2004 WS Wine Experience: Shafer HSS Vertical

Hyatt Regency, Chicago

Tasted November 5, 2004 by otisabdul with 1,678 views

Introduction

This seminar was moderated by Senior Editor, James Laube. He wanted to feature this bottling after the 25th anniversary of the inaugural 1978 vintage. On the dais representing Shafer Vineyards were: founder and chairman, John Shafer, president Doug Shafer (John’s son), and winemaker Elias Fernandez.

John Shafer came to California from Chicago in 1972 after making his fortune in the business world. He bought some property in the Stag’s Leap District, an area in Napa, which at that time was largely ignored. He decided to plant a vineyard on a hillside based on the paradigm that “odds are improved to get great wine if you grow it on a hillside – grapes don’t like wet feet.”

At the vineyard site, volcanic rock is covered by 2-3 feet of topsoil. They average about 2 tons of grapes per acre or less - which helps provide HSS with its undeniable intensity.

John Shafer made only one vintage – the first one in 1978. He handed it off to Doug Shafer thereafter, who eventually ceded over to Elias.

The '78 is an incredible wine and is still going strong. Apparently it was partly luck. Back then, they normally picked at 22-23 brix . However, John did not have enough clout in the Valley to hire enough pickers. He had to wait 2-3 extra weeks - which let the grapes achieve what is known today as physiological ripeness.

All through the 1980s, as Doug and Elias learned the nuances of the vineyard and improved their winemaking skills; John would always ask "Why can't you guys make another '78???"

Finally, with the 1991 vintage, Doug and Elias presented John with an etched 6L bottle that simply said "We think we did it." John agreed and said it was one of his proudest moments.

Here are some notes on each of the 8 vintages we tried. Note that the bottling was not called “Hillside Select” until 1983. About 2,200 to 2,400 cases are made annually:

Flight 1 (8 notes)

Red
1978 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon USA, California, Napa Valley
96 points
There are not many bottles of this wine left, and this seminar put a major dent in the Shafers’ personal cellar. Although throwing lots of sediment, the wine still had a bright ruby red color, with only slight bricking on the rims. Clean berry aromas, with tobacco leaf notes. Considerable fruit and tannins still present, underscored by an ethereal suppleness. The cherry/berry fruit boldly illustrates the regional character of SLD. This could easily go another 5 years, or more. John said: “The conventional wisdom at the time was that ageable wine had to be so tannic, it was almost undrinkable. But the ’78 Shafer was so approachable that many people speculated that Merlot was added, and many wine critics thought the wine would not age.” Those critics were definitely wrong. My favorite of the tasting.
Red
1987 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select USA, California, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District
88 points
This wine was made by Doug Shafer during the “food wine era” of the mid-80s, or what Doug called his “acid phase”. Many of the wines of this decade were marked with tart acidity so as to pair better with food. 1987 was a hot year, with a small crop. Grapes were picked at 24 brix. Maroon color, with clear edges. A bit of smoke, herbs, and vegetality on the nose. The berry fruit had a tropical punch nuance to it, along with some tea and cedar. Puckerish finish. Laube said: “This wine appears to be past its prime, somewhat on the drying side – but it used to be very plush.” Drink up, if you have any.
Red
1994 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select USA, California, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District
96 points
In the 90’s, they raised the 100% new French oak barrel aging from 24 months to 32-34 months. The wine is able to absorb the oak because of its intensity. Dark purple color. A sweet “Napa nose” that was just gorgeous. On the palate, an endless cascade of well-structured berry flavors. A super-long finish. Beautiful now, this one could go another 5-10 years easily. A fantastic wine. My #2 of the tasting.
Red
1996 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select USA, California, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District
91 points
1996 was a warm vintage, with many heat spikes. They needed to keep the vines constantly hydrated. The nose had asphalt undertones to the sweet raspberry aromas. A broad, rich, and fruity wine. Not as deep as the other wines on the table. Laube said: “this wine has a great intensity, but has yet to go into the next transition phase for Napa cab.” It seemed to me like the wine was in an awkward stage. I would wait at least 2 years before opening this.
Red
1997 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select USA, California, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District
94 points
There was perfect fruit set on the vines in 1997. They had a huge yield (3.5 tons/acre), with uniform fruit. This wine is explosive in the mouth, with multi-dimensional flavors, including tobacco, toasty dark fruit, and earth. If you like ‘em bold, don’t hold. Otherwise, this should age and improve for at least another 5-10 years.
Red
1998 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select USA, California, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District
92 points
Laube said: “1998 was a tough vintage in Napa, and this wine really shows the talents of the winemaker (Elias Fernandez)”. The yield was only ¾ ton per acre. Elias directed the vineyard workers to pick off green grapes in the clusters to help achieve uniformity. Doug said he was not too pleased by the costs incurred, but realized it was worth it once he tasted it. This is a dark, almost brooding wine. A pleasing mentholated nose, with rich delicious fruit and a polished texture. Drink over the next five years.
Red
1999 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select USA, California, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District
96 points
Earlier in the morning, an Italian winemaker compared his wine to Sophia Loren. Inspired by this, Elias called the 1999 his “Tina Turner wine”, since it is “big, dark, full-bodied, and voluptuous.” Inky dark color. This wine was chewy, plush, ripe, and balanced. I loved it. Should drink well for at least another decade or more. My #3 favorite.
Red
2000 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select USA, California, Napa Valley, Stags Leap District
91 points
A very similar vintage to 1998, in that there was an uneven fruit set on the vine. So Elias again had the workers pick out the underripe grapes by hand from the clusters. This was the most candied wine on the table, with a boysenberry/blueberry streak running from the nose through the finish. It finishes tannic, but it is not a brick wall – you can break through it easily. Laube said: “This is an example of why I sometimes like to drink young cabernet. It has voluptuous upfront fruit with pretty oak.” Drink now through 2010.
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Closing

Some notes on the 2004 vintage from Elias Fernandez:

“ 2004 was their earliest harvest on record. Yield was light. Picking was fast and furious. Fruit set was a month earlier than normal, but they got the hang time they needed. At this early point in the process, the grapes seem like ’97 with more tannin.”

Cheers,

Otis

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