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by Ken Zinns

Ken is a Bay Area architect with a passion for wine. After taking a few wine courses through UC Extension, he started becoming more "serious" about wine in the early '90s. Ken has been taking wine-tasting trips to the Central Coast since early '92, and has come to love the area - not only for the wines, which just get better year by year, but also for the people. Ken's interest in wine is more than passive, and he's been volunteering his help at several urban East Bay wineries since 2001 - and in fact was recently named assistant winemaker for both Eno Wines in Berkeley and Harrington Wine in San Francisco.

A Visit with Shane Finley - July 26, 2008


Lunch and Tasting with Shane Finley –

Shane Finley invited about a dozen people to join him for lunch and wine tasting, and I was fortunate enough to be among his guests. Shane is the Associate Winemaker for Kosta Browne Winery, one of the hottest Pinot Noir producers in California. Starting out on the winemaking road in 2001, he's worked for Copain and Paul Hobbs in California, Torbreck in Barossa Valley of Australia, and a year with Pierre Gaillard in the Rhône Valley.

Shane launched his own brand with three Syrahs from the 2006 vintage, and we gathered at the West County Grill in Sebastopol to taste those wines along with a couple of new releases and some older Rhône whites. Following our lunch, we would head to the winery to barrel-taste '07 wines from Shane and from his new Pinot project called Spell.

This was my first visit to West County Grill, located right in the heart of Sebastopol. We had our own room on the second floor of the restaurant, which worked perfectly for our group. Shane started us out with a new release, an '07 Rosé.

  • '07 Shane Rosé "Ma Fille" – a saignée made from most of Shane's Syrah vineyards, just a small quantity was made. This was barrel-fermented and well through partial malolactic fermentation. Medium-deep pink, this had delicate scents of watermelon and grapefruit, with crisp acidity and great texture on the palate - a refreshing yet serious Rosé. Shane told us he was aiming for a Tavel style with this wine, and he's done a nice job of that.

Shane generously shared with our group six Rhône whites, gifts from his time working with Pierre Gaillard  in 2002-03. The wines were paired with our first course of lunch, fried squid and salt cod croquettes with lemon and aioli. Shane had us pass around the whites in two flights, and not everyone tasted these in the same order as I did. Wines in the first flight were from the northern part of Saint Joseph.

  • '01 Pierre Gaillard Saint Joseph Blanc – 100% Roussanne, medium gold color, intense aromas of typical Roussanne wax and honey, along with a slight cheesy note. Rich mouthfeel and long smooth finish.
  • '01 Yves Cuilleron "Le Lombard" Saint Joseph Blanc – 100% Marsanne, medium gold color, fairly shy aromatics, mildly musty citrus with a touch of oak. Very nice texture and acidity.
  • '01 Yves Cuilleron "Lyseras" Saint Joseph Blanc – 50/50 Roussanne/Marsanne blend, this was the most interesting wine of the flight my favorite of the six whites overall. Slightly deeper gold color than the first two, this took longer to open up, but after about ten minutes it really blossomed into a wonderfully complex wine, with floral and honey aromas on top of nectarine and citrus. Great intensity on the palate as well, with a very long finish - an older Rhône white drinking beautifully right now.

The second flight of whites – all Roussanne/Marsanne blends – were from southern Saint Joseph plus one Croze Hermitage.

  • '01 Louis Cheze "Cuvee Ro-Ree" Saint Joseph Blanc – a fairly deep gold color, this was noticeably oxidized but showed ripe stone fruit and honey aromas, and a rich mouthfeel.
  • '01 Guigal "Lieu Dit" Saint Joseph Blanc – medium-deep yellow, the aromas included stone fruits and more oak than the other whites. Moderately rich with a mineral note on the palate, but there was some bitterness and astringency on the finish.
  • '01 Domaine Tardy Croze Hermitage Blanc – similar color to the Guigal though slightly lighter, this was also somewhat cloudy. Mild citrus and honey aromatics that really opened up after some time in the glass. A leaner style than the other two in the flight, with very nice acidity - my favorite of the three in this flight.

Overall I preferred the first flight of whites to the second, though the Tardy was really nice. I think several of these wines will probably become even more interesting in the years to come.

As the main courses were brought out (lamb or duck), Shane poured us the three Syrahs from his first vintage, 2006. All three spent about 10 months in oak, so they've been in bottle for close to a year at this point.

  • '06 Shane Syrah, Jemrose Vineyard, Bennett Valley – just two barrels of this wine were made, with 50% whole cluster and 50% new oak, from mostly 174 clone plus some Estrella clone. Very pretty aromatics, with floral notes mingling with blackberry and blueberry. Somewhat leaner, with more apparent acidity than the other two bottlings – not surprising given the cool vineyard site – this had medium tannins and a long finish. Already very attractive, this wine ought to be stunning with another five years of bottle age.
  • '06 Shane Syrah, "The Unknown" – a 5½ barrel blend, with most of the fruit coming from Kick Ranch, located in Rincon Valley east of Santa Rosa. Also about 50% whole cluster and 50% new oak, with a variety of Syrah clones including 877, Hermitage, 174, and Estrella. This was more fruit-forward than the Jemrose, with blackberry and plum with hints of pepper and spice in the background. A big, mouthfilling wine with medium tannins.
  • '06 Shane Syrah, Valenti Ranch, Anderson Valley – from a vineyard at about 1,500-foot elevation along Philo-Greenville Road, three barrels were produced, with about 65% whole cluster and 67% new oak, from 100% Shiraz 1 clone. This was a showed a whole different aspect of Syrah than the other two bottlings – intense grilled meat and pepper aromas, along with dark fruits and spices. Great mouthfeel, a bit more tannic than the other two Syrahs, and a lingering finish. Another terrific young Syrah.

These wines have settled down since the last time I'd tasted them, and each of them were really showing very distinctive character. Shane told us that he thinks of the Jemrose as his Côte-Rôtie style Syrah and the Valenti and more in the Hermitage style, but that it's the vineyard distinctions rather than anything different in his winemaking that points the wines in those directions.

Next up on the menu was Humboldt Fog cheese with honey, and Shane brought out a new wine to pair with it.

  • '07 Jemrose Viognier, Egret Pond Vineyard – the first vintage for this wine, made by Shane and Michael Browne for Jemrose. Two barrels were made, both neutral oak. Aromas of lemon and nectarine, followed by citrus flavors and great acidity that worked beautifully with the rich cheese and honey. A very impressive cooler-climate version of California Viognier.

After a delicious plum crisp a la mode to finish our meal, we left the restaurant and tried to caravan (with varying degrees of success) out to the Kosta Browne facility just north of Sebastopol, where Shane makes his wine. He tasted us on barrel samples of his '07 Syrahs as well as two Pinot Noirs from a new project for him, Spell. All of the wines had been blended around three weeks ago.

  • '07 Spell Pinot Noir, Barton Vineyard, Russian River Valley – from a vineyard about a mile north of the winery, two barrels were produced. About 25% whole cluster and 50% new oak, this is from Pommard and 115 clones. Medium-dark color, somewhat stemmy/spicy in the nose, with dark cherry and floral notes. Smooth mouthfeel with some mild tannins on the finish. This seems promising but it's clearly still coming together at this stage.
  • '07 Spell Pinot Noir, Weir Vineyard, Yorkville Highlands – a five-barrel production from a 1,000-foot elevation vineyard in the northern part of Yorkville Highlands. With about 25% whole cluster and 40% new oak, this uses a variety of clones, including 2A, Rochioli selection, and DRC/Calera selection. Medium-dark color, more fruit-forward than the Barton, with a darker fruit profile and earthy overtones.
  • '07 Shane Syrah, "The Villain" – seven barrels were made of this new blend, mostly from Alder Springs and Broken Leg vineyards, with some Valenti Ranch fruit as well, about 65% whole cluster and 28% new oak. Dark color, with complex aromas that included flowers, black pepper, black olive, and some stemmy/spicy notes along with dark fruits. Medium-bodied, but quite a tannic finish.
  • '07 Shane Syrah, "The Unknown" – nine barrels of this blend were made in '07, again mostly from Kick Ranch fruit, but also some from Archer Vineyard in Russian River Valley and a bit of Jemrose. From five clones, this is around 60% whole cluster and 33% new oak. Similar to the '06, this is the most fruit-forward of Shane's Syrahs, with lots of blackberry and spice. A more opulent mouthfeel than "The Villain" and less tannins on the finish.
  • '07 Shane Syrah, Valenti Ranch, Anderson Valley – Shane went for it on this wine, 100% whole cluster! Two of the three barrel production were new oak. The whole cluster is surprisingly well-integrated for such a young wine, it doesn't have that stemmy character that most wines with this much whole cluster usually have. This has a lot of meaty aromas, but unlike the '06, this was more gamey than grilled meat, very Northern Rhône. Along with dark fruits and pepper, some green olive notes showed up (probably from the whole cluster). Big tannic finish, not surprising given the amount of whole cluster.
  • '07 Shane Syrah, Jemrose Vineyard, Bennett Valley – an four-barrel production (I think that's right though I didn't jot it down in my notes), with 75% whole cluster and 25% new oak, this is from 470 and Estrella clones. As with the '06, this has more of a "pretty" nose than Shane's other Syrahs, a bit more delicate with floral hints. It also featured some black pepper and herbal notes along with blackberry fruit, maybe a touch more fruit-forward than the '06 version. Fairly tannic finish, but not as much as the Valenti.

What struck me most about Shane's wines is how distinctive they all are from one another. While they share a certain density on the palate, the aromatics really set these wines apart. The two vineyard-designate Syrahs couldn't be much more different, and really showcase the "feminine" and "masculine" sides of the grape. Though all the '07 wines are still somewhat rough around the edges – obviously to be expected at this point – they show a lot of character for such youngsters. The other thing that amazed me about these wines is how well-integrated both the whole-cluster and the new oak are, in almost all of the wines. Particularly with the '06 Syrahs, in bottle just under a year, I would never have guessed there was that much whole cluster in the winemaking. And although the '06s are already starting to drink nicely, it's clear that these wines are made for aging, and as good as they are now, I'd guess that they could be spectacular in another 5-10 years.

The new Spell Pinots should be interesting to follow. While they're relatively big wines, they take a different direction from the Kosta Browne Pinots, particularly with the amount of whole-cluster fruit used. Shane told us he's aiming to use around 25-33% whole cluster in the Spell wines (as opposed to his goal of around 70% average whole cluster on the Shane Syrahs). Like the Syrahs, I think the Spell Pinots will take a few years to really show their best.

Thanks to West County Grill for the delicious lunch – it's certainly a restaurant I'll return to. And thanks again to Shane for organizing the lunch and tasting. Those Rhône whites were quite a treat, and it was both educational and enjoyable to taste through all the Shane and Spell wines.


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