Wine dinners and tastings have become so routine in the past few years that I rarely expect to find a “first” at any of them. But at a recent Shafer wine dinner held at Baci Trattoria, that all changed. For starters, it was the first time I’d ever seen the host/winemaker kick off the evening with a shot of tequila. It was also one of the first wine dinners I’ve ever really enjoyed, from beginning to end. Some wine dinners seem more like graduate seminars to me, while others are merely an excuse to get warm bodies into an otherwise empty restaurant on a slow night. But the Shafer dinner at Baci was an ideal mixture of good food, good company, great wines and a very interesting and entertaining host.
“Dude, I didn’t know you were coming! You could have had some tequila with Doug and me at the bar!” That’s not the kind of thing I usually hear at wine dinners, which tend to be a bit stifled. But that’s how Dave Engen of Young’s Market'whose company represents Shafer wines in Utah'greeted me at Baci as he introduced Doug Shafer, winemaker (with Elias Fernandez) and president of his family’s Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley. Doug is a young, sharp guy with a quick wit, and I get the sense that he marches to a slightly different drummer than many winemakers: you know, the kind of guy who’d start a wine dinner with a tequila shot. In my estimation, that’s a good thing.
After a half-hour or so of mingling and sipping glasses of Shafer’s complex, elegant Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay 2003 ($41.65) while munching on delightful hors d’oeuvres from Gastronomy executive chef Will Pliler'I ate about a kilo of puff pastry-wrapped escargot'we were seated and got down to the business of eating and drinking.
I could sense backs stiffen and hear stifled groans when Doug Shafer introduced himself by saying, “I’m going to talk for the first 45 minutes or so about malolactic fermentation. â€¦ ” Blessedly, he was just kidding. But I’ve been to wine dinners where winemakers or their representatives have done exactly that: lectured for an hour or so about esoteric winemaking techniques while their guests sat hungry, thirsty and bewildered. That’s not Doug Shafer’s style. With a tone more Jerry Seinfeld than Robert Parker, he quickly introduced his wines and offered to personally answer any inquiries guests might have “mano a mano,” saving the rest of us from niggling “Call on me!â€-type schoolboy questions.
The first thing you might want to know about Shafer wines'especially if you’re planning on sampling a range of them on any given night'is that they tend to be higher in alcohol than normal. Even Shafer’s Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonnay weighs in at a whopping 14.9 percent alcohol, which might explain why I was feeling tipsy long before I even sat down for dinner. But trust me'you want to try this wine. No wait, don’t trust me. Trust Robert Parker himself, who said, “An argument could be made that Shafer is turning out the finest non-malolactic Chardonnay in California.”
Inspired by Italy’s “Super Tuscans,” Shafer Firebreak was superb with Chef Pliler’s spicy bucatini Amatriciana. It’s a fruity blend of 91 percent Sangiovese and 9 percent Cabernet Sauvignon which spends just over three years in 30 percent new French oak barrels. At my table, this was a crowd-pleaser, although'priced at $37.45'it was not the most expensive wine of the evening.
I very much enjoyed Shafer’s deep, dark Syrah called Relentless ($64.45) but my personal favorite wine of the evening was the silky, soft Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($56.10). It’s a juicy Cabernet with exceptional elegance, even at a very young age (2002). I suggest drinking it with a steak from the grill and a shot of tequila on the side: the Shafer way.