Elias Fernandez has been the winemaker at Shafer Vineyards in Napa for 28 years — a lifetime in winemaking terms. While some winemakers hop from winery to winery over their careers, Fernandez says he prefers “the community, the quality” of working for the same vineyard that snatched him fresh out of UC Davis' Enology program in 1984.
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?
[Watch the video above to find out why Shafer named a wine after Fernandez.]
EF: No. I pulled it out at one point for my youngest son. He played for about a year, but then his friends didn't think it was cool. It's different now, kids choose for themselves what they want to do, not the parents. But one of the things about music, especially jazz, is there's a lot of intuition involved. I was really into Herb Alpert when I played the trumpet, the spontaneity. There's a lot we know about grapes and wine, but a lot we don't know about winemaking — intuition comes into play like it does with music.
SI: What are you keen on doing these days in your time off?
EF: I like cycling. I just took a two hour bike ride in 90+ degree heat, so I guess you could say I'm pretty into it. I actually had one run-in with a car, a really bad accident in January. I broke my clavicle and now have a plate in my chest with 7-screws, but I can't give it up. It's actually like winemaking in that way, too. Really hard work, but there's something about it that makes you keep going.
SI: Hopefully with no more broken bones. Ouch. With wine you don't get as much practice time as music or cycling. You've been through 28 harvests at Shafer, which is a lot in wine terms, but still a limited amount of exposure. Someone like a candy maker might make 28 batches on their first day of work.
EF: It's true, with wine, you have one shot, and you don't know how it's going to turn out. That's another reason it's been great to be at one winery all of this time. I can use my knowledge from different vintages, learn from those, apply it to the next one.
SI: So many winemakers have their own vineyards as well. Do you?
EF: Well, in Calistoga where I live, I call my vineyard the “glorified landscaping” at my house. I've got an acre and a half property around on my house that is surrounded by Cabernet vines. It's very labor intensive and expensive, but one of the things I still really enjoy is doing the vineyard work I grew up doing. Now I have three sons — 21, 19, and 17 years old — and I wanted them to see that side, too. When they were little, I had my vineyard as a way to try and instill a work ethic, but also to give them a feel from where their grandfather came from, where I came from. What that's like.
SI: Something we could all probably use more of.
EF: I'm a strong advocate today of youth education because of where I came from. I was very fortunate to have some great teachers and mentors, we all need to give that back. I try to go speak to youth about my story, tell them that education is their key to opening doors. In my job, I deal with some of the richest people in the world and some of the poorest. I go out in the vineyards and talk with my great [farm] workers; at one point, I got to meet President Bush.
SI: And Train!
EF: All things I don't think I would have been able to do without an education. And meeting the president was pretty cool.
SI: Guess your mom was right about signing up for band practice.
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