How this wine tells the story of Napa Cab in the new millennium

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When you buy a “1.5” from Shafer Vineyards, you don’t get a magnum. It’s a generation and a half of the Shafers themselves: Doug and his late father, John, who founded the winery in the 1970s. And while avid collectors may (naturally) know the team best for their famous Hillside Select, the Shafer One Point Five, in its 15th vintage this year with the release of the Magnificent 2018, represents the true core of the production of the iconic brand Stags Leap District. .

During a fascinating retrospective tasting recently, Doug Shafer shared the origin story of the slightly confusing name (spoiler alert: it’s more than a few golf balls). And as he, along with longtime winemaker Elias Fernandez, recalled the twists and turns of these 15 years – the budgetary complications of planting a new vineyard; connection to agriculture, such as Napa Valley collectively absorbed the truth that good wine is made in the vineyard; advancing technologies, improving results in the vineyard and in the cellar; and Mother Nature’s mood swings from year to year – One Point Five has become a substitute for what Napa Valley wineries and growers in droves have navigated through this century, and how they’ve managed to do it. a remarkable way.

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Doug Shafer’s father appears to have persuaded him to become a winemaker in 1983, and over the next decade Shafer made both the flagship Hillside Select, from the local ranch, and a “regular.” Cabernet. (For the record, Fernandez isn’t a fan of the indescribable nickname.) However, sourcing enough fruit for this latter wine has become problematic; they didn’t have enough of the Stags Leap District AVA, so it became a general Napa Valley traffic jam – regular, if you will (sorry, Elias). Luckily, a hay field near the old Chimney Rock golf course, where Shafer and his father had played many rounds, just inside the Stags Leap line boundary, became available. Due diligence revealed the need for an elaborate underground drainage system, tight vine spacing and cover crops, among a litany of other costly developments for the vineyard dubbed “Borderline”.

However, the results exceeded expectations and 2004 was the first vintage of… what? The new Shafer all-Stags-Leap wine (or at least enough to meet the legal limit, from a combo of Borderline and the local ranch) needed a name. “There was a Sea of ​​Cab in Napa Valley then,” Shafer says. “It was difficult to stand out. We felt we needed a family image. They thought that since John started late and Doug started early, wine only represented a generation and a half: One Point Five.

As a snapshot of the valley and the new vineyard, the 2004 One Point Five is beautiful. A little rich, more than a little fragrant with fruit and covered with exotic spices and a delicious blackberry tart, the wine (aged in about half American oak and half French oak, which is not uncommon at the time) reflects what Fernandez describes as a typical hot Napa Valley Season. What this doesn’t fully reflect is the almost wild push by early winemakers to let their fruit hang for as long as possible during harvest, as the great, lush flavors and corresponding high alcohol levels are rewarded by critics. and wine lovers of the day. Shafer thanks consultant winemaker Tony Soter, well known for his work at Spottswoode, Viader, Dalla Valle and Araujo, among other renowned wineries, for finding the formula – the phenolic maturity and sugar levels – to take picking decisions that produced the right balance. for this place. And through the wines that are presented to us, if the character varies according to the vintage, the alcohol levels are remarkably regular, and a house balance emerges.

Doug and John Shafer.  - Credit: Photo: Courtesy of Tim Kennedy

Doug and John Shafer. – Credit: Photo: Courtesy of Tim Kennedy

Photo: Courtesy of Tim Kennedy

In 2008, the wood of the wine is 100 percent French and completely new. Fernandez explains that through extensive experiments with coopers and barrels (a process applied throughout the valley), they found that their fruit could withstand the full processing. He shakes his head, however, of the season: “29 consecutive days of frost! The clusters were small. However, that year, too, they had learned a lot about irrigation, especially that by watering judiciously before veraison, they could reduce the final size of the berries. With small clusters and small berries, the wine is concentrated, surprisingly fresh and aromatically complicated in the best way, with hints of cardamom and moist potting soil. Fernandez is now mocking their irrigation research methods, such as the so-called “pressure bombs” to analyze humidity, exceeded by today’s standards. “Now I have an app for that! He said, holding up his phone connected to sensors in the vineyards.

Then came a double – 2010 and 2011 – making the idea that California is a sunny wine-growing paradise legendary, where grapes never struggle to ripen. “Cold and hard at the end,” says Fernandez of 2010. “It was hard to ripen in October. Shafer decided to drop some fruit that year, more than half of the harvest, just to ripen part of the harvest. And with the rain threatening, he called to pick sooner than they wanted, a day before the skies broke loose with the remains of a Sea of ​​Japan typhoon.

The following year was wet and busy – “like I was in London all summer,” Fernandez says. “It was the first time we’ve seen botrytis in Cab.” (Botrytis being the “noble rot” encouraged by humid conditions – wonderful in the great sweet wines of the world, but disastrous in Cabernet.) Step into one of the most astute cellar tools of the decade , the optical sorter. As it turns out, Shafer had added the technological marvel to his arsenal that year, allowing them to sort through damaged berries and MOG (Material Other than Grapes) through instant scans and bursts of air. The final wine yield could have been lower, but the quality was better than expectations for the vintage.

Now, a decade later, the 2010 One Point Five shows the resinous herbs, forest notes and pepper of the fresh vintage, but its black mulberry fruit is quite appealing. And the 2011 – like many 2011s throughout the valley – shows its longevity, always beautifully fresh, with red and black fruits, great acidity and a beautiful structure that is beginning to evolve towards a guardian of cabernet. Not only did these two wines shatter the myth of maturity here (and put viticulture and craftsmanship to the test), but they also prove that there is no better style in Napa Valley. There are a lot of them and maybe mature plump is not the gold standard.

Tasting over the years.  - Credit: Photo: Courtesy of Bryan Gray

Tasting over the years. – Credit: Photo: Courtesy of Bryan Gray

Photo: Courtesy of Bryan Gray

Not to be outdone on the climate front, 2015 has arrived, the third year of a severe drought. With little moisture, the crop was small and the berries were small, a formula for intense concentration. “Everyone’s tannins were strong that year,” says Fernandez. And indeed, the One Point Five is dominated by tannins. At the same time that it is intense and powerful, it is also balanced and fragrant.

This year, Shafer released his 2018 One Point Five, a season Fernandez describes as cool but stable. The 2018s I’ve tasted so far across the valley seem balanced and balanced, based on the winemakers’ choices of vineyards and cellars rather than co-opted responses to the weather (and, God forbid, the fires. ). This wine is no exception. It’s beautifully concentrated and rich, but it carries herbal notes – mint and forest – for a savory touch of briary with its lush cherry and berry fruit. It’s young anyway! Put this one in your cellar (maybe for a good time).

To describe the 15-year arc of Napa Valley winemaking through a single wine is to paint in broad strokes. When I ask Fernandez what has had the most impact on the quality of Shafer’s wines, his answer is simple: “learn how to grow”. For Shafer, that includes, but is not limited to, organics, grasses, irrigation, training and tons of golf balls landing among the vines of Borderline Vineyard. These changes reverberate throughout the region, without golf balls. Doug Shafer tells me that when he got on board, his father pushed them all to go to France, to see how the old guard was doing things there. But he and Elias felt they needed to stay on the ground at Stags Leap and find what worked best here on their plots. Either way, it’s working in One Point Five, with a site-based character and cellar expertise. And I would say that despite the style trends and challenges of the vintage, Napa Valley winemakers today have found their way to a range of remarkably defined and delicious wines.

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