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Napa native forsakes law to press his luck with winemaking

Napa native forsakes law to press his luck with winemaking

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A love of the outdoors coupled with the need to get his hands dirty prompted Jeffrey Shifflett to abandon a law career in favor of growing grapes.

Even though his dedication to farming has proven more drain on the pocketbook than expected, Shifflett nevertheless has also launched his own wine brand, focusing on cabernet sauvignon and Bordeaux blends.

Shifflett is one of five children raised by Wade and Olga Shifflett on a northwest Napa farm — formerly home to the pioneering Darms family.

"We grew up on this place (at the western terminus of Darms Lane)," he says while walking through vineyards planted on "volcanic pushups" that rise to an elevation of 630 feet among the Mount Veeder foothills.

"I've become attached to this land — the same way my mother has," the wiry grower declares. "When I was young, instead of spending time inside watching TV, I was outside, working or enjoying this incredible land that our grandfather had secured.

"I went to law school because my father (an attorney who graduated to a local judgeship) told me to go to law school. But finally I gave up on it — mainly because I can't stand to be inside."

That may be the simple explanation. But if you dig a little deeper you'll find that Jeffrey Shifflett does indeed think more of Mother Nature than he does of Madame Jurisprudence.

He speaks reverentially of this 130 acre farm, where a variety of stone fruit — plums, peaches and cherries — were harvested year in and out as he was growing up. The property also produced a considerable hay crop, he notes.

Shifflett also recalls his father had a herd of beef cattle. "He named them all," he says, "and he never had the heart to slaughter them. My father spent more money on vet bills than he ever made on our cow-and-calf operation."

In 1981, Judge Shifflett, a no-nonsense jurist with a mind of his own, decided it was time to plant grapes. So, the Shiffletts did as dad suggested — everyone pitched in and planted 25 acres of chardonnay on the gently sloping section of the family ranch.

And the Shiffletts spent the next decade working as a team, tending vines, harvesting grapes and then selling the fruit to Raymond Vineyards. "We had a great working relationship with the Raymond family," Jeffrey recalls, until the destructive root louse known as phylloxera began to kill the grapevines.

And vines weren't the only loss in 1991. That was the year Judge Shifflett died, and the year Jeffrey Shifflett stopped practicing law in San Francisco. It was a year the eldest son also had a "great vision" for winegrowing.

He turned to his mother and siblings for support and they agreed the Darms ranch viticultural effort was indeed worthy of not only continuing but also of expanding.

Slowly but surely, a replanting program began on the lower reaches of the ranch, while cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and finally some syrah vines were planted on steep upper slopes — plantings that followed the dictates of the county's new hillside ordinance.

"I wanted to expand the varietal mix, and the market for chardonnay softened, so we looked to the Bordeaux varietals for our replanting program," Shifflett continues. "This was my dream of creating a wine estate and the family liked the idea.

"Not only did we have a spot that grew good grapes, but we were able to add vineyards that would make spectacular vistas (from afar)."

But the Shiffletts' program of vineyard planting was far from over. From 1997 to 2000, the estate lost 20,000 three-and-four-year-old vines to Pierce's disease.

"We had to start over," Shifflett says, shaking his head, "an expense I had not counted on."

The birth of a brand

While chardonnay was being harvested on their ranch, the Shiffletts constantly heard from Raymond and others who purchased the fruit that these grapes made outstanding wine.

"We heard the same thing from our clients — Elyse, Duckhorn, Dutch Henry, Freemark Abbey and Falcor — that the cabernet and merlot was also outstanding," Shifflett continues.

"Our own wine brand grew out of a need to know if what the wineries were telling us was true — that our fruit was superb."

So, with the 1998 harvest, he singly launched Shifflett Estate, a new wine company with an initial production of 320 cases of cabernet sauvignon.

(Shifflett Vineyard is a partnership of which his mother, Olga, and sister, Kathryn, are co-managing directors. Remaining partners are three other siblings — Michael, an orthopedic surgeon at Queen of the Valley Hospital; Steven, an emergency room doctor in Santa Rosa; and Mary, lighting designer and homemaker. Sister Kathryn is a teacher at Redwood Middle School.)

"The rest of my family is supportive (of the wine brand) and want to be a part of (the winemaking operation)," he adds. To date, however, Jeffrey is Shifflett Estate's sole proprietor.

"My son, Jeffrey Jr., who's a sophomore at Justin-Siena, helps me with both vineyard and cellar work and wants a summer job at Elyse Winery." (Ray Coursen, owner and winemaker at Elyse, and his assistant winemaker, Mike Trotta, are in charge of wine production of Shifflett Estate.)

The '99 Shifflett Estate cabernet sauvignon (only 160 cases were released) was a blend of Shifflett hillside fruit (40 percent) and fruit from the Rutherford bench (60 percent). That's the most recent release as Shifflett likes a little more cellar age for his red table wines than most.

Starting with the 2001 vintage, Shifflett Estate will market a Bordeaux blend in addition to its cabernet sauvignon. With the 2002 harvest, the winemaking team will add 75 cases of a special Clone 6 cabernet sauvignon to the inventory mix. With the most recent harvest, Shifflett expects to release 300 cases of Clone 6 cabernet and 500 cases of the Bordeaux blend. Looking ahead to this coming fall, the projection is to crack the 1,000 case production mark for the first time, with the Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon blend returning to the lineup.

Shifflett Estate wines retail for approximately $40 per bottle and have found a home on wine lists of some of the valley's most popular eateries, where food and wine pairings are a priority.

Last December, Shifflett got county approval to turn a barn on the property into a small winery with limited tour and tasting options. Although he has a permit for 17,000 cases, Shifflett doesn't see production coming close to that limit, even with custom crushing for others.

With plans to break ground this fall, Shifflett has retained the services of noted architect Howard Backen for winery design, Alf Burtleson to dig a 5,000 square foot cave and local contractor Jim Nolan to build the new facility.

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