It is not often that one comes across such a magical, delightful, almost secret place, but we recently discovered Anderson Valley, California and were absolutely enchanted. Handley Cellars is nestled at the northwest end of Anderson Valley, in Mendocino County. The first time I was in Mendocino County, I was 12 years old and was deeply concerned about running into Bigfoot. The area’s huge redwoods, steep hillsides, and haunting beauty left a lasting impression, as did the poison oak that covered my body. I made several trips to the coast as an adult, mostly to see family get married on the postcard perfect coastline, but the last thing I thought I’d find there was wine country! In fact, Mendocino County and Anderson Valley produce some of the premier Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the planet. It’s a secret! And after experiencing the incredible hospitality and simple farming lifestyle, I hope it never changes; so shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone!
The Anderson Valley is an hour and a half drive north of Santa Rosa, and runs roughly West-Northwest to the Pacific coast. The valley is surrounded by ridges that climb as high as 2500 feet above sea level. This produces a dramatic climate effect when the cold sea air rolls in at night and fills the valley with chilled moist air that settles between the ridges. Many of the vineyards are planted on top of the ridges and are exposed to bright sunshine while the valleys below remain enshrouded in fog. This has led to the name “Islands in the Sky” because the vineyards look like green islands floating on the clouds when viewed from above. The temps can swing 40 degrees in one day, and the vineyards at the colder west end produce much different wines than the vineyards at the warmer, southwest end. Single vineyard aficionados don’t want to hear this, but the winemakers at Handley, and a lot of other true “wine artisans” believe that better wine can be made by blending from the different blocks because the subtle variations in exposure and elevation can add a lot to the complexity of a Pinot.
Handley Cellars was founded by Milla Handley more than 40 years ago. Imagine what it must have been like to build a vineyard at the end of a 1.5 hour drive on a windy road though logging country, so rural that every necessity had to be trucked in, or done without? Milla’s pioneering winemaking techniques used grapes that fully ripen at lower brix, which produced amazing wines with lower alcohol levels and dynamic, subtle flavors. She passed on the magic to her student and assistant winemaker, Randy Schock, who, after spending a decade under her tutelage, is now the lead winemaker after Milla’s recent retirement. We had the good fortune to sit down with Randy and sample some of his amazing Pinots. My first impression of Randy is that he is a farmer, and then an artist. His humble working class demeanor hides the fact that he is one of the most preeminent and talented winemakers in the area. He grew up in LA, graduated from Cal Poly SLO with a degree in agricultural science, and ended up in the Bay Area rooming with friends, looking for direction. His mother’s friend took him under her wing and taught him to appreciate fine wine and cooking, which led him to seek a job in the wine business in Healdsburg. From there he jumped into winemaking and has spent the last 20 years with his hands in the grapes. He admits there is more to winemaking than chemistry, and says it is as much art as science. It took him years to fine-tune the ability to not “over crush”, or press the grapes too hard, so as to not get the harsh-woodiness found in a lot of Pinots. This also helps with the clarity of his wines, so less fining is needed. What he loves about Handley’s Anderson Valley location is that the acidity he gets from his fruit is the key to the beautiful color of his Pinots. The higher the pH – the darker the Pinot.
“There’s no shortcut to exposure to wine,” he says. “You have to think outside the box. I push my wines, and like my kids, sometimes they push back.” Randy is referring to his custom, post-fermentation technique of adding back a layer of lees on the bottom of the barrel, then introducing a heavy dose of SO2 to stop the fermentation and stabilize the process, which breaks down the cell walls and creates the creamy mouth feel, without high sugar. At this point I just kept nodding like I understood what he was talking about – but the proof is in his wines, which are delightful!
Of the four Pinots we tried, all were amazing. Each was its own expression of the winemaker’s craft and the location of the vineyard. Randy has created a remarkable range of flavors that makes you think of forest floor, mushroom broth, vanilla, root beer, molasses, plum, or on the brighter end, cherries, baking spices, coco nibs, and violets. All the wines are low in alcohol and will age gracefully for years. He says he and his fellow winemakers in Anderson Valley (with tongue in cheek) make “artisan Pinots” not warm climate “Zinots!”
I can’t say enough nice things about the wonderful staff at Handley, their hospitality, wonderful wines, beautiful tasting room, scenic locale, and their crafty, unique Pinots. (If you go, be sure and try the Chardonnay too!) If you find yourself the wine country, take the road less traveled and treat yourself to a visit. Or, if you don’t want to drive 1.5 hours through the redwoods, order your Handley Pinot Noir at www.WineFactor.com today!
Tom Reid, Wine Factor