Few chicago publishing executives can claim to be pioneers—certainly not mavericks who moved west to settle and conquer the land. But John Shafer can. In 1972, he left his life as a textbook publisher behind to settle on a 200-plus-acre parcel of land in Napa Valley’s Stags Leap District. At the time, only a handful of vintners saw the value in attempting to make first-growth-quality wines in California, whose output consisted largely of profitable, though not necessarily palatable, bulk wines. Although the Shafer land contained vineyards, the vines—many planted in the 1920s—were a motley collection of obscure varietals that had been badly neglected. After six years of trial and error and considerable sweat of the brow, Shafer harvested his first vintage of Cabernet in 1978, and ever since then, his family’s name has been associated with great Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine collectors especially prize the family’s reserve wine, which is named for the hillside vineyards from which it comes. The Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, released this month, is a shimmering, dark, seductive composition with a texture like fine satin that offers joyful flourishes of blueberry and black cherry, beneath which flow more sultry strains of mocha, vanilla, and espresso.
It is ironic yet oddly fitting that Lokoya—one of Napa Valley’s most distinguished producers of vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignon—should, in the bricks-and-mortar sense, have no home. Winemaker Chris Carpenter crafts Lokoya’s three wines in the winery at the Cardinale estate, where he also produces the lush, refined, Bordeaux-style blended red of the same name. But, while Cardinale represents a fruitful collaboration between the terroirs of the individual vineyards and the creative talents of the winemaker, at Lokoya the soil and the vines take center stage. Each of these polished yet powerful Cabernet Sauvignons elegantly articulates the unique personality of its distinct mountain vineyard. Diamond Mountain displays a remarkably concentrated black cherry fruit, which results from the spare volcanic soil of the Reverie Vineyard, whose west-facing slope ensures intense ripeness. Mount Veeder grows on the Veeder Peak Vineyard in Napa Valley’s Mayacamas Mountains, where a high elevation and east-facing slopes yield dark, highly tannic, and extraordinarily well-structured wines. The Keyes Vineyard on Howell Mountain, located in the eastern portion of the Vaca Mountain range, is characteristically cool, lengthening the growing season and imbuing the grapes with a complex array of fruit and mineral flavors. This complexity abounds in the Lokoya Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, which combines a classic, full-bodied, and balanced tannic structure with a violet-perfumed and inky effusion of plum, blackberry, black currants, and dark chocolate.