Drinking with Elias Fernandez of Shafer - Hillside Select and Relentless

During my semi-regular pilgrimage to Napa Valley to visit favorite sights and restaurants, I stopped by Shafer for a taste and chat with Elias Fernandez. Son of farmworkers who moved to Napa when he was 2 weeks old, he grew up on this land, and is one of the few graduates of Mexican descent to have come out of the prestigious UC Davis enology program almost three decades ago. (Was the wunderkind winemaker Gustavo Brambila in the movie Bottle Shock patterned after him?)

Before arriving to Shafer, my friend Sonia and I stopped for lunch at the Napa Valley classic - Mustards Grill. Paired with a dry California Rosé of Pinot Noir from Robert Sinskey, Mustard Grill's ahi tuna crackers with spicy wasabi screamed "HELLO!" to my senses like a Mexican fiesta.

And the ahi was just the beginning. One would be remiss to leave this establishment without experiencing their specialties. Mustard Grill's famous Mongolian grilled pork chop with mustard sauce was out of this world, and not surprisingly - the most popular dish on their menu. Their lemon and garlic chicken is the second most popular dish. Crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, with garlic mashed potatoes on the side, it was chickelicious.

But back to Elias, having come to Shafer straight out of UC Davis as an assistant winemaker to Doug Shafer and spent the last 26 years making Shafer a top Napa Cabernet house, Elias is one of the most recognized winemaker figures in the Valley. In 2002 both Quarterly Review of Wines and Food & Wine magazine named Elias "Winemaker of the Year". In October 2002 he accepted a prestigious "Hall of Fame" award from the Hispanic Scholarship Fund in Washington D.C. and attended a White House reception hosted by the President of the United States. The ~2400 cases of Elias' iconic Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon sell out every year at over $200/bottle. Shafer also produce a popular One Point File Cabernet, an unusual Syrah / Petit Sirah blend called "Relentless", as well as Merlot and a Chardonnay.

We sat down to taste a vertical of Relentless, named after Elias for his relentless pursuit of excellence, followed by a mini-vertical of Hillside Select.

The first ever vintage of Relentless was 1999, from then 3 year old Syrah vines - the majority (80-85%) of the blend. The small percentage of Petit Sirah adds uniqueness and robustness to the wine. We tasted 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2006 (the current release), studying the ageability curve of the wine. While certainly there are no questions about Syrah's age-worthiness in Northern Rhone, where it goes into world-famous Hermitage and Cote-Rotie, the Napa Valley Syrah is a relatively new kid on the block.

The '99 was going strong, and could easily last another 10 years, maybe longer. Aromatic, thick, smooth, full-bodied wine loaded with meat, spice, chocolate, dry flowers, forest floor. "It's like real mellow Mike Tyson" joked Andy Demsky, Shafer's PR person who joined us for the tasting. The complexity of '99 was evident next to the younger wines, which all had relatively similar profiles, but were still working to resolve the various elements.

We then focused on 2002 and 2005 (current release) of Shafer Hillside Select. Again, these were big wines, at over 15% alcohol, they coated my palate without apologies. Velvety smooth, plush, spicy, loaded with chocolate and dark berries, these wines embodied Napa Valley Cabernet.

I asked Elias a few provocative questions about his stance toward France. He feels that his style of Hillside Select Cab, while very different from Bordeaux, is the right product of Napa Valley. "Don't get me wrong, I like Bordeaux, and I feel Napa Cab and Bordeaux can be on my dinner table interchangeably." he explained. " I don't like the veggie aspect of an unripe Napa Cab, especially the bell peppery taste that we get at lower ripeness (lower brix) level. I don't mind veggie in Bordeaux, however." He feels that higher alcohol levels and riper fruit are necessary here to achieve the right fruit expression and mouthfeel. 3 years in 100% new French oak and a year in a bottle before release serve to tame the tannins so that the wines are pleasurable upon release. Syrah from Rhone may need to cellar for 10-15 years before it's ready. American consumer does not want to wait that long. Nor would the winery hold the wine that long, since it increases expenses dramatically. "In Bordeaux", Elias said, "they manage tannins. In Napa, we manage fruit." I asked about differences in acidity between Hillside Select and a typical Bordeaux, to which Elias responded that while the acidity may be comparable, the Napa wines will appear less acidic due to the fruit and alcohol in the wine. For reference, one of his favorite Bordeaux is Pichon Comtesse de Lalande. "When our wave came out of Davis, many of my peers went to work in France. I stayed. I am glad I did, because the techniques they learned in France don't always work here. For example, in Bordeaux the weather is cooler and grapes mature more gradually. But in Napa, there is a ripening streak in the end of summer and if you don't manage that, you get overripe grapes. I had to learn to slow the vine down. I have been learning and perfecting how to grow Napa Valley grapes and make Napa Valley wine all my life."

Next year Shafer celebrates their 25th anniversary of Hillside Select, and I look forward to the winery coming out with guns blazing for a complete vertical of Hillside Select.

It was now mid-afternoon and time to start heading back, by way of Yountville. Yountville's "main drag" (i.e. Washington street) is the "who's who" of the restaurant scene. This food mecca is like Rodeo Drive of fashion or Wall Street of finance. You can walk through the vegetable garden across from the 3-Michelin star French Laundry, you can drop in on Ad Hoc where a new fixed menu is invented every day, or stop by the Bouchon Bakery to pick up a few delectable baked goodies. All of these are part of the Thomas Keller gastronomic empire. We couldn't resist the bakery, of course. After all, we can't drive home on an empty (???!!!) stomach, can we?


Do Bianchi said…
keep asking the provocative questions, man! don't relent! ;-)

I love how you can switch gears so seamlessly from old-school Nebbiolo to unapologetically modern Napa Syrah... giving me interesting insight into a world foreign to me...

dying to bring Tracie P back to Napa when I don't have be working!
Sparty said…
What a fantastic day that was! It was remarkable how much *pow* the 1999 Relentess had in it after so many years.

BTW - whoever took that picture of you and Elias has a great eye. ;)

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