Sunday, February 24, 2013

12-Vintage Shafer Hillside Select tasting, 1994 - 2005: A reprise

On Friday of last week I attended the Shafer Vineyards event that was a part of the leadup to the 2013 Premiere Napa Valley Barrel Auction.  The event was truly a blast and showcased the winery, its management and staff, and the surrounding vineyards in a very attractive light.  While there I was fortunate enough to get my copy of the John Shafer story (A Vineyard in Napa, Doug Shafer, University of California Press, 2012) signed by both John and Elias Fernandez, the Shafer winemaker (I am hoping that Doug will add his signature to the collection when I see him on Tuesday of this week.).

One of the highlights of the PNV Shafer event was a six-vintage tasting of Hillside Select that was a mini-version of the highly regarded 12-vintage vertical Shafer Hillside Select tasting held here in Orlando a while ago by, a local on-line wine retailer. I revisit the Orlando tasting in this post.

The event was held at Luma on Park -- a local favorite haunt -- and was led by Master Sommelier Andrew MacNamara. The attendees were a mix of "power drinkers" and wine lovers. Andrew noted that this tasting was truly an extraordinary event in that he had tasted each of these wines at least three of four times but never all together in this fashion.  He had tasted every Shafer Hillside Select vintage going back to the 1983 vintage and felt that the wines were "fantastic" and "extraordinary." Shafer, according to Andrew, is definitively one of the greatest wines made in America today and is his single favorite vineyard in the country.

Andrew has worked with Kevin Zraly in the past and considers him one of the most brilliant wine educators around.   For this tasting he was going to be following Zraly's approach of going through the wines methodically with time taken between each vintage.  This would allow each wine to be shown as it tastes and not comparatively vis a vis the preceding or following wine.  Shafer is a heavily tannic wine and, if rushed through, would yield a mouthful of tannins for the intrepid taster.  Andrew expected that, as the tasting progressed, the group would be able to see the terroir characteristics and how the wine evolves over time. The notes from the tasting follow.

2005 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine had a deep ruby color and presented dark, ripe blackcherries, mocha, coffee bean, cinnamon, anise, charred earth, and graphite on the nose.  The wine showed good weight, acid, tannin and fruit on the palate and had a smooth, long finish.  Andrew indicated that 2005 had been a very good vintage in Napa.  It was slightly cooler than 2004 and had had lower yields.

2004 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine did not present much on the nose initially.  When tasted, tannins were dominant.  The wine was all oak, graphite, and tannin with very little fruit.  There was a definite spiciness, a definitive hallmark, according to Andrew, of Shafer Hillside Select.  This wine was closed and Andrew recommended revisiting it again in five years.  This wine was the product of a warm vintage, a year in which most wineries produced flashy, forward wines designed to be drunk young.  This wine, in Andrew's view, shows that higher-quality wines of this vintage should not be drunk young.

2003 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine was more open on the palate than the two preceding wines.  It was jammy and fruity with tones of graphite, tobacco, and vanilla.  It was less intense and less complex than either the '04 or '05 but had more developed flavors and aromas.  This wine is approachable now and should be drunk before the '04 and '05.

2001 Shafer Hillside Select -- Andrew described the 2001 as an extraordinary vintage.  The wine had a definite floral element with lavender and violet notes.  There were elements of sour fruit and graphite but, beyond that, the wine was not very forthcoming.  On the palate it showed great structure and depth. Andrew said that it was less powerful than when he last tasted it approximately three years ago, evidence of what he called a "mellowing out" of the wine.  He sees the wine as being "in the throes of adolescence" and requiring a lot more development time.
2002 Shafer Hillside Select -- Andrew described this wine as the "most massive wine on the table" and passed it over initially to assess the 2001.  When we returned to this wine, he exhorted us to study it carefully.  The wine exhibited black fruits, licorice, and a round, full mouth feel.  It showed great weight and power without appearing heavy.  Andrew described this as the greatest Shafer Hillside Select ever made and one of the greatest wines ever made in California.  He feels that, of American wines, only the 2001 Harlan approaches the level of balance exhibited by this wine.  The wine is still a baby and will continue to evolve and improve over the next 20 years.
2000 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine showed cedar, tobacco, and other secondary characteristics. This wine is approaching maturity but its structure is still evident.  While 2000 was widely viewed as a bad year for Napa, Andrew feels that Shafer made a good product for this vintage.

At this point in the tasting, Andrew paused for us to reflect on the wines that had gone before and queried the attendees as to their preferences up to that point. The consensus was 2002 followed by 2001.  It was felt that both the 2000 and 2003 could be drunk now while the 2001, 2004, and 2002 should be approached in that order.

We turned to the final six wines and, given the press of time and the extent to which folks were enjoying themselves and their tasting partners, the previously described tasting process was modified. To begin with, we skipped the 1999 and tasted the 1998 and 1997 comparatively.

1998 and 1997 Shafer Hillside Select -- According to Andrew, the 1997 had been an incredibly hyped vintage, one viewed as the vintage of the century in Napa.  All of the wines in the vintage received great scores from the reviewers.  Doug Shafer, according to Andrew, had tried to convince him that the '97 Hillside Select is in a dumb stage but he is moreso convinced after our tasting that the wine is "done."This was a 100-point wine and it is acidic and shows no fruit today.  The problem with this wine was that it was not balanced from the beginning (Andrew does see the Heitz Martha's Vineyard, BV George Latour, and Dominus from this vintage performing admirably.).  The 1998 Hillside Select, on the other hand, was an El Nino vintage, with a low-yield harvest, but is outperforming the 1997.  It has a slightly vegetal note (which he finds alluring), and a definitively longer finish.

1999 Shafer Hillside Select -- This wine had been viewed as the second coming of the 1997 Shafer Hillside Select.  It had incredible tannins, flavor, and intensity in its youth.  A dark, rich, extracted wine which exhibits earth, leather, and graphite.  Rather than the 1997, Andrew sees the 1999 as an older parallel of the 2001, with similar structure, fruit profile, and tannins.

1996, 1995, and 1994 Shafer Hillside Select -- By this time the attendees were becoming difficult to control (actually that had been going on for awhile).  They were buzzed; they were enjoying their neighbors; the night had already been a success.  They just wanted to bask in the glow of having participated in an event as spectacular as this.  They did not want to discuss the wine broadly anymore.  They wanted to tell Andrew what a great person he was.  How much they appreciated his parents for bringing him into the world; and suchlike.  Meanwhile, we are sitting with what I knew to be three great Hillside Selects, waiting patiently for us to administer the coup de grace.  Andrew told the group how unique and incredibly special it was to taste all three of these wines together.  The 1996 was an extraordinary vintage, he said, which overshadowed the 1995.  In a previous tasting note I have described the 1994 as manifesting cigarbox, leather, graphite, stewed plums, black olive, tar, espresso, sandalwood, barnyard, and cedar.

I will be hosting Doug Shafer at an Augustan event at my home on Tuesday of this week and expect to taste a few Hillside Selects during the course of the evening.  I will be on the lookout for the evolutionary paths that similarly dated wines have taken since this tasting 

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. I am too accident prone to be around all those glasses...WOW! sounds like a great experience:) hope you are doing well
    - anna

    1. I am doing well thank you. Sorry to hear you had a double dose of the flu.