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A Few Moments with Doug Shafer

November 2006

By Steve Woodward

The argument could be made that a Midwestern boy who made good and, today, resides amid the utopian Silverado Trail that ribbons its way through California's Napa Valley, need never roam far from the vineyards.

Doug Shafer, it should be said, roams very comfortably, as evidenced by his utterly unfrazzled demeanor amid a recent whirlwind stop in Chicago. Among the Shafer Vineyards mantras is one dictating that three-quarters of their premium wine must be sold outside of California. This is part of the formula that maintains Shafer's world class status. So when the Shafers unleash new releases, and the harvest has passed, Doug hits the roads to the big cities where longtime wholesale distributors and restaurateurs warmly receive him.

The second-generation winemaker whose father, John, founded Shafer Vineyards when Doug was but a teenager has been pressing the flesh to herald six 2006 releases, three out since last March and three others unveiled just since September. Among them is the intensely juicy 2003 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and the virtually unattainable 2002 Stags Leap District Hillside Select, a cult wine if ever there was one.

Doug worked the room -- Primehouse by David Burke, a contemporary steakhouse inside the chic James Hotel Chicago -- with the ease of a broker who'd wandered in from the city's financial district, impeccably turned out in a classic blue blazer, gray slacks, marigold necktie and shiny loafers. Of course, Doug has distant Chicago-area roots, having been raised 20 miles to the west in the comfortable suburb of Hinsdale.

(Thus far, the fact that we are none other than Hinsdale Cellars, operating our business on Shafer's native soil, has yet to help us score for our beloved customers the unlimited supplies of Hillside Select and Relentless Syrah you so richly deserve. But we'll keep trying!)

The flatlands of Illinois are a dim memory now, however, as Doug Shafer has ascended to the top ranks of his profession since accepting the title of President in 1994. The math teacher-turned-winemaker probably undergoes a bit of a personal space crisis with the numerous sommeliers and wine merchants clamoring for his attention during these road shows. But, if the Chicago stop was an indicator, he makes time for everyone, exuding remarkable calm given the tumult that winemaking can stir in the pit of one's stomach.

This day he was just off a flight from Philadelphia when we found Shafer in the back of Primehouse, his six wines assembled for tasting. A late lunch crowd chatting away in the the front of the house seemed oblivious to the ritual sipping and spitting. We sampled the 2004 Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay (the vineyard so-named to honor rodent-devouring red-shouldered hawks who work for free), then the 2003 Last Chance Firebreak, a blend dominated by 82% Sangiovese. The vintage carries the Last Chance label as a literal warning that this is the final release from the vaunted Firebreak block, and its supplies already have dwindled.

After the lush '03 Cab, we tasted the 2004 Napa Valley Merlot, which is blended with small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. You will find some merchants carrying this Merlot in half-bottles. Then it was on to the fifth vintage of the heralded Relentless Syrah, comprised of 20% Petite Sirah. The '03 delivers a texture of silky consistency and abundant fruit. Someone commented that this Relentless evolved into adulthood, having shed its "teenage awkwardness".

The climactic '02 Hillside Select -- so named by Doug in the 1980s -- was saved for last (a 1996 was on hand as well), and delivered what one might expect of a Cabernet assigned 100 points by critic Robert Parker Jr. last December. The flavors are massive and layered, with that rarely achieved balance of dark chocolate and fruit sustaining the experience throughout.

An inquisitive young woman was cooing around the Hillside tasters about how appropriate it was to taste Shafer in a steakhouse, albeit one as hip as Primehouse. The Shafer Cabs are "red meat wines", after all. Doug Shafer flashed her a pleasant smile but quickly revealed that he pretty much always drinks his so-called "red meat wines" with halibut and salmon, even when large slabs of beef are around.

Between red wine's celebrated health boosters and the regular doses of fish oil, Doug surely will see for himself how the Hillsides of today are faring 25 years out, and then some.


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