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Ruminating Relentlessly about Wine Style
By Linda Murphy
Dec 7, 2010
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Last week’s 11-year retrospective tasting of Shafer Vineyards’ “Relentless” Napa Valley Syrah/Petite Sirah had me imitating Rodin’s “The Thinker” all weekend, contemplating wine styles, what I like to drink, and how I recommend wine to others -- even those I’m not likely to drink myself.
Relentless, named for the energy with which Shafer’s longtime winemaker, Elias Fernandez, exerts in his job, is a blend of 80% Syrah and 20% Petite Sirah, give or take a few percentage points each vintage.  The wine has been produced since 1999, from Shafer’s southwest-facing foothill vineyard in the Oak Knoll District, just south of the winery’s Stags Leap District plantings.  When the site was developed in 1994, Fernandez and winery president Doug Shafer decided to plant a field blend of Syrah and Petite Sirah, thus determining the Relentless formula before the first cluster was harvested.  It’s a formula that has served them well.
“Elias and I had a lot of steaks together at Mustards Grill,” said Shafer, whose red wines, before Relentless, were based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, “and we drank Syrah with them.  ‘This stuff is good!’ we said, and we decided to plant Syrah.  Elias is a big Petite Sirah fan, so we planted some of that, too.”
Shafer’s Syrah and Petite Sirah grapes are fermented and barrel-aged together, “marrying” the two varieties early in the winemaking process, to encourage cohesion.  In the first vintage, 1999, the varieties were fermented separately, and Relentless was “a chewy monster,” said Fernandez, “so we co-fermented the grapes after that.  I was flabbergasted at the color, density and weight the wine had.”
Indeed, year after year, Relentless is a powerful, potent wine, with alcohol levels approaching 15%.  It delivers inky, tooth-staining color, brooding black and blue fruit flavors, substantial tannins and a gamey, earthy character, with black pepper notes.  The wines are not rustic, but rather polished and expertly made, yet they are of a style that is anything but petite.
As I tasted each vintage of Relentless, 1999 through a 2009 barrel sample (2007 is the current release), I kept saying to myself, “These wines aren’t what I would drink at home, but I understand how good they are and how they would please so many others.”
“There are different styles of Syrah,” Shafer explained, “and we went with the full-throttle style.  We didn’t follow a model; it’s just Shafer.”
When consumed with those Mustards steaks, Relentless likely works masterfully.  With the lamb served at lunch after our tasting, with roasted fall vegetables?  A great match.  But because I don’t eat much steak or lamb, and focus on fish and vegetables, I wouldn’t instinctively reach for Relentless.  Yet so many others would, craving a young, brawny wine to cut the fat of their medium-rare meat, and I cannot recommend it highly enough for that audience.
This is why I’ve been in a Rodin pose (albeit clothed) since the Relentless tasting, thinking deeply about my responsibility as a wine critic to set aside my preferences and evaluate wines with a mind open to what others might like.  There are thousands of competent wines that don’t hit my palate sweet spot, yet they likely will ring true with a multitude of consumers.  So when writing wine reviews, I go through this checklist:
~ Is the wine well-made?
~ Is it varietally correct (if it’s not a blend)?
~ Is it distinctive?
~ Does it reflect the place in which the grapes were grown?
~ Does it refresh the palate, making it a great food match?
~ Can I recommend it to those who enjoy this particular style of wine, even though I might not enjoy the style myself? 
Shafer’s Relentless, its Hillside Select and One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignons, and its Merlots all get “yes” on my checklist.  They are lusty, forward wines upon release, and not always suited to the dishes I prepare at home.  Yet the Relentless vertical tasting, and my ongoing evaluations of all of Shafer’s wines, show that they age gracefully, revealing balance and layers of complexity.  They please those who love young, robust reds, and those who embrace the elegance and secondary characteristics that come from bottle aging.
For the record, Shafer’s Relentless 2007 Napa Valley ($65) is muscular and tannic, with oak char framing the black fruit/meaty character.  Yet underneath that heaviness is a vibrant wine with refreshing acidity and potpourri complexity, just waiting for cellaring to unleash its charms.
Do I want to drink the 2007 Relentless today?  No.  Do I want to drink it in 10 years, when it has become comfortable in its own skin, integrated and composed?  Definitely. 
The responsibility of wine reviewers is to look beyond the now and into the future when they write tasting notes.  We should all set aside what we personally like and evaluate wines for their inherent value, quality and general appeal.  I’ve always tried to do this, yet my New Year’s resolution is to be even better at my wine descriptions, so that anyone who reads my reviews knows what the wine is like, and not necessarily what I think about it.
So I say this:  Shafer Relentless 2007 is primed to put in your cellar for six to 10 years, if you prefer wines with elegance, restraint and nuanced complexity.  If you love rich, bold, in-your-face wines with firm tannins, the 2007 Relentless is the one for you.  Drink now.