Wednesdays with Winemakers – Elias Fernandez
Industry veteran and Napa native, Elias Fernandez, has made wine at Shafer Vineyards for thirty-one years. A U.C. Davis grad with a degree in enology, he interned at Schramsberg Vineyards, Louis Martini and Cuvaison before joining Shafer in 1984 as an assistant winemaker. Working closely with John and Doug Shafer for over a decade, he crafted wines that garnered a cult following. Larger than life, yet graceful, sophisticated and chic, they told tales of terroir that consumers and trade avidly sought. Behind Shafer Vineyard’s seemingly effortless magic lies years of backbreaking work, dogged dedication and immense patience. In 1994, when Doug Shafer became president, Elias became a winemaker of record.
Despite having collected awards and praise from every major critic and publication, including a prestigious “Hall of Fame” award from the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, plus perfect scores from Robert Parker, Fernandez is as humble today as the day he started making wine. Elias’s winemaking talent, as well as Shafer’s philosophy of never resting on their laurels, accounts for the phenomenal success of the beloved brand.
Shafer Vineyards made it onto my Top Ten Wineries of Stags Leap District! Read more here.
Why did you become a winemaker?
I grew up in Napa Valley and attended St. Helena High School. Like a lot of teenagers who grow up here, this felt like a boring backwater that I wanted to escape as soon as possible. But after a year in college, I came home on break and saw the Valley through new eyes. I realized that I’d grown up in a beautiful and amazing place and I wondered if I could get a job in the wine industry and carve out a life here. That prompted me to switch to U.C. Davis and enter the enology and viticulture program.
If you weren’t a winemaker what would you be and why?
I started college on a music scholarship and thought I’d be a jazz trumpet player, so that’s a possibility. At the same time, I’ve always been into sports and fitness, so maybe something in sports medicine.
What is your greatest strength as a winemaker?
Attention to detail. Anyone who says ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’ isn’t making wine you’ll want to drink.
What is your biggest weakness as a winemaker?
Being obsessed with detail probably makes me a pain in the neck to work with.
What’s the one mistake you made in the cellar you would never repeat?
Something I did early in my career which was to make decisions based on numbers instead of listening to my gut. As in music, gut-feel separates the average from the best.
What is your proudest achievement?
The 1998 Hillside Select. Mother Nature threw a lot of unpleasant surprises at us that year and in fact we discussed whether or not we were going to make a Hillside Select that vintage but we worked hard to only harvest the best-of-the-best fruit, we made a lot less wine, but ultimately produced a Cabernet that belonged in the Hillside Select lineage.
What was your scariest vintage to date?
That would be 1998 because as a team we only barely had the experience to create something good out of a tough situation. 2011 was tough too but by then we’d seen nearly everything Mother Nature can throw at us so we knew how to respond.
What is your favorite word saying?
“Listen to the wine.” Wine is alive in the cellar you have to pay attention to it, listen to it to create something special.
What is your most prized possession?
Though certainly not possessions, my family – my wife and three sons – are of greatest importance to me.
What’s the oddest thing about you?
For someone who’s as organized as I am in the cellar, my office is usually a mess.
What song best sums you up?
‘Fortunate Son’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
What is your favorite memory?
One of my favorite wine-related memories is back at U.C. Davis in my first year in the enology program. On Friday nights a bunch of us in the program would get together and try the wines of the world. We were all young with our lives and careers ahead of us and popping corks from all those great wine regions led to conversations that would go on for hours about everything you can imagine.
Which one of the five senses is your strongest?
Hard to say. If you count gut-feel as a sense then that’s it. Otherwise probably sense of smell.
What is your biggest motivation?
That everything we’re doing can be done better.
Which bottle of wine would choose to be stranded with on a deserted island?
Well, if I was really stranded on a deserted island the first thing I’d want is water, food, shelter, medical supplies and Wi-Fi. Wine would fall fairly far down the list but it would probably be a Chablis or a nicely aged Napa Valley red.
What is the difference between good and great wine?
Good wine has two or three notes, great wine has layers and balance, it’s the difference between a lullaby and a symphony.
Name an individual you would like to have dinner with.
Andre Tchelistcheff, a legendary winemaker who helped Napa Valley become what it is today.
Who is your winemaking hero?
John Shafer, who started a winery from nothing and had the vision and relentless tenacity to build toward his dream of making world-class wine.
What does the concept of “balance” mean to you?
It’s a complex symmetry between fruit, tannin, acid, and alcohol intensity. It’s not a static thing. A great wine does this incredible thing of being in balance all the way through the mouth from beginning, to the middle and through the finish and in that way it’s like a great gymnastics move, a great golf swing, or a great football play – you have a lot of different, often very subtle, elements converging in a way that’s beautiful when it all works.
What is the one thing that you want people to remember about your wine?
That they were delicious and played a part in life’s most important moments – weddings, holidays, first dates.
Best comment made about your wine? Was it by a consumer, trade or press?
Here at the winery, when people take part in a tasting, we give them booklets called the “Shafer Owners Manual” that offer lots of information about the wines along with an area in which they can write their own notes. Recently a customer left one of these booklets behind after the tasting and next to one of the wines. They’d written just two words in large letters: “Wow amazing.”