John Shafer, who made triumphant leap into winemaking, dies at 94

John Shafer (right) helped arrange for his region of Napa Valley to be designated a distinct viticultural area.
Eric Risberg/Associated Press/File 2011
John Shafer (right) helped arrange for his region of Napa Valley to be designated a distinct viticultural area.

John Shafer, who abandoned a career as a Chicago publishing executive to join the vanguard of a new generation of vintners in California’s Napa Valley, died March 2 in the city of Napa. He was 94.

His death was announced by Andy Demsky, a spokesman for the Shafer family.

Mr. Shafer was 47 when he resolved to acquire a winery as an absentee owner and one day retire as a gentleman farmer. His horticultural experience had been limited to planting flowers in his front yard.


But within six months of that decision, he took a leap. He left his job at what he described as an ossified company to take up a second career in which he could be his own boss and work outdoors.

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In 1973, he transplanted his family 2,000 miles west to a 209-acre hillside tract at the base of the Stags Leap Palisades, in what was then a sleepy valley north of San Francisco. He paid $260,000 for the land (about $1.5 million today).

“I’d only ever seen him in a suit and tie getting the train,” his son Douglas told Decanter magazine in 2004. “Suddenly I was coming home to find him in a straw hat on a tractor.”

After patiently experimenting, Mr. Shafer produced his first wine under the Shafer label, a cabernet sauvignon, in 1978 and offered it for sale in 1981. Wine Spectator labeled it “a powerful, gutsy wine with tons of personality and big tannins.” It was the forerunner of Shafer Vineyards’ premium Hillside Select wine. (The 2014 vintage, released last September, has a suggested price of $295 a bottle.)

By 1989 he had collaborated with local grape growers to persuade the federal government to designate Stags Leap as a distinct viticultural area within Napa Valley (similar to Margaux within the Bordeaux appellation in France).


In 1994, Mr. Shafer promoted his son Douglas to president of Shafer Vineyards and elevated himself to chairman, leaving him more time for local philanthropic ventures.

Among those beneficiaries have been Auction Napa Valley, which raises money for affordable housing, medical care, and youth programs; Clinic Olé, a nonprofit health center for uninsured patients; the Napa Valley Vintners Community Health Center; and Voices, which supports foster children.

“John Shafer fully embodied the Napa Valley spirit of cultivating land and community,” said Linda Reiff, president and chief executive of the Napa Valley Vintners.

The Napa Valley accounts for only about 4 percent of California’s wine production. Shafer, which also produces a chardonnay, among other wines, generates about 32,000 cases annually. Most of the valley’s 500 or so wineries produce fewer than 10,000 cases.

John Ream Shafer was born on Oct. 11, 1924, in Detroit to Frederick and Adeline (Ream) Shafer. His father was the president of Imperial Brass Manufacturing in Chicago.


After being raised in Glencoe, Ill., a Chicago suburb, and working on farms as a teenager, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces when he was 17 and piloted B-24 bombers over Germany in World War II.

After the war, he graduated from Cornell University with a degree in engineering.

His marriage to Betty Smalls ended in divorce. She died in 2007. Along with his son Douglas, he leaves a daughter, Libby; another son, Brad; 13 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Another son, Bill, died in 2000. Mr. Shafer’s second wife, Barbara (Howell) Shafer, died in 2016.

John Shafer was vice president for long-range planning at Scott, Foresman & Co., a Chicago-area textbook publisher, where he had worked for 20 years, when he read about a prospective grape rush in California. He also learned that hillside vineyards had been regarded as the best venue for winemaking since ancient times in Mediterranean countries.

The hillside property he purchased had been on the market for several years because it was harder to tend. It included a 30-acre vineyard that had been originally planted in 1922 and would have been considered ancient by most local winemakers. Mr. Shafer replanted the slopes with cabernet sauvignon vines.

But as a newcomer to the Napa Valley, which was just beginning to attract winemakers who popularized individual vineyards, he had neglected to hire a sufficient number of grape pickers far enough in advance. That left the fruit riper — and sweeter — than the industry norm when the grapes were harvested.

“Shafer thought he ruined his wine, but instead it turned out to be the ripe signature style that has defined Shafer wines for the past four decades,” Wine Spectator magazine said.