Career Conversions – John Shafer


John Shafer

Seeking Greener Pastures

In January 1973 businessman John Shafer packed up his family in a station wagon and drove away from their home near Chicago, headed west for Napa Valley. He longed to get his hands dirty and let the clean country air wash over his soul.

Shafer was vice president for long-range planning at Scott Foresman and Company, an academic publisher in Chicago best known for its “Dick and Jane” series of books for young readers. Then 48, Shafer had once tossed hay bales on a farm in the slow summer months of publishing and found that he craved physical work. Motivated by a newspaper story that encouraged career changers to act before age 50, Shafer drew inspiration from a Bank of America report, Outlook for the California Wine Industry, which said: “The strongest growth in wine markets ever recorded will occur during the next 10 years. Annual U.S. consumption will approach 400 million gallons by 1980….”

The term baby boomers had not yet been coined, yet the bank flagged the members of that generation—in the 1970s, about 40 million people—for having disposable income and a taste for fine things, including wine. And the wine boom was already taking place in Napa, where from 1964 to 1969 the value of the annual grape harvest had soared from $2.9 million to $8 million.

In 1972, Shafer began exploring California land for the purpose of planting vineyards. He decided he would purchase 200 acres planted with 1920s-era grapevines in the Stags Leap Palisades region north of Napa. The property had a mixed bag of old-school grape varieties that didn’t seem to reflect where Napa wine was headed. So Shafer replanted it with cabernet sauvignon and merlot. He later expanded vine plantings to the hillsides of the property, where he could achieve more complex, intense flavors.

Shafer quickly learned the intricacies of growing super-premium wine grapes, which include precise—and expensive—pruning, irrigation, hand weeding and harvesting techniques, and replanting of aging vines. Shafer made his first commercial wine from his vineyard, a cabernet sauvignon, in 1978. One son, Doug Shafer, took over winemaking in 1983 and became company president in 1994; assistant winemaker Elias Fernandez was promoted to winemaker that year.

What his wife first called “John’s Folly” is today one of Napa Valley’s strongest wine brands in terms of quality, critical acclaim and demand. Its Hillside Select cabernet sauvignon sells for $285 a bottle, and there’s a waiting list to get on the mailing list to buy it. Shafer produces its One Point Five cabernet sauvignon ($90), Relentless syrah ($90) and Red Shoulder Ranch Carneros chardonnay ($52) in larger quantities, yet they are among Napa’s finest.

This fall, Shafer Vineyards is launching TD-9, a red blend that honors the risk John Shafer took swapping a corporate office for a plot of land in Napa Valley where he taught himself to drive an old TD-9 tractor.

“In retrospect, my interest in wine probably seemed baffling to just about everyone who knew me,” says Shafer, now 92. “Why would a corporate executive, who’d never stood within 10 miles of a grapevine, want to leave everything he knows, gamble an inheritance and move his family thousands of miles west to buy a vineyard and start growing grapes?

“A certain amount of pie-in-the-sky thinking was involved, for sure,” he admits. “But mainly, I was unfulfilled. I wanted the freedom that came with working outdoors and being my own boss.”

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