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Winemaking and respecting a bountiful place

Unparalleled excellence: the late John Shafer in Napa Valley

I was sad to hear that John Shafer died on March 2 at the age of 94. I vividly remember the time, about 20 years ago, when our kitchen phone rang and my wife answered it and told me that it was someone called John Shafer.

He was calling her from Tokyo, as a food and beverage manager there had told him that she was the person that should represent his wines here.

“I think he makes wine in Napa Valley,” I told her.

That is how an association started with a family that produces wines of unparalleled excellence. To quote a San Francisco newspaper: “John Shafer was part of a generation that helped elevate sleepy Napa Valley into the international wine powerhouse it is today.”

Not long after that phone call, I found myself standing with John in their Hillside Vineyard and, as we stared up at two famous rock precipices that legend says a giant stag leapt across to escape an Indian hunting party, he pointed out tall poles and also shorter ones with little houses on them

John explained that hawks perched on the tall ones as they searched for prey such as gophers, and owl families lived in the houses and waited for night-time to hunt; there was no need to put rodent poison in their vineyard.

Doug Shafer, John’s son, has this to say: “Thirty years ago each of our vineyards looked as clean as a pool table; not a blade of grass, not a weed, no sign of bird or insect life, just knobby vines were sticking up out of the soil.

“The only way to achieve that super-clean look was by using heavy-duty chemicals and we realised it was the wrong direction. It meant tainting the soil with rodent poison to kill gophers, spraying potent herbicides to kill unwanted foliage, applying powerful insecticides to vanquish pests such as the blue-green sharpshooter and relying on chemical fertilisers to feed stripped-down soil.

“Today, we are 100 per cent solar powered, we reuse and recycle our water, make our own compost for fertiliser; we partner with owls, songbirds, hawks, bats and other wildlife to cultivate successful vineyards and rely on cover crops to help control insects that would otherwise blight our vines. On sunny days, two arrays of solar panels produce, at peak, more than 200 kWh of electrical power or, in other words, enough to meet the baseload needs of 160 average homes. Over the lifetime of Shafer’s system alone (30 years), the greenhouse gasses that won’t be produced on our behalf has the air-purifying effect of planting more than 30,000 trees.

Cover crops do double and triple duty. They control erosion while also choking back weeds we don’t want. They control the vigour of the vine and, at the end of their life cycle, they’re ploughed under and enrich the soil with nitrogen and other macronutrients.

This combined with our own compost allowed us to say goodbye to chemical fertilisers.

“In 2013, we embraced new technology from Fruition Sciences that allows us to dial down water use even further.

“We’ve placed Fruition sensors on several vines on the property that monitor water use and sap flow within the vines themselves. This gives us data on the actual needs of the plant and tells us when we truly need to irrigate. The first year we used this new system we saved more than 100,000 gallons of water.”

How good is Shafer Red Shoulder Ranch 2016 Chardonnay, named for the red-shouldered hawks that protect this Carneros District vineyard? Fourteen years ago, I told John this story:

I had just gone through 8½ hours of open heart and carotid artery bypass surgery and I found myself in a very eerie place; in fact, to be perfectly honest, I was not sure if I had survived or not. Then, I felt my wife squeeze my hand and I knew that I was still here.

My very first words to her were: “Boy I could use a glass of Shafer chardonnay.” Wine Enthusiast Magazine rates the 2016 94/100 and calls it “perennially impressive”. $70.30.

Here is Robert Parker on the Shafer 2014 Relentless: “Made up of 89 per cent syrah and 11 per cent petite sirah, it is deep garnet purple with a pronounced nose of black plums, blackberries and black cherries with touches of fragrant earth, black pepper and Indian spices plus a waft of lavender.

“Very big, full-bodied, opulent and laden with vibrant black fruits and spicy layers, it has firm, rounded tannins and seamless freshness, finishing long and peppery. 95+ points.” $116.75.

Wine Enthusiast gives the Shafer One Point Five 2015 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon 97/100 and says: “Incredibly structured and powerful wine, softened by 7 per cent merlot and 3 per cent malbec.

“Extracted black fruit is poised among earthy truffle, crushed rock and black pepper, the aromas and flavours integrated and built to age. Cellar Selection, No 12 Top 100 Cellar Selections of 2018.” $119.70.

We have two vintages of a wine that stand among the most superb in our world. Shafer Hillside Select Vineyard 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon reaches absolute perfection with Parker, who rates it 100/100 and writes: “The 2012 cabernet sauvignon Hillside Select is a perfect wine.

“It elicits more than a few ‘wows’ when you smell the incredible notes of charcoal, graphite and subtle toast, buttressed and dominated by blackcurrant, blackberry and blueberry fruit. The purity of these fruits, the multidimensional mouthfeel, the seamless integration of acid, alcohol, tannin and wood are all flawless.

“The 2012 signature adds an extravagant opulence and density that is just mind-boggling, and the wine is a total hedonistic and intellectual turn-on already, although it has 30-plus years of life ahead of it.” $322.05.

Here is James Suckling on the Hillside Select 2013: “99/100. Wonderful floral aromas with perfumed roses plus hints of blackcurrants and spearmint. Full-bodied and so powerful and muscular, but always showing the brightness and beauty of fruit.

“Winemakers say this reminds them of the 1978, their first year. It certainly has the structure — “those tannins” as they put it. Finish is so impressive with tar, iron and spices.” $343.70.

I say goodbye to an old friend and wonder when my wife and I will drink that bottle of 1996 Hillside Select that John and his wife Barbara gave us when visiting our home many years ago.

This column is an advertorial for Burrows Lightbourn Ltd. E-mail mrobinson@bll.bm or 295-0176. Burrows Lightbourn has stores in Hamilton (Front Street East, 295-1554), Paget (Harbour Road, 236-0355) and St George (York Street, 297-0409). Visit wineonline.bm