Life Lessons with Elias Fernandez of Shafer Vineyards

Elias Fernandez, winemaker at Shafer in the Napa Valley, has 40 harvests under his belt. Here, he shares his life lessons with Adam Lechmere, and how the valley has transformed over time

Words by Adam Lechmere

elias fernandez in the cellar at shafer

You could tell this story in two or three pictures. The first is a polaroid from 1968: a smiling young woman in work clothes kneeling beside her picking bucket, in which a cute little boy sits, his head just poking out. That’s Elias Fernandez and his mother Rosemary. Next up, Elias and Doug Shafer in 1984 with pipette and bucket balanced on a step ladder, looking like they just about know what they’re doing. Lastly, the White House: President George W Bush with one arm around Elias and one around Rosemary, who’s wearing the same proud smile as in the polaroid.

Elias Fernandez, who at 62 is about to bring in his 40th harvest, is as much a part of Shafer Vineyards as the hillside soil itself. He grew up in Napa and remembers it as, ‘just prunes, walnuts and cattle. There were hardly any grapes’. You could drive into St. Helena and see one car; horses would be hitched to rails outside the shops.

Elias Fernandez and mother in vineyard
A young Elias Fernandez with his mother Rosemary in 1968

But change was coming, in the form of a new generation of pioneers eager to join Napa’s fledgling wine industry. In 1972 John Shafer had given up his job as a publishing executive in Chicago to come west and make his fortune, buying land in the Stags Leap District; his first wine was the 1978 vintage, released in 1981. John’s son Doug joined the business in 1983 and recruited Fernandez (who hadn’t yet graduated from UC Davis) as assistant winemaker.

Fernandez laughs when I mention Doug’s famous line, ‘We were a pair of knuckleheads.’ Was that accurate? ‘Yeah, pretty much. It was chaos, crazy. John threw us into the winery and said, “Here’s a winery, here are the vineyards, let’s see what you guys can do”.’ That would be about the time of the pipette-and-stepladder picture. Did they make mistakes? ‘Well, it was pretty much trial and error. There were a lot of mistakes in the ‘80s.’

Doug shafer and elias fernandez in 1984
Fernandez with Doug Shafer back in 1984, when they were both learning the ropes

He isn’t a man to blow his own trumpet, but it’s as well to remember that Shafer, which was sold last year to a Korean conglomerate for a reported $250m, is one of California’s most renowned wineries, its flagship Hillside Select a US$300 superstar. Fernandez is one of the region’s most decorated winemakers – his 2002 Hispanic Scholarship Fund Hall of Fame award, which took him to the White House, is just one among many accolades.

He very nearly didn’t get into wine at all. His parents were both farm labourers, his mother from Napa and father from Michoacan, Mexico. He’d worked in the vineyards as a teenager but he’d also shown such promise on the trumpet that he won a Fulbright music scholarship to the University of Nevada, Reno. He did a year there, then ‘something clicked’ and he came back to Napa and enrolled at UC Davis, one of the only Hispanic students in an intake of 1,000. When he started at Shafer, did he and the Shafers have an idea of what kind of style of wine they wanted to make?

Elias at the White House with President George W Bush and his mother Rosemary

‘John’s mindset was all about quality – we were doing this not just to make wine but to make great wine. And when I was going through UC Davis, I looked at the first growths of Bordeaux and the quality of wine they were making, and I thought that someday I want to make something on par with that.’

It was chaos, crazy. John threw us into the winery and said, ‘Here’s a winery, here are the vineyards, let’s see what you guys can do’

Shafer insisted on his taking extra classes ‘to try to progress the winery’ and he also repelled the frequent attempts to poach his dynamic young winemaker. So Fernandez and Doug Shafer, who met in their 20s and have worked together ever since, became ‘like brothers’, running the business, working out what the terroir would give them, and building Shafer into a winery of international renown.

Elias Fernandez: 'today’s mistakes are lifelong opportunities for learning, rather than sources of frustration and embarrassment'

Like the great wineries that have remained true to their style through all the vagaries of fashion, Fernandez has been constant. I wonder if he’ll ever move on. Perhaps Shafer being taken over would spur him to make a change? The question’s almost irrelevant. ‘Nothing’s different for me. When we were going through the transition, they asked me what I wanted, and I said, what I’d love is to continue doing what I do. I know the site very well, I know where the hillside fits in with the wine, so I just want to continue up there, and do whatever it takes.’

What was your childhood ambition?
I wanted to be a musician. From elementary through high school I played the trumpet and it earned me a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Nevada, Reno.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?
That today’s mistakes are lifelong opportunities for learning, rather than sources of frustration and embarrassment.

What exercise do you do?
I used to love to go cycling until a few years ago I ended up in a ditch with a broken collarbone. Since then I’ve transferred that to cycling at home on a Peloton exercise bike. It’s less exhilarating but so far it hasn’t sent me to hospital.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
My desk is always a mess.

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (apart from property)?
College education for my three sons, one of whom is making wine in Washington State, another is in finance and the third is a graphic designer.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
If I say here in Napa Valley you might not believe me but it’s true. I grew up here and like nearly every kid who grows up in the Valley, I hated it. It was rural and boring and I couldn’t wait to leave. And then after my first year in college, I was driving home in my Mustang, and I saw the valley with new eyes. It was sunny, beautiful and serene and that moment turned my thoughts from being a musician to pursuing a career here in wine. I’ve never lost that sense of appreciation for this place. It’s where my life has been, where we raised our kids, where my life has been lived.

If you could do any other job what would it be and why?
I used to coach my kids’ intramural basketball teams and really enjoyed that. Coaching sports is a lot of fun.


'Every vintage is the next thing I want to achieve'

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island (apart from wine, whisky or spirits)?
My family. There is no luxury that’s of higher value (and often quite expensive!) and that brings greater satisfaction and happiness. Nothing else comes close.

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
Next year’s vintage – taking the beauty and wonder that Mother Nature gives us and successfully bottling it. Every vintage is the next thing I want to achieve.

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
That everyone would have the opportunity to drink truly great Champagne – it’d be a basic human right.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party – and why?
Jacob Ohl, C H Linderman, John Shafer and Rosemary Fernandez. In the 1880s, Jacob Ohl and C H Linderman owned the property that we know today as Shafer Vineyards. According to tax records they were growing grapes and making wine here nearly 150 years ago. I would love to hear how they – and all the other winemakers of that era – turned wilderness into wine country.

I’d invite John Shafer (who died in 2019 aged 94) because he was a mentor and a friend who I miss a lot, and whose wise counsel I hear in my head nearly every day. And I would definitely invite my mom, Rosemary Fernandez, who gave me so much love and guidance, and who I miss very much.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
I love Champagne. Probably not the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, but maybe a bit surprising for a winemaker who’s mostly known for Napa Valley red wines.

What’s your secret talent?
I’m an amazing forklift driver.

When were you happiest?
It’s always remembering the last vintage, walking down a vine row before sunrise, tasting grapes, checking when they’ll be ready for harvest. It’s a quiet, solitary, thrilling moment when I get to taste the vintage to come.


Fernandez's winemaking mantra: ‘Check it once, check it twice, check it again’

Who do you most admire?
There are actually two people and they’re both from my days at U.C. Davis where I earned my degree – my former professors Anne Noble and Roger Boulton. They both had a big impact on several generations of future winemakers and made a lifelong impression on me.

Anne Noble is of course well-known for creating the aroma wheel that has helped countless people put words and thoughts to their love of wine. As her student I was deeply impressed by the way she could break down wine’s aromas and textures, putting words to things that seemed otherwise indescribable.

Roger Boulton taught the chemistry side of winemaking and broke wine down in ways that were easier to understand – the chemical reactions, the inner workings of fermentation and so forth. His lectures were such that I would record them and listen to them again – and again if I had to. One of the many things I appreciated was his passion for new approaches and integrating new technology. I think that stayed with me and guided a lot of my later decisions. Both Anne and Roger were passionate about their work and their students and you couldn’t help but get caught up in that.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
‘Check it once, check it twice, check it again.’ This applies to way too many situations when you’re growing grapes and making wine.

What’s your greatest regret?
I think I answer that in the next question.

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?
I can’t remember the last time I did that. Maybe that’s my greatest regret.

What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?
As a winemaker, you never know when you’re going to get splashed with wine so my wardrobe is mostly black shirts and jackets.

One of the most unusual items in my wardrobe comes from one of the valley’s most legendary winemakers, André Tchelistcheff. I knew his widow, Dorothy, and one day she gave me André’s tuxedo because she said we were about the same size. I still have it.

What’s your favourite restaurant?
Now you’re trying to get me into trouble! I live in Napa Valley, which is loaded with great restaurants and if I name just one I will be in hot water with all my good friends at every other place I love.

What time do you go to bed?
Too early. I live in Calistoga, about 40 minutes from the winery, and I usually get to work at 6am.