Im a little older, but I like it too. Its tough to
hate a guy who calls winemaker seminars "meet the geek."
Today, he took a roomful of us through nine vintages of Shafer
Hillside Select. The wines showed steady improvement through the decade, with a couple of
quantum leaps in quality. Yet he happily went into gruesome detail about all the mistakes
he made. In fact, I got the odd sense that he treasured every mistake, because each one
led to an insight about how to make better wine.
This, I think, is the heart of the matter. Its the
secret of why Shafer Hillside Select has come on so strong in the '90s. It isn't just the
good weather and it isnt just the great site. Its that Doug Shafer and Elias
Fernandez (the Davis-trained winemaker who has worked at Dougs side since 1984) view
the business as a learning process and continue to find room for improvement, even in
First we tasted and made notes on all nine vintages, from 1983
through 1992. Then Doug asked for our tasting impressions and led the discussion from
Following are my notes on the tasting. For each vintage,
Im giving my own notes first, followed by Doug Shafers comments and statistics
MY NOTES. Not quite as bad as the 1983. Same color, but aromas are
neutral instead of vegetal. The rubbery taste is present here too, but some ripe fruit is
WINEMAKER COMMENTS. Elias Fernandez came straight out of Davis to work
as assistant winemaker at Shafer this year. Today Elias is Winemaker and continues to work
closely with Doug on each vintage.
STATISTICS. 23.3 degrees Brix at harvest, 0.68 TA, 3.37 pH, 13%
alcohol. Aged 24 months in Nevers barrels. 50% from Upper Seven vineyard, 50% from
MY NOTES. Dramatically better. Healthier color. Chocolate and currant
aromas. Fuller bodied on the palate. Nevertheless, it seems a little shrill to me a
quality shared by the otherwise sensational 1985 Stags Leap Cask 23. Thus, although
some at the tasting today pick this as their favorite vintage of the 80s, I prefer
WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "Nature handed us a beautiful vintage.
Id like to have those grapes back again." The "acid phase" ended with
MY NOTES. What a difference! A "stags leap" in quality.
Dark, still youthful-looking wine that has thrown a lot of sediment. Sexy, chocolatey,
plummy aromas. No shrillness on the palate. Good, ripe, mid-palate and nice finish.
WINEMAKER COMMENTS. Much to my surprise, Doug is fairly tough on this
vintage. "I was getting out of my acid phase and into the ripeness phase. I wanted
the grapes really, really ripe. And I pushed them a little too far." He also did more
to encourage flavor extraction in this vintage, doubling the number of pump-overs and
going with higher fermentation temperatures. All in all, he faults this vintage for being
Personally, I think hes being too hard on himself here. This is one of the best
wines made in Napa in 1986. Hes right that the wine is super-ripe, but I dont
count that a major fault -- you can, for example, taste those same over-the-top flavors in
1985 Groth Reserve.
STATISTICS. 23.5-24.0 degrees Brix at harvest, 0.66 TA, 3.56 pH, 13.4%
alcohol. Aged 24 months in Nevers and Troncais barrels. 33% from Firebreak vineyard, 67%
MY NOTES. Even darker than the 1986. Very nice wine. But a few
annoying bell-pepper and stemmy aromas mingle with the gorgeous fruit. Same story on the
palate. What happened?
WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "We learned a big, big lesson here," he
says. "It was a hot harvest. A heat spike hit, sugars were going through the roof and
we did everything we could to bring the grapes in fast. Brought in extra crews, worked
through the night and we did it! Nothing over 24 Brix. We felt pretty good. But then,
three-four years later, we started tasting these green things. Bell pepper. We HATE bell
"Ill tell you the big secret we learned, but," he
kids, "you cant tell anyone else! No one else seems to know this." (This
must have been the junior high teacher talking. Naturally, thirty pens started scribbling
"When the heat spikes drive up the sugars, that isnt
ripeness. Its just dehydration. The grapes are still not physiologically ripe."
Doug believes that picking at the spike in 1987 resulted in
unripe grapes going into the press. And so, even though the wine had enough baby-fat to
cover the unripe flavors for a while, eventually the greenery came out.
So what do you do about the heat? "The secret is, when the
heat spikes hit play golf. And if youre really nervous about
it . . . go play golf in Monterey. Dont pick! Youll feel
enormous pressure to pick, but dont. Grit your teeth and pray for cooler
weather." Grapes that dont come through the ordeal in optimum shape can be sold
for bulk, a lucrative alternative in these years of short supply.
This was also year they increased the barrel-aging period to
current levels. Doug believes that oak can help greatly in taking the burn out of higher
STATISTICS. 23.5 degrees Brix at harvest, 0.66 TA, 3.66 pH, 13.5%
alcohol. Aged 30 months in Nevers and Troncais barrels. 30% from Upper Seven vineyard, 38%
from Firebreak vineyard, 32% from Sunspot.
MY NOTES. Dark with currant aromas. What a lovely nose! A little light
on the palate, but theres good fruit here. Pretty darned nice for an 88! I
like it better than the 1987. Id buy this wine if I saw it at the right price.
WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "You never know. This vintage was written
off, but lately weve been finding some nice aromas."
STATISTICS. 23.3 degrees Brix at harvest, 0.57 TA, 3.66 pH, 13.5%
alcohol. Aged 30 months in Nevers and Troncais barrels. 20% from Upper Seven vineyard, 60%
from Firebreak vineyard, 20% from Sunspot.
MY NOTES. More clarity than surrounding vintages -- filtering? Good
aromas, slightly less intense than the 88. But the palate has more stuffing than the
88. Very good wine in a lighter style than the 90s.
WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "The vintage from hell."
STATISTICS. 23.5 degrees Brix at harvest, 0.60 TA, 3.58 pH, 13.5%
alcohol. Aged 36 months in Nevers and Troncais barrels. 30% from Sunspot vineyard, 30%
from Upper Seven, 40% from Firebreak.
MY NOTES. Quantum leap! Much darker than any previous vintage with
more sediment. Huge floral aromas emerge with airing. Blackberry, cassis, cocoa
layer-cake. Very full on the palate with Bordeaux flavors and a chocolate-cherry finish.
STATISTICS. 23.8 degrees Brix at harvest, 0.64 TA, 3.56 pH, 13.5%
alcohol. Aged 30 months in Nevers and Troncais barrels. 50% from Sunspot vineyard, 25%
from Upper Seven, 25% from Firebreak.
MY NOTES. All that the 90 has and more! Terrific violet
fragrance and other florals that keep intensifying. A joy just to sniff. Pure nectar on
the palate. Thick, fat, addictively rich currant-juice.
WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "This is the year we started making the blend
in the vineyard. Toward harvest, we examine all the blocks and predetermine which ones
will be Hillside Select. They get a special fermentation and aging treatment from the time
STATISTICS. 24.0 degrees Brix at harvest, 0.64 TA, 3.63 pH, 13.8%
alcohol. Aged 30 months in Nevers and Troncais barrels. 12% from Vendado Illegal vineyard,
74% from Sunspot vineyard, 14.5% from Firebreak.
MY NOTES. Still a newborn. Purple with intense aromas, all flowers and
fruit, no toast showing yet. Palates tough to judge -- swarming with supple tannins
that dont dent the pleasure. But the quality to come shows big on the monstrous
finish. Best yet in a great triad!
WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "Hillside Select always takes the longest to
come together of any of our wines. This one is just getting drinkable. The 95 is a
formless black giant."
STATISTICS. 24.2 degrees Brix at harvest, 0.62 TA, 3.57 pH, 13.9%
alcohol. Aged 30 months in Nevers and Troncais barrels. 23% from Vendado Illegal vineyard,
58% from Sunspot vineyard, 19% from Firebreak.
After the tasting, Doug fielded a few general questions,
including one from me. I mentioned that some of the same qualities I like in Eisele
Vineyard wines are also present in Hillside Select -- they both yield wines that are tough
to keep your hands off when young, yet age gracefully. And I noted that two of the
Hillside Select vineyards were planted to an Eisele clone. So is it terroir or the clone?
"Both," Doug replied. "The Eisele clone is a
soft one, but we also have two vineyards planted with more structured stuff -- Bella Oaks
and Spottswoode clones."
Someone else asked what his personal favorite wines were.
Corison was the first one he mentioned -- then Tony Soters wines -- and after some
more thought he volunteered Silverado and Beringer.
And then time was up. I left the room swirling the remains of
my 92 taste, happy for every one of Dougs "mistakes" that led to