John Shafer

John Shafer 

Longtime Napa Valley vintner, philanthropist and winery founder John Shafer died Saturday at age 94, his family announced Monday.

Shafer was part of a groundbreaking generation that came to Napa Valley in the late 1960s and early 1970s and transformed the region into the world-class wine producing area it is today.

Tributes poured in from the wine industry.

“John Shafer fully embodied the Napa Valley spirit of cultivating land and community,” said Linda Reiff, president and CEO of the Napa Valley Vintners. “He worked tirelessly to make Shafer Vineyards and Napa Valley known for the top-quality wines, and he worked just as hard to take care of the workers and community who helped make it so.

“He traveled the globe to promote his winery and our wine region, and naturally, he made lots of friends along the way for both. He was like the Energizer Bunny. The man didn’t stop. When he was home he was all in, trying to make Napa Valley a healthier and better place, especially for farmworkers,” Reiff said.

Catherine Bugue, co-founder of the Napa Valley Wine Academy, said, “John Shafer had that magical combination of generosity, compassion, passion, and true grit — never hesitating to put in the hard work to get things accomplished. He inspired other great industry leaders to help create the Stags Leap District AVA, and created a timeless brand that is respected around the world.”

Bill Phelps, owner of St. Helena’s Joseph Phelps Vineyards, said he was thinking back to the friendship shared by Shafer and his father, Joe Phelps. “It was built on deep mutual respect. They understood each other as business people and pioneers in this valley, and shared a like-minded commitment to philanthropy and were always there for each other,” Phelps said.

Violet Grgich, president of Grgich Hills Estate of Rutherford, said, “John was a great pioneer in the wine industry, who helped transform Napa Valley into the world-famous region it is today. We are deeply grateful for his many contributions to the health and welfare of our community, and for the opportunity to have known such a wonderful man.”

Before moving his family to the Napa Valley in 1973 at the age of 48, Shafer had served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, piloting B-24 bombers over German, and achieved distinction in the publishing industry, rising to vice president of long range planning at Scott, Foresman & Co. of Chicago.

In the Napa Valley, he bought land at the base of the Stags Leap palisades that had last been planted with vines in 1922. He replanted the original 30 acres of vineyards, achieving distinction with Cabernet Sauvignon on the site’s hillsides.

In 1978, he produced the first Shafer Vineyards wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon. That debut wine was released in 1981 to high praise from critics and consumers alike and set a benchmark for future Shafer hillside Cabernets.

In 1983, Shafer’s son, Doug, joined the family enterprise as winemaker. A year later, Doug hired Elias Fernandez to become assistant winemaker. With the home team in place, Shafer was able to spearhead the administrative and marketing side of the business, expanding into key markets both domestically and internationally.

“The world of wine always inspired Dad and he loved nothing more than to work with the Shafer team to improve quality, enhance everything we do, and to discuss future projects,” Doug Shafer, president, Shafer Vineyards, said in a news release.

“He loved Napa Valley and worked to make it a better place for everyone, and we’re receiving amazing messages from a huge number of people whose lives he touched with his generous spirit,” the son said.

In 1985, Shafer organized his neighboring vintners and grapegrowers including Nathan Fay, Warren Winiarski, Dick Steltner, and Joseph Phelps to petition the government to designate their region as an official American Viticultural Area (AVA). Four years later, approval was granted, making Stags Leap District Napa Valley’s third AVA. Today it is considered one of the world’s top regions for cultivating Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 1994, he initiated a shift in the core team, naming Doug Shafer the winery president and Fernandez winemaker, while carving out a new role for himself as chairman. Stepping out of the president’s position allowed Shafer to become more involved in philanthropy.

Among Shafer’s chief concerns was ensuring that all Napa County residents have access to quality health care. In 1981, he was among the first vintners to support Auction Napa Valley, which has gone on to raise more than $185 million for health care, affordable housing and youth development. For more than 25 years, he was a member of the board of Clinic Olè, a local nonprofit community health clinic for low-income and uninsured patients.

In 1999, Shafer led an effort to create what became Napa Valley Vintners Community Health Center located on Pear Tree Lane in Napa. This unique facility was designed to house four nonprofit organizations that provide key medical and well-being services to Napa’s low-income residents. Each organization is guaranteed rent costs at well below market levels allowing them to use more of their budgets to provide critical services.

In more recent years, Shafer has helped raise funds in support of VOICES, a nonprofit that helps foster youth make the transition to successful adulthood. He also supported Wildlife Rescue Center of Napa County and was instrumental in Shafer Vineyard’s donation of land that today houses a wildlife rehabilitation site.

Over the decades, Shafer received numerous awards for both wine quality and for his work in philanthropy. In 2010, both he and son Doug were invited to the James Beard Foundation Awards in New York, the “Oscars of the Food World,” where they were honored by being named “Outstanding Wine and Spirits Professionals.” Shafer was thrilled to join previous Napa Valley recipients: Robert Mondavi (‘91), André Tchelistcheff (‘92), and Jack and Jamie Davies (‘96).

Well into his 80s, Shafer continued to travel extensively and pursued new interests such as learning to tango in Argentina and taking up sculpture. Those who visit the winery will see a life-size bronze statue that he made of his beloved companion Tucker, a gentle (but very large) Yellow Lab. Throughout his life, Shafer remained a long-range planner, always more interested in what might be happening five years from now rather than reminiscing about the past, his family said.

John Shafer is predeceased by son Bill Shafer, who died in 2000, his first wife Betty Shafer Wells in 2007, and his second wife Barbara Shafer, who died in 2016. He is survived by daughter Libby Shafer of St. Helena, sons Doug Shafer (Annette) of St. Helena, and Brad Shafer (Carrie) of San Francisco, 13 grandchildren, and one great grandchild.

The family is planning a private memorial service. They have requested that anyone who wishes to celebrate John Shafer’s life please make a donation to Ole Health, VOICES, or Napa Valley Wildlife Rescue.

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St. Helena Star Editor Dave Stoneberg contributed to this story.