Meet the young winemaker who is crafting a new legacy for Spring Ridge Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains
Neely Wine’s Shalini Sekhar is bringing a new era to a storied location
By Laura Ness
That’s how winemaker Shalini Sekhar refers to some of her latest ideas at Neely Wine in Portola Valley. At present, Sekhar is referring to her inclination to incorporate some “whole cluster” — the winemaking process of including the stems of the fruit — to the Pinot Noir fermentations.
“Whole cluster augments the mouthfeel, which is really important,” she says. “My job is to make sure the wine stays good, maybe with a bit of enhancement.”
Beyond just the Chardonnay, Sekhar also appears to be referencing the legacy of her location. Neely Wine operates in Spring Ridge Vineyard, the same place that the well-known Varner family once made some of their most esteemed wines from the region.
Just a couple years into taking over as the winemaker at the renowned location, Sekhar’s approach is to honor what the vineyard has been designed to produce, while also building a distinctive identity for Neely in the process. As a New Jersey native who moved to California years ago to pursue music, she is an unlikely candidate to be a rising star in the wine world, but appears to be making her mark all the same.
The history of Spring Ridge Vineyard dates back to the Varner twins, Jim and Bob, whose wines earned a reputation for the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Named for the abundant springs on the 230-acre oak-covered property in bucolic Portola Valley, Spring Ridge Vineyard became well known as a unique region of Northern California wine production, even if the area’s identity would shift a bit over time.
“This whole area used to be called Spring Ridge,” explains Lucy Neely, daughter of the current owners, “but because of the windy afternoons, people started calling it Windy Hill instead.”
The Spring Ridge Vineyard extends from an elevation of 500 feet reaching up to 1700 feet above sea level. The Varner’s planted the property in blocks, naming each for aspects of their topographical traits and atmosphere (Picnic, Hidden, Bee). They put in three blocks each of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Over time, the Varner’s developed quite a reputation for their sunshine-laden wines, entirely distinctive from those grown near the coast. Chardonnay from the Amphitheater Block, a bowl-shaped section facing south, was regaled as a creation of intense minerality with a remarkable citrus core, while the Bee Block sang with orchard fruit, zapped by a squeeze of Meyer lemon.
Varner Pinots from the property were big, rich and oak-driven, revealing their sunny exposure on a ridge that overlooks Silicon Valley with a backdrop of the East Bay hills shimmering in the summer heat.
When the Varners moved to Santa Barbara in 2014, they left the landowners — the Neely family — with a boatload of fruit and a legacy to aspire to.
Looking to dive right in on a 2015 vintage, the Neelys took the advice of the Varners to use a custom crush facility in the Dog Patch area of San Francisco, where winemaker Scott Shapely was working alongside Sekhar, a California transplant who got her winemaking start in the tasting room at Rockwall Wines while enrolled at Fresno State. She clocked time with Williams Seylem, Furthermore and Waits-Mast before being approached to process the fruit that the Neelys inherited from the Varners’ departure.
Sekhar and Shapely divided up the first vintage of Neely wines: he made the Chardonnay and she made the Pinots. They roughly followed the Varners’ winemaking protocols, using mostly Francois Frere oak barrels. Sekhar says they avoided using any new oak on the Chardonnays for 2015, but the wines are still fairly rich in texture, showing off their roots.
Impressed with the results, the Neely family subsequently hired Sekhar, who saw an opportunity to apply nuanced changes to the vineyard’s already established approach.
For instance, the Varners always did native fermentation, but Sekhar was hesitant to do this at the custom crush facility. So when she made wine at the small Spring Ridge winery on site in 2016, she still chose to inoculate with her favorite yeasts.
Under her direction, they’ve also added a new destemmer, a chiller and a sorting table. The latter really expedites the process and improves the quality of the wine, she says. Having access to devices will elevate the wine, though Sekhar admits, “It’s really cool to know that the Varners’ wines were made in such a great style, and without technology.”
With the chiller, she may actually be able to do a cold soak, which she prefers for pinots. “It enhances the flavor compounds, which are more soluble in water than in alcohol,” she explains.
While Sekhar oversees and directs these fine details of the winemaking process, the Neely family all pitch in as well, with siblings Lucy and Simon carrying out hands-on work around the vineyard (Simon is in charge viticulture, while Lucy has been planting new vines on the lower portion of the property).
Reflecting on the fact that they’re going into year four of winemaking together, Sekhar cites discussion about oak choices and barrel aging regimens, with the idea that everything is on the table: “What tweaks do we make? Are we doing the best thing for this wine? I like the direction we’re going in. I want layers to enjoy, and more aromatics. Nothing is stagnant here!”
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