Today, he produces one of the most expensive cult Cabs in the Napa Valley (the winery's Stag's Leap Hillside Select retails for $230); Shafer's Relentless label was named after him ("Pain in the Neck" was another label consideration, says winery owner Doug Shafer, a compliment to Fernandez's pursuit of perfectionism). Back in the day, Fernandez also happened to be a pretty bad-ass trumpet player. Get the interview after the jump.
Squid Ink: We've wanted to chat with you for some time, but during harvest you're crazy busy.
Elias Fernandez: [Laughs] Yes, it's pretty crazy at harvest, now I have a little more time.
SI: It's getting pretty hot down here. What's on your table when you're cooking dinner this time of year?
EF: I like dry rosé, French Champagne and sparkling wines from California. One of my favorites J Schram from Schramsberg. And I like to eat at restaurants. I leave the cooking to the experts.
SI: You're in a good area for it.
EF: Yes, there are some great restaurants up here. One of my favorites is the CIA's restaurant [at Greystone], and a little place called Cook in St. Helena, a great place. In Yountville, there's The French Laundry. Not that I go there very often. You can't get in or afford it. [Laughs.]
SI: So true. You've been in the area a long time?EF: I grew up as a farm laborer child. My parents met back in the 1950s and 1960s. I was born in 1961. When we moved to the Napa Valley, it was all prunes, walnuts, and dairy farms then -- not wineries. My parents ended up mainly working as walnut and prune pickers. My grandfather had worked on the railroad that came through the Napa Valley.
SI: As a kid, we hear you were a pretty great trumpet player, and got a Fullbright Scholarship?
EF: Yes. When I was growing up, it was back when your parents went and signed you up for classes they wanted you to take. [More laughter.] So in the third grade or so, my mom signed me up for band, I didn't want to do it. She wanted me to try something different. Little did I know that it would lead my way to college. It's the reason I was able to go to the University of Nevada on a Fullbright.
EF: Yeah, my mom was really into education, very influential. My dad's the one who taught me the other side, about hard work. I stayed in Reno for a year, but as that year progressed and I came home from vacation, I realized what a beautiful place I had grown up in. As a kid, you don't really realize it. Napa is more of an adult place -- the wine, the food.
I was getting burnt out in band, and I wasn't so interested in playing the trumpet anymore. I suddenly wanted to come back to Napa. I talked to my mom, told her I needed to find something else to do, that I'd heard this wine business stuff is getting big up here. I had learned a lot out in the field working for my dad, but back then, the wine industry was still pretty stagnant. It wasn't clear there would be a future for winemakers, and my mom wasn't really thrilled.
SI: And here you are.
EF: I transferred to UC Davis anyway, entered the wine program there. My first class there I read [a comprehensive wine textbook] in three days. I fell in love with the history of wine, how it related to where I grew up. For me to read a book in three days was rare, I was always more of a science guy. But I loved it. I never looked back.
SI: Do you still play the trumpet?