Wine of the Week: Shafer: 2010 Napa Valley Relentless

If a grape makes it into a bottle of Shafer wine, that means it's an Olympic medal winner of sorts.

That's how winemaker Elias Fernandez explains the rigors of being a Shafer grape.

"We spend the growing season getting things right in the vineyard — a lot of hours going vine by vine, whether it's pruning, leafing, fruit-thinning, to make sure that on the day of harvest the only fruit on the vine is the best of the best," he said.

Fernandez is the man behind our wine-of-the-week winner — the Shafer, 2010 Napa Valley Relentless, a syrah-based blend, at $72, well worth the splurge.

The Relentless is a supple blend that is absolutely striking. It has bold flavors of cherry, cassis and herbs, and it's buoyed by crisp acidity. It's meaty and leathery with a kick of spice — the very best that syrah has to offer. Pricey, yes, but irresistible.

The bottling is a blend of 96 percent syrah and 4 percent petite sirah, and the two varietals have great synergy.

"I think it's what both bring to the bottle — syrah has elegant aromatics and flavors, the classics are meatiness, black pepper and spice," Fernandez said. "Petite sirah is a little more rustic and brings deep color and mouth-filling tannins that give great aging potential."

It's finding the delicate balance that's the challenge, he said. "When you blend anything with syrah, the challenge is to complement it, to bring some new dimension to it without overwhelming it and losing the more delicate, elegant characters in syrah," Fernandez said. "We work hard to bring out the black-pepper character in syrah, so we don't want to mute those aromas."

Fernandez began working at Napa's Shafer Vineyards in 1984, right after he graduated from UC Davis. He became fascinated with wine when he was a student on campus.

"It was the friendships around wine that really got me hooked," Fernandez. "On Friday nights, I'd get together with my fellow students in winemaking studies and we'd pool our money and try the wines of the world. .<TH>.<TH>. Those were memorable evenings, talking not just about the wines but about our goals and aspirations — all that stuff you struggle with in your early 20s."

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