Doug Shafer on how he keeps Stag Leap's iconic status around the world

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Marisa D’Vari talks to  Doug Shafer, son of founder, John, of  Shafer Vineyards, about how how he continues to build on the world famous Stags Leap wine which today produces 32,000 cases per year with 17% allocated for export markets including Japan, Canada, and the UK.


Doug Shafer

Stag Leap winemaker Doug Shafer

Doug Shafer of Shafer Vineyards the winery behind the iconiic Stag Leap

Stag’s Leap District is one of the most prestigious areas – how did your father  find such fantastic land?

Actually, he often refers to it as ‘dumb luck.’ At first, he investigated Paso Robles {a popular region in central California specializing in Rhone varietals}. In a chance encounter with a local farmer, he was told that if he really wanted to find a good property, he should go to the Napa Valley.

My father researched the area and discovered that the best vineyard locations were on the hillside with thin, volcanic soils. As soon as he saw the Stags Leap property he realized the terroir could produce great wine and we bought it. He moved our family to California and became a farmer at age 47. I was a suburban city kid, aged 17, from Chicago but I loved the region.

What was the property like?

 The vines were almost 60 years old and had to be replanted.  Yet the most challenging aspect was developing the steep hillside vineyards, which called for dynamite to uproot truck-sized boulders and clear the land for planting.  

How was your first release perceived?

Incredibly well.  The 1978 was a great vintage and our wine received enormous attention along with the 1978 Merlot from Duckhorn, another iconic Napa Valley brand.  

At the recent Napa Valley Barrel Auction, your Hillside Select  brought in $55,200 in heavy bidding and has long been a collector favorite. What do you attribute this to?

Good land and careful attention to quality. The vineyard site is like a craggy amphitheater that reflects the warm rays of the afternoon sun and channels cool breezes off the bay. The Cabernet Sauvignon vines dig their roots through thin, volcanic soil before hitting weathered bedrock below. Thanks to scant nutrients and soil moisture the yields are small, dark, and intensely flavored. The range of vineyard exposures and diversity of clones all ensure that Hillside Select will be produced each year regardless of the weather.

During the barrel auction tasting, I asked winemaker Elias Fernandez about what’s new and he told me about your Fruition Science technology to monitor water stress and optical sorting machine. Since your berries are already perfect, why make this investment?

We’re determined to push the envelope and make the best wine we can. We’re also installing a new bottling line, improving our crushpad, and getting a new solar panel. It’s not sexy, but this is necessary to continue to make top wines year in and year out.

How is Shafer doing in the UK?

The wines are doing very well. I find the UK market very refreshing – people are very frank about what they like – or don’t – about the wine and they are not hesitant to speak their mind. We have lunches for the trade (including sommeliers) and it’s a great opportunity to introduce the brand. Unlike America, the London trade enjoys spending the afternoon having a long lunch, instead of rushing out!


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