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The Rise of Hillside

INTRODUCTORY NOTE: Back when I wrote this article, it was controversial to assert that Shafer was supplanting Stag's Leap Wine Cellars as the premier producer of Cabernet Sauvignon in Stags leap District.
     Today it's not even worth arguing
the market is speaking for itself. It's almost impossible to find Shafer's flagship Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon and prices are shooting to the moon.
     Cynics may chalk this up to Robert Parker's 99-point score awarded to the '94 Hillside. I'm sure it helped, but to me this was simply a coronation. The new Sultans of Stags Leap had already ascended the throne.

     Hillside Select has been going from strength to strength since 1986. It over-achieved impressively in the subpar vintages of 1988 and 1989, then went into overdrive starting in 1990.
     I would name 1992 as the year that Hillside Select finally overtook the long-reigning local champion, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23. Then, in 1994, Hillside Select simply shot out the lights -- it could well be Napa Valley's wine of the vintage for 1994 -- while Cask 23 was, well, disappointing.
     As someone who purchased a future on the 1992 Hillside for $30, I'm naturally unhappy over what's happening to the prices, but at least this is a wine that has paid its dues and delivers the goods.

THE RISE OF HILLSIDE. Doug Shafer leads a vertical of Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon. (February 9, 1997) Prior to becoming the family winemaker, says Doug Shafer, he taught junior high for two years. I suspect the kids had a good time and maybe they learned something too. Doug has a hair-trigger sense of humor -- and a refreshing lack of bs -- that any self-respecting 13-year-old would have to respect.

     I’m a little older, but I like it too. It’s 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. It’s the secret of why Shafer Hillside Select has come on so strong in the '90s. It isn't just the good weather and it isn’t just the great site. It’s that Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez (the Davis-trained winemaker who has worked at Doug’s side since 1984) view the business as a learning process and continue to find room for improvement, even in superb vintages.

     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 there.

     Following are my notes on the tasting. For each vintage, I’m giving my own notes first, followed by Doug Shafer’s comments and statistics he provided.


MY NOTES. Garnet with rust at the edge. Herbal, green aromas. Astringent and rubbery tasting. Not a goner, but close. A wine that only a mother could love.

WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "It was a tough year," says Doug. "I didn’t see a grape over 22.8 Brix. And I didn’t know sh*t." Like other California winemakers, he was adding heavy amounts of acid to achieve correct-looking numbers. The result, he freely admits, was a tart wine. "You ever hear about people talking about their ‘acid phase’ in the sixties? This was the start of my acid phase."
     However, he says, he continues to speak with people who prefer this style of wine. Sure enough, a couple of people at the tasting actually volunteer that they like this vintage. (What are they tasting?)

STATISTICS. 22.8 degrees Brix at harvest, O.63 TA, 3.46 pH, 12.7% alcohol. Aged 21 months in Nevers barrels. 100% from Upper Seven Vineyard. (Note: all vineyards mentioned here and below are located on the Shafer Estate in Stags Leap District.)


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 poking through.

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 Sunspot.


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 Stag’s Leap Cask 23. Thus, although some at the tasting today pick this as their favorite vintage of the ‘80s, I prefer the 1986.

WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "Nature handed us a beautiful vintage. I’d like to have those grapes back again." The "acid phase" ended with this vintage.


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. Outstanding wine!

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 slightly overripe.

Personally, I think he’s being too hard on himself here. This is one of the best wines made in Napa in 1986. He’s right that the wine is super-ripe, but I don’t 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% from Sunspot.


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 pepper!
     "I’ll tell you the big secret we learned, but," he kids, "you can’t tell anyone else! No one else seems to know this." (This must have been the junior high teacher talking. Naturally, thirty pens started scribbling immediately.)
     "When the heat spikes drive up the sugars, that isn’t ripeness. It’s 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 you’re really nervous about it . . . go play golf in Monterey. Don’t pick! You’ll feel enormous pressure to pick, but don’t. Grit your teeth and pray for cooler weather." Grapes that don’t 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 alcohol levels.

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 there’s good fruit here. Pretty darned nice for an ‘88! I like it better than the 1987. I’d buy this wine if I saw it at the right price.

WINEMAKER COMMENTS. "You never know. This vintage was written off, but lately we’ve 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 they’re picked."

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. Palate’s tough to judge -- swarming with supple tannins that don’t 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 Soter’s 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 Doug’s "mistakes" that led to this triumph.

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