Wine of the Week: Shafer, 2017 Red Shoulder Ranch, Napa Valley Carneros Chardonnay

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The recipe for making a class act chardonnay begins with the ingredients –– grapes grown in the best of circumstances.

One prime spot for growing extraordinary grapes lies in the Carneros near the San Pablo Bay. In the Red Shoulder Ranch vineyard the soil is heavy Diablo clay with a scattering of ancient marine life. Here you’ll find a selection of five clones of chardonnay, each offering its unique aromas and flavors.

This particular vineyard is where the grapes were groomed for our wine of the week winner –– the Shafer, 2017 Red Shoulder Ranch, Napa Valley Carneros Chardonnay at $52.

This chardonnay is a standout because of its layered flavors and generous, bold fruit. It’s rich and full-bodied, yet balanced. Crisp acid tempers this voluptuous chardonnay. It has aromas and flavors of pineapple, mango and apricot. On the finish are notes of guava and citrus. It’s impressive.

“My goal is to produce a wine that has the hallmarks of the perfumey, exotic, extraordinary fruit from our incredible vineyard,” explained Elias Fernandez, winemaker of Napa Valley’s Shafer Vineyards. “I want to let the fruit from this site shine through in a way that’s delicious and authentic.”

The most challenging part of producing this bottling, Fernandez said, is pinpointing the pick.

“A lot of elements have to come into balance and each of the five clones of chardonnay in our vineyard has its own ripening window, so in a way you have to treat them as different grapes,” he said. “For example, the Muscat clone ripens at a lower sugar than the Dijon.”

Being meticulous is something Fernandez mastered long ago.

“I’m told I’m detail-oriented,” he said. “Not too long ago my roommate from college said that I’m the only person he’d ever known who color-coded his lecture notes.”

Fernandez, 58, graduated from UC Davis in 1984 with a bachelor of science in Fermentation Science.

“I grew up in St. Helena and like a lot of teenagers who grow up here in the valley, I couldn’t wait to leave, feeling like I wanted to get out and see the world,” Fernandez said. “In high school, in that frame of mind, I had a summer job, for a couple of summers, at Louis Martini. It gave me a realistic insight into what day-to-day life looked like in a winery.”

After Fernandez’s first year of college at the University of Nevada, Reno, he came home for a break. Driving up the valley in his ’67 Mustang, he saw it with new eyes.

“I realized this was a beautiful place and that a job in the wine business could offer a great future,” he said. “That’s what got me started.”

With 35 years of experience behind him, Fernandez said he has gained incredible insight by dealing with the challenges in the vineyard and cellar. He said his greatest weakness is not having 36 years of experience because you learn something new every vintage.

“As a winemaker, I love growing this grape and making this wine,” Fernandez said.

“Every year brings its own set of challenges and every vintage has something to love. Here’s what I can say definitively — I’m never bored.”

You can reach Wine Writer Peg Melnik at or 707-521-5310.

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