bad” years, they make good wine. Whether it’s the hillside with its great drainage, the small crop, or the small berries, it took me eight to 12 years of working with this fruit to realize we had something special. It wasn’t really until the mid-’90s, when in the middle of harvest once, I had a tank of hillside Cab fermenting. There is always a point during fermentation where the wine turns a corner, going from just grape juice to a point where you can start to see what’s really going on in there—it’s usually nearing the end of fermentation—and to this day, that moment always thrills me. I realized, because we buy grapes and work with different growers, that “wow, it’s pretty unique.”
I was not a proponent of the whole terroir thing for years; I felt it was something the Europeans made up. But after a lot of traveling in Europe, because we exported a fair amount of wine, we’d meet these guys and taste their wines and talk about this, and I started to respect the idea of terroir, but also realized that it is not everywhere. At Shafer, the only wine that speaks to it truly is the Hillside Select. Believe it or not, it’s the easiest wine to make here because it is all about the fruit. And what elevated it to its status is that consumers want it. Apparently they smell it, taste it, drink it, like it, and they want it. I can’t drive that, but it’s very heartening. We’ve got some wonderful, loyal customers who have been with us for years.
You were noted for one of the more successful Sangioveses in the region, used in your Firebreak. Why did you decide to replant those blocks?
We started with Firebreak in 1991; we had planted the grapes in 1988 after Dad went to Tuscany and fell in love with Sangiovese. He came back and sat Elias and me down and said, “Boys, we’re going to make Sangiovese.” And I said, “Sangio-what?” He looked at Elias and said, “Geez, I’ve paid for this guy to get his college education in wine, and he doesn’t know what Sangiovese is.” Elias said, “Straw basket, straw basket, straw basket.” But it was Dad’s baby, and we jumped on board. I’ve got to tell you, this grape grows like a weed; it has big clusters, big berries; it’s tough to get any color out of it; it has screeching, rip-you-apart acidity; and then it’s got the tannin, the grip. So we’re making it like we made the Cabernet and Merlot, and it was like, this isn’t working. It took us a while. We had a lot of fun with it, and we were very proud of the quality of it as we went on. It was a category that was going to be the second coming of Napa. There were 200 wineries making it. Within three or four years, whoosh, the bottom fell out. And I know why: it’s because that grape is tough to grow, tough to make, and, stylistically, the consumer never knew what they were going to get. It was going to be this nice, fruity, simple wine, or this acid, tannic, rip-your-head-off wine—kind of like how Zinfandel got beat up for a long time, because people couldn’t really get their hands on what it was going to be like. We were fortunate; we didn’t have too much of that, because we had a good following.
I think the fact we had Firebreak on the label was important. In hindsight, we didn’t do that on purpose, it just sort of happened—it was a great story about a hill that burned once, named Firebreak. Part of the reason for not putting Sangiovese on the front label was because no one knew about it, and, in my opinion, it was too tough to pronounce. So on date night, the sommelier is standing there, and you’re trying to impress your date: “I’ll have the Sangio—, Sangio—, Sangio—I’ll have that Firebreak.” We sell more wines telling the stories. I can talk about pH, malolactic, or barrel fermentation, but the stories are what people remember.
Then Dad took us to Tuscany about five years ago. It wasn’t really focused on going to wineries, but we did visit one or two. For six or eight days, lunch and dinner at cute, little restaurants, I’m drinking these Sangioveses that cost nothing and were just like heaven. I came back to Elias and said, “We’re done. I just tasted the real deal, and at half the price.” At Shafer, we’re trying to be focused on quality across the board, and at the time, our Syrah was coming on board and doing very well, so we took the Sangiovese out. Some was here on the home ranch; we replanted that to Cabernet for Hillside Select. At another ranch where we had Sangiovese growing, we pulled it and replanted it to Syrah and Petite Sirah because it was right next to where we were already growing those grapes. I still run into people who say, “Oh, we miss your Firebreak.” So I say, “I know, it was great. Hey, what was in that wine?” This one guy goes, “Well, I know there was some Cabernet.” He didn’t even know it was Sangiovese.
What’s the story of the Red Shoulder Ranch?
Red Shoulder Ranch is our Carneros vineyard. Carneros is like night and day compared to up here. We bought that in 1988 and planted half to Chardonnay and half to Merlot. But after 10 years, we pulled the Merlot out, and it’s all Chardonnay now. Basically, it’s named in honor of the Red Shoulder hawks. We’ve got the hawk perches, and we felt we should talk about the hawks. I was scared, though, when we rolled it out. I thought there were going to be a lot of comments like, “Hey, Shafer, you’ve got sunburned shoulders. What’s going on?”
You are an active supporter of sommelier education. How important is it that sommeliers understand what you’re doing at Shafer?
It’s incredibly important. I can only be in one place at one time, and a lot of this comes from my father in the early days. How do you get the word out? How do we tell our story? When we started, there wasn’t any Internet or websites. We had mailing lists, trade accounts, people’s names. We still do. We send things in the mail—not just, “Here are the new wines,” but also articles on water usage and sustainability, to improve education about Shafer. That’s helped, but the sommeliers are the gatekeepers. The more I can have them know our stories and what we’re all about, that word gets spread, because when they’re on the floor selling wine, part of that interaction with the customer, as we all know, is to have some type of connection. Again, instead of talking about what the pH is or what malolactic is or what type of oak they use, the sommelier can tell a story that actually educates, that gives a glimpse of philosophy, of what is going on at Shafer and the wines we are trying to make. So we spend a lot of time at it. Dad traveled for a number of years, and so have I. The best use of my time traveling is not doing a winemaker dinner, but going to accounts or having sommeliers come to lunch or dinner, where it is a small group and you can get into the nitty-gritty, and hopefully they listen.
How much of your wine goes to restaurants, and how difficult are the various labels to get?
I would say you’ve got two really diverse worlds in the wine business—the retail arena and the restaurant arena. Overall, across the board, we are probably about 50/50. Some people don’t believe me; they think it is more like 40 retail/60 restaurant. Both areas are very important. Both are very different, with different attitudes. I’ve been dealing with it for 25 years, and I’ve never been able to figure out how to keep both of them happy. Hillside Select is very difficult to get. Relentless is tough. Chardonnay can be difficult because it is a vineyard-designated wine. Sometimes production is down, so it can range from 5,000 to 7,000 cases. That can be challenging. I will never do another vineyard-designated wine, because it wreaks havoc on the marketplace. People have worked hard to promote your wines, to support your brand and build it, and all of a sudden, you can’t supply them the following year. That’s just not right. That’s been a tough one for us to deal with. The two wines we make the most of are the Merlot and the One Point Five Cab. So they are fairly available throughout the year, which is nice. I never want to be so hard to get that people can’t get Shafer wine.
Whom should interested sommeliers contact to order wine?
The distributors. We don’t micromanage markets; there is no way we know who the players are. We truly are in partnership with our distributors. My advice would be to try to understand what the distributor’s business is and realize that in this business—and most of the somms out there know this—if you want the impossible-to-find wines, you need to have a relationship. That means if there is something that you can do to help the distributor out, that’s kind of the way business is done. It’s not like you have to take 20 cases of some really doggy wine, but you might want to just support them in some way that works for you and your program.
What do you like in terms of food pairing with your wines?
People who know me know that I am not a foodie. I was a closet non-foodie for a long time, but now, I am actually out of the closet. I am not a cook, not a chef. I’ve had some wonderful meals. I love to try new things. For lots of reasons, my whole diet has taken a turn in the last five or six years, so at home, we rarely eat meat, which is just hilarious because we make some of these big, beautiful red wines, and there’s nothing better than a steak or a lamb chop with them. So I eat a lot of seafood, a lot of salmon and halibut, and a lot of vegetables.
This sounds crazy, but I’ll drink any wine with any food. Even if it doesn’t work, I find that really interesting because I want to figure out why it doesn’t work. My wife Annette is a great chef. I’ll say, “This works” or “This doesn’t,” and we can have a conversation about the salt or flavors or spices, sour or sweet. It’s fascinating. But I am more of a flavor guy, and with our place dictating the wines we make, the Shafer wines are big, flavorful, powerful wines. So I would look for foods that have that same characteristic. I’ll never forget, probably 20 years ago, Jimmy Schmidt at the Rattlesnake Club in Detroit had a lamb chop main course that he paired with Merlot. It was the best thing I’ve ever had. It was Merlot, it wasn’t Cab. It was just “wow.”
How do you, your father, and Elias divide up responsibilities these days?
You talk about being lucky, Elias and I—Dad provided us with an amazing vineyard, whatever equipment we needed; he’s never said no to anything. He spends most of his time doing philanthropic work in the valley for different causes, and he is a great ambassador. He travels often. We were just talking about an event in San Francisco, and he said he’d cover that one. He is 84 years old, and he drives himself. He’s here every day. He always has been and continues to be a great sounding board. But over the last 10 years, he has definitely let me take over and run it day to day, so I’m basically running the administrative, marketing, and sales stuff—which is definitely not as exciting as making the wine—and Elias is the winemaker. We have a vineyard manager, David Ilsley, who is a great guy, but Elias oversees production of the wines and, with David, the grapes. When you’ve been together 25 years, it’s a truly wonderfully trusting relationship, and it’s pretty unique. There are no agendas; we’ve just got one thing in mind: How do we make the best wines year to year? How can we make the whole line good every year no matter what Mother Nature throws at us?
Your dogs have their own page on your website; do they have official titles at the winery?
We’ve had a whole bunch of dogs over the years. They have their own business cards with different paw prints on them. They are the most popular of all the cards—the visitors take them, and we have to reprint those all the time. The dogs have a Facebook page; I’m not too up to speed on Facebook, but it is a nice way to do things tongue in cheek and not as blatantly. But no titles. And for a salary, they each get a couple of treats a day if they behave.
What does the future hold for Shafer?
I used to think this was a boring answer, but it’s basically to continue to make high-quality, flavorful wines every year, so in the consumer world out there, or the trade world, folks will be convinced without a shadow of a doubt that if that’s a bottle of Shafer, it’s going to be good. To have that be just a slam-dunk kind of deal, that’s the goal. So everything we need to do to get there is what we do—it could be using a new cooper, a new grape source, a new type of sorting machine at the crusher. It’s all these little things, and they’re boring. They’re not exciting; they’re not sexy. It’s just like in a restaurant: “What’s new in your restaurant?” “We don’t have a $10 million facelift.” But why is one restaurant successful for 25 years without a facelift? What are they doing? The food is the same—or is it? These aren’t the sexy, flashy things, like solar power. Those don’t come along every day. It’s all the thousands of details behind the scenes that keep the quality high. It’s amazing, because it seems like my to-do list is as long as ever.