John Shafer RIP – a personal tribute
John Shafer passed away on Monday at the ripe old age of 94.
My first meeting with John was in the mid ‘nineties when he appointed me and my company, The Wine Treasury, to be his agent and distributor in the UK for Shafer Vineyards. We were just beginning to make a name for ourselves as Californian wine specialists and John’s support for us was fantastic, coming over to London each year to help in the marketing of his wines until I sold The Wine Treasury in 2002. He was a WWII pilot stationed in East Anglia and took the opportunity to re-visit his old barracks whenever he came over to London.
He gave up a successful publishing business in Chicago and purchased this remarkable 85 ha (210 acre) hillside property in Stags Leap District in 1972, initially establishing themselves as grape growers rather than winemakers. However, the transition to wine production had seen their status elevated to the very top echelon of vintners in the state. To support the winery’s development, new estate vineyards were established in Oak Knoll and Carneros. There is no doubting the sheer quality of the wines, though. Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay comes from Carneros and is barrel-fermented in French oak. Malolactic is blocked and the wine is ripe and toasty. One Point Five Cabernets like the Merlot and all the wines here sees only French oak. Relentless is a rich and powerful Syrah blended with a little Petite Sirah and aged in barrel for 26 months. Most profound is the remarkable Hillside Select from the finest Stags Leap fruit – a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon of power, finesse and sheer velvety harmony that is truly one of California’s very great reds.
What began as a career in viticulture eventually expanded into full-scale winemaking. In 1978 John made the first Shafer Vineyards wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the first newly planted block of hillside vines. That debut wine was released in 1981 to high praise from critics and consumers alike; it set a benchmark for future Shafer hillside Cabernets and in effect was the forerunner of Hillside Select.
In 1983 John asked his son, Doug, to join the family enterprise as winemaker. A year later he hired Elias Fernandez to become assistant winemaker. With the home team in place, John was able to spearhead the administrative and marketing side of the business, expanding into key markets both domestically and later internationally.
In 1985 Shafer organised his neighbouring vintners and grape growers to petition the government to designate their region as an official American Viticultural Area (AVA). Four years later, approval was granted making Stags Leap District Napa Valley’s third AVA, today considered one of the world’s best regions for cultivating Cabernet Sauvignon.
With their wines earning a growing reputation for quality and consistency, Shafer presided over the expansion of the winery facility and construction of a new wine cave for barrel storage and wine ageing.
By 1994 he initiated a shift in the core team, making Doug the winery president, naming Elias winemaker, and carving out a new role for himself as chairman. Stepping out of the president’s position allowedhim to get more involved in philanthropy. Both as a board member of Clinic Ole, a medical care facility for low-income residents, and with his work with Auction Napa Valley, John saw a need in the local nonprofit world – more and more of their limited budgets were being eaten up by rising rents.
In 1999 John led an effort to create today’s Napa Valley Vintners Community Health Center located in Napa. This single facility is designed to house four nonprofit organisations that provide key medical and wellbeing services to Napa’s low-income residents. Each organisation is guaranteed rent costs at well below market levels allowing them to utilise more of their budgets to provide critical services.
Over the decades, John has been the recipient of numerous awards for both wine quality and for his work in philanthropy. In 2010 both he and son Doug were invited to the James Beard Foundation Awards in New York, the “Oscars of the Food World,” where they were honoured by being named “Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professional.” John was thrilled to join previous Napa Valley recipients: Robert Mondavi (‘91), André Tchelistcheff (‘92), and Jack and Jamie Davies (‘96).