Q&A with Elias Fernandez winemaker at Shafer Vineyards in Napa
As part of the 10th edition of Wine Behind The Label we selected 16 highly talented winemakers who have consistently been able to produce five and sometimes, super five star wines for extra recognition. The first of which we profile here, Elias Fernandez, chief winemaker at Shafer Vineyards in Napa, California.
Where and when were you born?
1961 in Stockton, California. Two weeks later my mum and dad moved to Napa Valley, which is where I grew up and went to high school.
What was your first encounter with wine?
I had tried wine a bit here and there after high school but the encounter (and the ones that followed) that made a real difference were on Friday nights at U.C. Davis where I was working on my undergraduate degree in fermentation science. Those of us in the program would get together and explore the wines of the world. We would try the wines and talk about where they came from and how they were made, but would end up talking about life, what we hoped to do in the world, all those things you’re trying to figure out in yours 20s.
When and why did you decide to make wine?
Most kids who grow up in Napa Valley cannot wait to leave. As a teenager I had a summer job at local winery that was hot and exhausting. There was nothing remotely romantic or attractive to me about the wine industry when I was in high school. Then I spent a year at the University of Nevada – Reno and when I came back I was struck by the beauty of the Valley, seeing it with all new eyes. It was then I decided I actually wanted a future here and in the wine industry. That’s when I transferred to U.C. Davis.
Who did you learn your craft from?
That was a long process. I learned the basic science of it at U.C. Davis and then learned the art of it, the gut-feel part, the actual day-to-day part here at Shafer usually by trial and error. In about 1986 for a year or so we worked with Tony Soter as a consultant and he taught Doug Shafer and I the importance of learning to gauge the health of the vine – a healthy vine will produce great fruit which (if you don’t screw it up) will produce great wine.
How would you describe your winemaking philosophy?
I believe in letting the vineyard dictate what the wine will be, its aroma, flavour, and mouthfeel. It’s all there in the fruit at harvest; we have to guide the fermentation and so forth and stay out of the way as much as we can.
What is your approach to winemaking and your style?
My main interest is in finding the purest expression of the vineyard site.
How has 2016 been for you/your vintage?
The year started with more rainfall during the winter months than we’d seen in the four previous years, so there was a good amount of moisture in the soil at the start of spring. Fruit set was solid, the canopies looked good. The summer overall was pretty mild. There were no harsh heat extremes. Based on the timing of flowering we thought we’d have another year, like 2015, in which picking would start early, a couple of days before Labor Day, but veraison stretched on and on and ultimately we started picking in the second week of September, which is well within historic norms.
The first thing I noticed about the fruit was its dark colour – deep, rich, nonstop, a lot like 2012. The tannins are elegant and sweet, also in line with 2012, so I think we have a lot to look forward to.
What do you see as the big opportunities for you and the winery?
There’s always the opportunity to see if you can win over a new generation of wine drinkers and it’s one we all enjoy here.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Mother Nature is always the biggest challenge. No two years are alike – and I’ve been here for one-third of a century!
What are the most important countries for you around the world to sell you wine?
Our biggest and most active international markets are the U.K., Canada, and Japan.
In which direction do you see yourself going in the near future?
The challenge in working to find the purest expression of a vineyard site and is that you never cross the goal line. There always something else you can try whether it’s new technology, such as the Fruition Sciences monitoring system we’ve been using to help us determine more precisely how much water the vines need, or it’s a new technique in the vineyard such as shoot tying or row orientation.
Beyond that, Doug and I have started a small wine brand on our own called Eighty Four Wines – because we started working together in 1984 – and it’s allowing us to play around with some new grape varieties such as Malbec, Petite Sirah, and Albariño. It’s a been a great project which will continue to evolve.