Got Game? Pair it with Napa Cellars and Folie a Deux

“I’m trying to frame the fruit but not mask it,” remarked Joe Shirley, director of winemaking at Napa Cellars and Folie a Deux winery in Napa Valley. Shirley recently visited Ohio to spend time with fans, and I was fortunate enough to sample some with a savory bison burger smothered with goat cheese at Gamekeeper’s Taverne in Chagrin Falls.

Shirley’s background is as serpentine as a mature Zinfandel vine. He was studying pre-medicine at Occidental College in Los Angeles, but friends in the profession dissuaded him from pursuing the field. Shirley looked for other outlets for his interest in applied science. He considered winemaking and enrolled at University of California at Davis’s enology program, where he received his master’s degree.

Shirley’s technical knowledge is wide-ranging, and the wines we tasted clearly achieve his stated goal of “showcasing the varietal.” Napa Cellars 2009 Sauvignon Blanc is fermented cold with no malolactic (secondary) fermentation. What comes shining through are moderate tropical flavors plus grapefruit and bright acidity.

Although Napa is heavily planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Shirley enjoys making Zinfandel. It shows in Napa Cellars 2008, which he blends with 13 percent Petite Sirah, which he says “makes it a more complete experience.” Shirley feels Zins can dip in the middle – start out strong and end big, but lack something in between. Here there’s no sagging as the Petite Sirah provides jammy flavors mid-palate.

Folie a Deux’s biggest seller is Cabernet Sauvignon, and their 2008 Cab demonstrates why: With big aromas of black cherry and cocoa, its integrated tannins make it approachable and food-friendly. Shirley suggests pairing it with a lamb burger topped with goat cheese and mint. My bison-goat cheese burger was close enough.

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