A toast to Shafer’s longtime winemaker

   This week marks 40 years since winemaker Elias Fernandez was hired at iconic Napa Valley winery Shafer Vineyards.

Elias Fernandez has been at Shafer Vineyards since 1984. (Photo by Robert Holmes, courtesy of Shafer Vineyards)

   Fernandez grew up in the Napa Valley, where his parents worked in the valley’s orchards and, later, vineyards. Young Elias started working with his father in the vineyards when he was in middle school. He was also an accomplished trumpet player and spent a year at the University of Nevado-Reno on a music scholarship, according to his bio on the Shafer website. But he says that he felt the pull of his agricultural roots and decided to study enology at the University of California-Davis.

   Fernandez held internships at several Napa Valley wineries and was about to graduate from Davis in 1984 when Doug Shafer, winemaker at Shafer Vineyards, offered him a job as assistant winemaker. When Shafer took over as winery president in 1994, Fernandez was promoted to winemaker.

   When Fernandez started at Shafer, the winery was still young. It had been founded by publishing executive John Shafer, Doug’s father, and the first vintage was 1978. Over the years, Shafer became best known for its Hillside Select cabernet sauvignon, from the winery’s Stags Leap District estate. Among Shafer’s other wines is a syrah-petite sirah blend called Relentless, named for Fernandez.

   John Shafer died in 2019, and the winery and vineyards were sold in 2022 to Shinsegae Property, a luxury-brand company based in South Korea.

   I don’t know Fernandez well but have always found him to be unassuming about his accomplishments – something of a departure in the era of celebrity winemakers. To mark his 40th vintage, I pulled an older vintage of the Hillside Select cabernet from the cellar. I don’t have a bottle from his first vintage as winemaker (or any wine from his first year at Shafer), but I did find the Hillside Select from 1996. The wine was still very youthful, with good color and structure. It displayed flavors of red fruits, accented by notes of cedar and anise, and had a long, somewhat tannic finish. Delicious.

   Thanks, Elias, and happy anniversary.