A Visit To Napa Valley's Shafer Vineyards

The number of wineries in Napa Valley is staggering. With more than 800 brands, many of them with tasting rooms of one type or another, it's hard to keep up. Every time I'm in the area I make a concerted effort to spend most of my time visiting producers I've never seen before. Still, some fall through the cracks. And that's as close as I can come to explaining why it took me so long to make it to Shafer Vineyards.

Shafer has been a Napa Valley stalwart for decades. The original estate property was purchased in 1972 and the family produced their first vintage in 1978. The physical winery and their original vineyard sit in the Stags Leap district. They have subsequently purchased property in several other areas of Napa Valley. In total, they have 205 acres under vine. Shafer remains a fully family-owned winery that produces approximately 30,000 cases annually, depending on what a particular vintage year gives them.

I finally made it to Shafer Vineyards a few weeks back and it was a terrific visit. The winery facility and staff my friend and I encountered were all warm, knowledgeable, and engaging. First, we took a brief foray outside into a section of the vineyard. After that, we made our way back inside into a lovely room where we sat around a large table and tasted through the current-release wines. The tasting itself was perfectly executed and is an example of what wineries should strive for when they plan sit-down tastings. Our host had every possible piece of information we could want about the wines. However, that information was conveyed in a conversational manner that never seemed forced or scripted at all. Instead, it was as if we'd all gathered around the Shafer family table for a little tasting party where everyone in attendance chimed in about the wines in question, Napa in general, or whatever else came up organically. It was a very satisfying experience that I heartily recommend. The wines themselves are, of course, worth the visit too. Here are my reflections about the current releases.

Shafer Vineyards 2013 Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay ($52)

Roughly 6,000 cases of this chardonnay, produced from estate fruit grown in Carneros, are released each year. Lemon zest aromas light up the nose here. The palate is studded with Golden Delicious apple and Anjou pear flavors. Minerals, spice, and lemon curd are all part of the crisp, refreshing finish. The Shafer chardonnay is a clean, vineyard-driven offering that allows the fruit to shine.

Shafer Vineyards 2012 Napa Valley Merlot ($52)

About 8,000 cases of this merlot are produced annually. The majority of the fruit comes from estate vineyards a short distance from the winery. The remaining fruit is sourced from neighbors the family has worked with a long time. Ripe red fruit aromas abound on the nose. The palate is persistent and fruit-driven, with red and black cherry flavors most prominent. Cinnamon, cloves, minerals, and earth are all part of a long, somewhat lusty finish. The Shafer merlot is absolutely stuffed with appealing, sweet fruit flavors, but it never strays over the top.

Shafer Vineyards 2012 One Point Five Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon ($80)

This cabernet is produced from fruit sourced at two distinct Shafer-owned vineyards within Stags Leap. Pencil lead, black raspberry, and savory herbs fill the nose. The beefy palate is strewn with red and black cherry characteristics as well as bits of thyme. Cocoa and spice elements are part of the long finish. Firm tannins and racy acid inform the fine structure. This wine is delicious today, but will age well over the next 12 to 15 years.

Shafer Vineyards 2011 Relentless Napa Valley Syrah/Petite Sirah ($80)

Approximately 3,500 cases are produced each year of this blend. The fruit is sourced in the foothills of the Vaca mountain range. While the blend fluctuates based on vintage, syrah is often dominant. Violet, blueberry, and dark plum aromas fill the somewhat brooding nose. The palate is stuffed with lush red and black fruit flavors as well as a lovely spice component. Continued dark fruit, earth, and black pepper are all evident on above average finish.

Shafer Vineyards 2010 Hillside Select Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon ($250)

About 2,000 cases a year are produced of Shafer's signature wine. All of the fruit comes from the vineyard area right around the winery. Dusty cocoa and raspberry aromas dominate the welcoming nose. Black cherry and a mélange of black and red fruits fill the substantial palate, which comes at your senses with wave after wave of flavor. The prodigiously long finish is loaded with crushed cherries, earth, and dark, dusty chocolate notes. This impressive wine is delicious now, but it's still a baby. For best results, lay it down for a decade or so and drink it in the 10 years after that.

Some wineries are more about the sizzle than the steak; Shafer Vineyards realizes you can't have sizzle without steak, so they focus on the things that matter. I urge you to visit them when you're in Napa Valley so you can experience that firsthand. In the meantime, grab one of their wines from a local retailer and taste the beauty of Napa.