Shane Finley says he was probably the only guy at Bloomington Jefferson (class of '94) who couldn't skate. He got an English degree from a military college, then worked three years in Manhattan as an insurance underwriter.

So naturally, eight years later, he's one of the hottest young winemakers in California, running two wineries of his own and helping produce highly coveted wines for another. His odyssey covered three continents and a few superb mentors; most of all, it embodied a good old-fashioned Midwestern work ethic.

"I was the first one there and the last one to leave. I loved it," he said earlier this month, when his Shane and Spell brands landed in his hometown. "I worked some 21-hour days."

He also worked harvest for three vintages in as many countries in a year's time: in 2001 at Sonoma's Copain winery and in '02 at Torbreck in Australia ("I was Grunt No. 4") and Domaine Pierre Gaillard in France's Rhône region. In between, he braced himself for the steep French slopes in the Twin Cities.

"I would load a backpack full of books and hike around the Hyland Hills Ski Area for as long as I could stand it," he said. "I ended up with some pretty strong thighs."

All the while, Finley was fulfilling a three-page mission statement on how to make it in the wine business that he worked up in 2001 upon deciding that he "didn't see a long-term future in insurance."

Central to that mission was working at smaller wineries where he could learn from the best. "I hate science and I'm not a math guy, so I decided to go the apprenticeship route," he said, majoring in syrah. "I think it's the most dynamic varietal out there. I love the spectrum of flavors of syrah. When done well, it beats the pants off anything."

Starting at Copain, and landing back there in 2003 after his transcontinental travels, enabled Finley to soak in knowledge from a master, Wells Guthrie.

"Wells has always been on the cutting edge of syrah," Finley said over dinner at Cafe Levain. "I learned a lot from him about how to blend styles of California wines and French wines."

Finley, now all of 32, later worked under the legendary Paul Hobbs. "He is such a perfectionist," Finley recounted. "He tracks every detail, and kind of like the guy in 'A Beautiful Mind,' you see the numbers on glass."

In early 2006, Finley became associate winemaker for the cult pinot noir producer Kosta Browne, and later that year he started Shane Wine Cellars. He made 250 cases of syrah from that vintage and added rosé in 2007. He also joined up with William Spell to form a pinot-only winery.

"Syrah is my love; pinot is my infatuation," said Finley, who's now making four syrahs and a rosé for Shane and two pinots for Spell in addition to his Kosta Browne duties.

The wines are delicious, their rusticity and acidity reflecting that French influence. The pinots are almost savory, and the syrahs, all grown in cooler locales, have those Rhône-ish briny (olive) and smoky (tobacco) elements.

The culmination of a long, intricate learning process? Yes and no, said the intuitive, Midwest-practical Finley.

"There's no formula to make wine. The biggest thing I've learned in seven years is what not to do," he said. "The reality is, I'm not supposed to be doing this. I should be selling insurance in Minnetonka."

That would have been the wine world's loss.

Bill Ward • Read Ward on Wine at