An Evening With Shane Finley

st. helena vineyards

“It takes a lot of beer to make great wine”

When I moved to Napa Valley in 2010 to learn about wine, I stumbled into a great part-time job at a St. Helena wine shop. Just as we do here at Chain Bridge Cellars, we gave free tastings Friday afternoons, but they were a little different. Because we had winemakers for neighbors, they poured for us, and as the newest and least experienced employee, I usually got the glassware and wine ready for the tasting.

Early on, a coworker asked me to run to the nearby Safeway to pick up beer. “For the winemaker – he likes Trumer or another nice, crisp Pilsner,” he said. Now, Jeff had a good sense of humor, so at first I thought he was having a little fun with me.  “Really?” I asked. “For the … winemaker?”

“Of course!” he said, looking at me as though I was even more clueless than he had originally thought. Turns out the saying “it takes a lot of beer to make great wine” exists for a reason, and I always kept the fridge stocked for tasting days. Every winemaker had their favorites, but they all wanted something crisp and unpretentious to sip while pouring and schmoozing, even (especially, actually) the ones making $100+ Cabernet.

Shane Finley is no different. When he almost sheepishly asked if he could have a beer as we were cleaning up from the tasting at the end of the night, it took me right back to those Friday night tastings in St. Helena.

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A name like Kosta Browne usually gets everyone’s attention, but there is more to Shane Finley than a few famous names on his resume (or his love of beer!). Like many of us in the wine industry, he is a refugee from a much more mainstream career – in his case as an insurance agent. In his mid-20s, having caught the wine bug, he quit his job in Manhattan to be a harvest intern and learn how to make wine. That he did, working harvests in California with Copain winery as well as at Domaine Pierre Gaillard in the Northern Rhone. When he agreed to come to our store to lead a tasting for the second year in a row, we were thrilled, and we were even more thrilled with how beautifully the wines showed.

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We started the evening with a splash of his Grenache Blanc, an unusual grape for California, but part of a growing movement we’re seeing there towards alternatives to the usual Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. From Vermentino to Trousseau Gris, we’re thrilled with all this variety, and are excited that wines like this are finally making it out of the state! Shane’s Grenache Blanc has the high-toned, lemony snap of a great Picpoul de Pinet, but with much more ripeness and sophistication.

Then it was on to the Ma Fille Rose, named for Shane’s daughter. Refreshing and fun to drink, this is the kind of wine that gets guzzled first at parties, no matter what other impressive bottles are available.

Though his current day job at Lynmar has him making lots of Pinot Noir, he only makes one, The Charm, under his own label. The name is a nod to his Irish heritage, and a charming, ripe, unctuous Pinot it is.

Dueling Syrahs ended our tasting, both showing a different side of Shane’s approach to this classic and sometimes unappreciated grape.  His time in the Rhone inspired him to work with it, and his “The Villain” and Jemrose Syrahs were remarkably different.

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The differences between the two inspired quite a bit of discussion! The Villain showed the dark-fruited side of Syrah, and the delicious, liquorice-like flavors it can develop when fully ripe. The Jemrose Syrah showed a much earthier, grippier profile, and for many was the wine of the night. Grown in a cool area of Sonoma County, this Syrah was made with 100% whole-cluster fermentation, while the Villain only saw a portion. The additional contact with stems gave the wine fine, mouthwatering tannins that cried out for a piece of grilled lamb or steak. The cheese and charcuterie we had was delicious as usual, but for this wine, it didn’t cut it!

Thanks to Shane and the folks at Nice Legs for a wonderful, relaxed evening. We hope he decides to come back next year!

–Diane

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