I was really looking forward to visiting Shafer on this trip. It was expensive, but I wanted to connect with the same winery that had produced those great vintages of One Point Five and Relentless. I envisioned writing this crazy post that would make you want to jump on an airplane right now and drive directly to the winery.
As you approach the winery, this is a hilly site that hits you with a luxurious feel of rolling vineyards. It was a gorgeous facility and the tasting room was well-appointed. The whole experience was just as the description sounds – expensive, stuffy, high-brow. My wife and I were tasting with a group of eight consumers. The group tasted the current releases, including the Hillside Select that had a retail price of $250/btl. I spoke to several in the group afterwards and they had already moved on, asking me to recommend other sites in Napa. Not that the wines weren’t good… just that the experience was not engaging and did not leave a lasting impression. For the price of the tasting and the cost of these wines, you would expect something different. The Shafer experience is a throw-back to an American wine experience long past. Today, even the wine drinker able to afford this collection, is looking for a more relaxed presentation.
The Shafer 2014 Releases
2012 Shafer Chardonnay – Carneros, Red Shoulder Vineyard
Lots of citrus on the nose with citrus AND tropical fruit flavors in front on the palate. The tropical fruit character was a nice change from other Napa Chardonnays. The lack of malolactic fermentation adds to the perception of very high acidity, which is a nice counter-point to the creamy mouth-feel. Very Old World winemaking here – lots of new French Oak and a full 14 months on the lees. A very nice Chardonnay and the second best wine of the day, in my opinion.
2012 Shafer Merlot – Napa Valley
Nose was a bit unusual with a floral character from the 6% Malbec. Once the carmelized butter hits the nose, you know where this is going… a rich, toasty oak experience. The wine is fruit-forward with typical plum flavors in front, but the mid-palate catches you off-guard with a very bitter and sharp dark chocolate flavor that makes the wine difficult to drink. Also, you would expect a little more mouth-feel from a high-end Merlot like this. The wine’s structure had high tannins and high acidity.
2011 Shafer One Point Five – Stags Leap (100% Cabernet Sauvignon)
I didn’t know what to expect with this. All the talk of how poor the growing season was in 2011, I was hoping the winemaker had taken an approach aiming to work with the fruit, instead of fight it. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Boysenberry, plum and fresh tobacco on the nose. The palate was fruit-forward with a little more red/black berries, than currant and plum. The mid-palate transitioned to pleasant dark chocolate and fresh tobacco, with a very weak finish. The finish highlights the problem with this wine. The structure included high acidity, but only medium tannins, missing the structure needed for proper aging. The balance was good, but the mouth-feel wasn’t there. I would guess a drinking window of another five years, or less, by which time the balance will be lost. The tasting offered two impressions:
- Fruit from a cool year that was picked too early, due to the rain during harvest that year
- A winemaker that attempted a traditional Napa Cab, instead of one with a silkier, lighter elegance – to match the fruit from such a difficult growing season
2011 Shafer Relentless – Napa Valley (Syrah blend)
The Syrah fared much better in the cooler 2011 year… as you would expect from a varietal that stands up to cooler temperatures well. Fortifying this blend with Petit Sirah adds plushness to the mouthfeel and deep color. Minty on the nose with lots of plum in front on the palate. The mid-palate moves to pleasant dark chocolate with a medium length finish. What I liked most about this wine was the character of the tannins. No grittiness, or bite… the mouth-drying tannins were very soft and smooth. The wine’s structure had high tannins and high acidity. This Syrah blend will age well.
2010 Shafer Hillside Select – Stags Leap (100% Cabernet Sauvignon)
By far, this was the most enjoyable wine of the tasting. Very fruity plum on the nose with a touch of tobacco and menthol. A blackberry and plum fruit-forward palate with a very long, luxurious dark chocolate finish. Beautifully balanced with soft tannins and a nice acidic backbone. The wine was soft, but not particularly vibrant in the mouth. A very refined style and the best wine of the tasting. An excellent Napa Cabernet, but at $250/btl, difficult to justify the price. I wonder where the 2011 vintage will take them?
Understanding the Shafer Message
Once the wine tasting was complete, the group discussed wine availability with the attendant. This is where the whole experience goes awry. So, apparently Shafer is a winery 100% committed to the three-tier distribution system. They sell-out through distribution most years. Only 15-20% of production is used for on-site tastings, or sold direct to the consumer… and they make sure you know it. Limited availability is stressed. I have no idea what message they are trying to craft for the consumer, but it comes across as being very detached. I have tasted at many wineries whose total production is committed to allocation, having no wine to sell, but at least there… they apologize and help people to understand how the tastings are pulling wine away from previously allocated purchases. I recognize supply and demand issues as well as the next guy, but at least they could be apologetic regarding the circumstances…
In the past, I have purchased Shafer wines via wine brokers. The wines maintain value, but do not seem to appreciate much on the open market, so many 5-10 year old vintages can be acquired at roughly the same price as current releases. Without a feeling of connection to the winery, my future Shafer purchases will be based solely on QPR (quality to price ratio) and in most years, that will be a hard sell.