Sunday, August 4, 2013

Book Review: A Vineyard in Napa

In its April 30, 2000 issue, Wine Spectator crowned Araujo, Bryant Family, Colgin, Dalle Valle, Grace Family, Harlan, Marcassin, Screaming Eagle, and Hillside Select as cult wines, placing them squarely at the pinnacle of the US wine industry. Doug Shafer's (with Andy Demsky) A Vineyard in Napa traces the path of Shafer Vineyards from a gleam in his father's eye to that exalted position alongside the most heralded producers in the nation.

While Hillside Select is iconic, the winery and its principals have not received the credit, or achieved the rock-star status, that have accrued to individuals like Robert Mondavi and Paul Draper. The winery has achieved excellence in relative obscurity because its story has not been told. This book is an attempt to begin to address that issue.

At its heart, A Vineyard in Napa is a feel-good, coming-of-age story. It is the coming-of-age story of John Shafer, the patriarch of the family and a reluctant publishing industry executive in Chicago, who piled his family into a car and drove them from Chicago to Napa (the wife had the good sense to fly to San Francisco) and, in so doing, set the wheels in motion for the creation of one of America's greatest wines. We feel good about the way John confronts and overcomes adversity to attain both personal and business success.

John Shafer at 2013 Shafer Premiere Napa Valley event

It is the story of Doug, who left Chicago thinking that he would be spending his time in California on the beach only to find out that Napa was not exactly a beach destination. He initially wanted to teach after college but returned to Napa after overcoming the idealism which had set him on that path in the first place. It is about him coming of age first as a winemaker then as the helmsman of a leading winery with responsibility for charting the business course, navigating the booms and busts inherent in Napa Valley wine production, leading a team, and maintaining the firm's position with customers, vendors, distributors, the Napa Valley community, and relevant governmental organizations.

Doug Shafer keeping a customer happy at a wine dinner

It is the coming-of-age story of Elias Fernandez, the current winemaker. This son of farmworkers went to college and earned an Enology degree and worked tirelessly and selflessly alongside Doug as Assistant Winemaker before eventually being appointed Winemaker and being recognized as Winemaker of the Year by Wine & Spirits and as a leader in the Latino Community in a White House ceremony.

Elias Fernandez (center) at 2013 Shafer Premiere Napa Valley Event

It is a coming-of-age story for Napa which grows from a "backwater" to one of the best-known wine regions in the world; a region whose wines went from Rodney-Dangerfield status to the giant killers of the Judgment of Paris; and a region that has produced some of the legendary names in wine (Robert Mondavi, for example).

It is a coming-of-age story for the winery. Starting as a gleam in John's eye, its first manifestation was as a grape grower. The first wine produced was the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon (single vintage) followed by a purchased-fruit Chardonnay in 1980 and revisiting the Cabernet Sauvignon in 1982. It is a story of steady expansion of the range of offerings while maintaining production at levels which ensured that they were not overextending and adding beneficial technologies and practices (solar and sustainability, for example) in order to improve operational efficiency and effectiveness.

The narrator of the story is Doug Shafer who, having grown up with Napa, Stags Leap District, and the winery, is eminently qualified to tell the story. I have met and interacted with Doug on many occasions over the years -- Premiere Napa Valley events (barrel tasting and auction as well as events at the winery), at distributor tastings in Florida, and at a dinner held in his honor at my home -- and his unselfish, inclusive nature is reflected in the book. He distributes credit for the success of the winery where it belongs rather than using the book as a vehicle with which to hog the limelight. His humbleness and willingness to reach out and engage across the spectrum is one of his endearing (and enduring) characteristics.

Despite the book's liberal use of footnotes and citations, a comprehensive index, and publication by the University of California Press, this is no scholarly tome. Rather, it is a conversational, accessible romp through the growth and maturation of the family, the vineyard and the region. More Yahoo News than New York Times, it is characterized by short, punchy chapters and a very personal story telling style. This is a quick read. And you will feel better for having done so.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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