WineInk: Shafer Selects — Digital Memories on The Taste

Kelly J. Hayes


Shafer TD-9 2017

Shafer Vineyards is revered for its estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon from the Stags Leap District. The Shafer Hillside Select is rightfully one of the iconic wines in Napa lore. But for more pedestrian consumption, I find the TD-9 to be one of the great Bordeaux blend wines. From anywhere. Including Bordeaux. We’ll call the 2017 TD-9 an MMC, that would be a merlot, malbec and cabernet sauvignon trifecta that produced a delicious, fruit forward, wine of place that is uniquely Shafer. Named for the tractor that founder John Shafer rode when he came to the Valley to make his mark in wine, this $60 bottle is worth every penny. I’d be pleased to pour it at my Thanksgiving dinner.

Listen To The Taste

The Taste Podcast is available on Apple iTunes, Stitcher, GooglePlay, SoundCloud or on the website

I call it my 10K wine education.

That’s because Doug Shafer’s “The Taste” podcast series, available on iTunes and a lineup of other platforms, lasts around an hour, or just about the time it takes me to run 6 miles. I dial it up on my iPhone as I leave the house for a trot and, for the next 60 minutes, I get not only a daily dose of exercise, I am also totally immersed in the Napa Valley as Shafer interviews the most significant and interesting winemakers and personalities who have made Napa such a magical place.

Shafer, the scion of Shafer Vineyards, which was founded by his father, John Shafer, back in 1973, had no idea what a podcast was when his marketing and public relations guru, Andy Demsky, suggested he might enjoy the process of producing digital content in the form of friendly conversations. “Keep in mind this was a couple of years ago,” he said in a recent interview of the interviewer. “Not only did I not know what a podcast was, but I had no idea how to do one.”

The first foray for “The Taste” was a conversation with Doug’s friend Cindy Pawlcyn, the acclaimed chef who opened Mustard’s Grill in Napa 33 years ago, the first star in her galaxy of great Bay Area restaurants.

“I just started by asking her about her past,” he said. “She shared that her father had a potato chip company and that led to a conversation about her growing up with food and her success. It just clicked.”

Since that inaugural show, Shafer has posted close to 30 episodes featuring winemakers, including Paul Hobbs and Heidi Barrett, along with chefs and other personalities. The drill is the same for each podcast. The winemakers, most of whom Shafer knows, come to his office at Shafer Vineyards on the Silverado Trail. The office is rigged for radio with the help of a few well-draped, sound-dampening blue quilts (“we’ve dubbed it ‘The Blue Booth,’” Shafer laughs) and the office morphs into an audio studio. With a pair of microphones and just the two in the room, a conversation ensues. While there is minimal editing, listening to the podcast sounds like you are there, a part of the gathering.

Shafer starts at the start, asking his subjects about their roots and how they got into wine. The conversations often move into personal, sometimes intimate, recollections of lives lived.

“The thing I find so interesting is that everyone has gone through something,” Shafer says. “Even the most successful people in this business had challenges and trials that you wouldn’t hear about in normal conversations. But for some reason they seem spill out. ”

But they also have had triumphs, and the nurturing nature of “The Taste” allows them to share those, as well. Lauded winemaker Helen Keplinger lets you in on a story about how, when she first met her husband, they camped the night on a Santa Barbara beach before taking to the surf at El Capitan at dawn, forming their bond. The modest Zelma Long proudly allowed that her wine, a Bordeaux blend from the Vilafonte Wine Estate in Paarl, South Africa, recently had won the Six Nations Wine Challenge, punctuating a career that had began at Oregon St. University, decades before, with international recognition. Small stories that would go untold if not for Shafer and “The Taste.”

Wine-speak is kept to a minimum. “I feel like we shouldn’t get too geeked out,” Shafer laughs.

But there are definitely times when soil composition, vineyard siting and fermentation practices come up. These are, after all, winemakers, and they can’t help but talk shop. It’s a bit like the Jerry Seinfeld show “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Put people in the same profession together are going to inevitably connect in their own language.

A striking aspect of “The Taste” is how enthusiastic and, yes, happy those who are on the program seem. You can hear the joy as they share their stories of a life in wine. When considering that the wine industry in the region is still in its nascent stages, these are people who are pioneers, the first and second generations of vintners who struck out boldly, learned on their own and created something from raw land and sunshine.

In a recent column on the Napa Valley Vintners’ 75th anniversary, it was noted that the organization was working with the University of California to create an oral history program for the Napa wine industry. The episodes produced of “The Taste” would fit right in with that endeavor. Perhaps a show with NVV President Linda Reiff should be on the docket.

As a young man back in 1979, Doug Shafer enjoyed a stint as a tour guide at the Robert Mondavi Winery. While he has since crafted a long and successful run at his family’s Shafer Vineyards, with “The Taste” he is still guiding people through the world of wine in the digital age.

Sounds like he found his calling.