When the late John Shafer was on the lookout for vineland in Napa in the early 1970s, he hit on the region that was to become the Stags Leap District AVA. ‘My goal was to find hillside,’ he said at the 25th anniversary of the AVA a few years ago. ‘Bacchus loves the hills.’
Shafer, who died in March 2019, was a titan of Napa. A wartime B-24 bomber pilot, he left his job in publishing on the east coast, loaded his young family (including his teenage son Doug, who now runs the show) into a camper van and headed west.
Together with Warren Winiarski, Joe Heitz and Dick Steltzner, Shafer was a founding father of Stags Leap District, which became an official American Viticultural Area in 1989 – a few years after the young Doug decided that ‘Reserve’ wasn’t nearly descriptive enough a name for the excellent Cabernet that was coming off their rocky hillsides. ‘[We wanted] to come up with a name that no one else used, that told the consumer something authentic about the wine and gave a sense of its pedigree and quality,’ he recalls in his memoir, A Vineyard in Napa. Hillside Select was born – and it soon became a Napa icon.
The vineyards for the wine sit under the great craggy escarpment known as the Stags Leap Palisades; in the upper reaches, car-sized boulders had to be cleared with dynamite before they could plant. The soil here is thin, alluvial volcanic, poor in nutrients; the Cabernet Sauvignon vines produce small, thick-skinned, intensely flavoured berries.
All winemakers extol the geographic peculiarities of their region, and in Stags Leap District they’re no different. They tell you that the peculiar inward curve of the Palisades helps to circulate cooler air coming up from San Pablo Bay to the south. So, grapes are cooled by the wind but warmed by the sun, allowing acid retention but with phenolic ripeness. ‘It gives a velvety texture to the wines,’ one winemaker told me.
The finest examples of Hillside Select achieve that velvety texture after five or so years. They also have a certain sweetness of fruit that has been criticised in some quarters. To some critics, it’s just too Napa, a powerful wine loaded with sweet dark fruit – an old-fashioned style. But this part of Napa demands – and naturally gives – opulence from its wines. Of course you want freshness, but you need that exotic perfume as well, and you need body. It’s no surprise that the 2011 Hillside Select doesn’t quite work. That famously cold and wet vintage produced some fantastic wines on the valley floor, but leanness is not Doug Shafer’s style.
And Hillside Select is all the better for it. The best vintages are symphonies of power and finesse; sensuous, muscular, deeply tannic when young but always with perfumed dark fruit and pacy acidity. Wines like the 1991 – still one of my favourites – are testament to their extraordinary staying power.
With a vertical like this, it’s fascinating to see the development of the style – and, indeed, the learning curve of two young winemakers getting to know their terroir. Shafer employed Elias Fernandez as assistant winemaker straight out of college in 1984 (‘We were a pair of knuckleheads,’ he remembers fondly), and the two have worked together ever since. There are few in Napa who know their land better.
The wine is aged in new French oak barrels for 32 months, then a year in bottle. About 2,400 cases are produced.