Legendary Napa Valley vintner John Shafer dies at 94

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SAN FRANCISCO | Legendary Northern California vintner John Shafer, who was part of a generation that helped elevate sleepy Napa Valley into the international wine powerhouse it is today, has died. He was 94.

Shafer Vineyards announced Monday that its founder died Saturday in Napa. A cause of death was not released.

Shafer was 48 when he moved his family to California, purchasing a hillside vineyard well past its prime. But he saw promise in the soil, and in 1978 he produced the first Shafer Vineyards wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon.

He was known for wine, but in later years Shafer devoted time to raising money for local causes, including housing and health care for low-income people.

“He would say, ‘The best thing I did was improve people’s lives here.’ He was really proud of that,” said son Doug Shafer, who is president of Shafer Vineyards.

Shafer was born Oct. 11, 1924, and grew up in Glencoe, Illinois, a small suburb outside Chicago. He volunteered for service in World War II before moving into a career in publishing.

Doug Shafer said his father was vice president of long-range planning for educational publishing house Scott, Foresman & Co. in Chicago when he kept hearing about what was sure to be the next new thing: wine.

His dad went out to California with an eye toward investment possibilities but then decided to move the family, with two children still at home, to California in 1973.

Doug Shafer said his dad didn’t even drink wine.

“We’re Chicago boys,” he said. “We’re bourbon and beer.”

Shafer is survived by daughter Libby Shafer of St. Helena, and sons Doug Shafer of St. Helena and Brad Shafer of San Francisco.