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Milla Handley: Anderson Valley individualist

Milla Handley: Anderson Valley individualist – Handley Cellars’ harvest season

Jean Deitz Sexton

Sprinting toward the finish of the 2002 harvest, Milla Handley, winemaker-owner of Handley Cellars, shuttles from her paper-stuffed office to the crush and back again, as her production crew peppers her with questions. She’s exhausted, but wouldn’t trade a minute of it.

Stop! What is the great-great-granddaughter of Henry Weinhard doing making wine? Blasphemy!

Handley, whose mother, Milla Hart, is the great-granddaughter of the famed Oregon brewer, decided in the early ’70s to depart from the family’s brewing tradition with the same old-fashioned Yankee independence she asserts in all aspects of her life.

It appears to have been the right move. The Anderson Valley winery is celebrating 20 years of survival in the mercurial wine business and the growing industry recognition for its consistently well-crafted but affordable sparkling wines and varietals.

Handley takes a coffee break in the cozy winery kitchen, dishwasher humming nearby, but her staff soon finds her and the barrage of inquiries begins again. It’s clear that this plainly dressed woman with the direct gaze is in charge of the show. That’s the only way she’ll have it.

“Milla is her own woman. She knows what she wants,” observes Ellen Springwater, hospitality and tasting room manager. “She’s a quirky figurehead,” Springwater laughs.

“I don’t feel the necessity to take an iron hand and force something, to be totally controlling,” Handley muses. Her loyal staff enjoys her straightforward style and light touch. Co-winemaker Deny Dudzik has been with her for 12 years and many other employees have long tenures.

Evolution

Born into a wealthy family–her father, Raymond, made his fortune in commercial real estate construction during Silicon Valley’s boomtown years–Milla Handley grew up in the rarefied air of Los Altos Hills.

She could have chosen to join the country club set, while spending her free time riding horses, a passion she still pursues. Instead, she chose to attend UC Davis with an eye toward an art career. That didn’t take. Next, she tried animal studies. Not a chance. “I didn’t even like playing with the worms,” Handley says.

Her dad’s friend had a wine shop and Handley had enjoyed wine at the family dinner table. Since she could leave the worms in one piece, Handley migrated to studying fermentation science. She earned a B.S. degree in 1975.

After working three harvests as an assistant to Dick Arrowood, then winemaker at Chateau St. Jean, Handley and her husband, Rex McClellan, moved to the Boonville area in Anderson Valley. There he took a job as assistant to Navarro Vineyards founder Ted Bennett.

Handley took a year off to be with her infant daughter, then went back to work, first for Edmeades, and then for Jed Steele at Steele Wine, where she quickly moved up the ladder to oversee all white wines, the cellar, lab and quality control.

A Sparkling Dream

By 1981, however, Handley’s singular spirit again kicked in, with full force. “I wanted to be my own boss. After awhile, you sit there and say, ‘I would do it this way.’ At some point you have to do it, not just say it.”

Handley had a vision to make sparkling wine from Anderson Valley grapes, at a time when the appellation had minimal presence, if any.

“Milla was really a pioneer. When she started, the wine business here was pretty limited,” says Andrea Lederle, Handley national sales manager.

At the time, Scharfenberger (now Pacific Echo) was just getting started and Roederer Estate had not yet established a presence. The individualistic Handley was undaunted.

In 1982 she and her husband founded Handley Cellars, at first making sparkling wine in the basement of their Philo home. An ’83 Anderson Valley Brut was Handley’s inaugural release.

“I liked the challenge of sparkling wine. As a winemaker, it’s the extreme opposite of making a red wine. You intervene at many steps to affect the flavor. It seemed to me the best solution for the valley’s cool climate. The fruit is very lean and bright and has a very high acidity,” making it perfect for the production of sparkling wine, Handley says.

“We don’t pick the fruit until September, so it gets to hang on the vine a little bit longer. Particularly in the Pinot noir, this gives us appropriate flavor maturity, away from the herbal, toward more intense fruit flavor,” Handley explains.

Growth Curve

From the beginning, Handley bought some local fruit as well as grapes from her father, who owns 20 acres of Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Syrah in the Dry Creek Valley. Now, with a total production of about 15,000 cases and a full portfolio of sparkling and still wines, Milla Handley is her father’s exclusive customer.

Handley Cellars’ current portfolio breaks out roughly to 25-30% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot noir, 10-15% Sauvignon blanc, 5-10% Gewurztraminer, 5-10% sparkling wine and the rest, Pinot gris and other limited bottlings.

Patriarch Raymond Handley brought his sophisticated business sense, and a considerable amount of capital, to the Handley Cellars venture. In 1985, he financed the acquisition of two pieces of adjacent property, totaling 59 acres, in Philo. The land was originally part of a large homestead grant. Creating a working winery and vineyards had to be done from scratch.

As a limited partner, Raymond Handley worked with his daughter to oversee the design and construction of the 18,000 square-foot winery facility. His experience in build-to-suit construction came in handy. “Dad was up here checking the foundation,” Handley recalls.

She talks about the possibility of expanding to 20,000 cases, something her 79-year-old father, who still works 60 hours a week, would love to do. In addition to his real estate business, Raymond Handley owns the Xanadu art gallery in San Francisco, Trader Vic’s restaurant and Dinah’s Garden Court hotel, both in Silicon Valley. “Dad needs a new project,” she laughs.

Reality Check

Early on, Handley discovered her dream of being a sparkling wine house didn’t mesh with reality. “Before we even crushed a grape, I realized it was not financially wonderful,” Handley recalls. She began to add a portfolio of still wines to ensure the winery’s financial viability.

“We now make such a small amount of sparkling wine because there is no money in it. You can’t make too little of it,” Handley says. The winery may cut sparkling wine production even further from about 1,000 cases, down to as little as 300-500 cases in response to the weak market, Andrea Lederle says.

The winery is offering its signature Anderson Valley Brut, vintage 1996, for $20 instead of its usual $28, as part of a 20th anniversary promotion. Customers are responding positively to the new price-point, Lederle notes.

Marketing presents a challenge, Handley says. “People are still very insecure with their palates, and sparkling wine is so foreign-dominated.”

It’s very difficult, Handley says, for a small winery to compete on price with the large European houses which sell by volume and thus can charge lower prices. Competitors, such as nearby Roederer Estate, can also use the marketing resources of their European owners to build a brand.

Handley made a smart decision to stay out of the ring with Roederer Estate, feeling that its venerable winemaker, Michel Salgues, has successfully dominated the nonvintage, high-end market. Instead, she focuses on estate bottled, vintage sparkling wine, with intense, bright fruit flavors. Her newly released 1997 Anderson Valley Brut is a good example. Almost four years en tirage, the well-balanced wine has a rich, creamy texture with notes of vanilla and pear.

The 1997 release spurns conventional wisdom, Handley says. “The weight and length come from the Chardonnay, not the Pinot noir. It’s the nature of our fruit, and that we leave it longer on the yeast than others.”

On Price-point

Fortunately, while sparkling wine sales are down, Handley’s still wines are racking up gold medals and getting placement in many prestigious U.S. accounts.

Priced at $19.99 in the tasting room, the superb 1999 Anderson Valley Pinot noir, a delightfully refreshing, spicy wine with aromas of black currant, and the 2000 Anderson Valley Chardonnay, clean, not oaky, with a crisp apple aroma, priced at $15.75–both estate bottled wines–offer quality at very competitive price-points. And the trade is noticing.

“It’s a tougher market right now but sales are good. We’re positioned well with valued pricing. Right now that’s in our favor,” Lederle says. The winery’s top five markets are the San Francisco Bay Area, Ohio/ Kentucky, Texas, Illinois and New York/Massachusetts. Distributors Martin Scott in New York and Great Lakes-Baum are two of the winery’s primary distributors.

Regional Identity

One of the factors in Handley’s success is that long before terroir became the buzzword du jour in viticulture, she understood that her wines should reflect the Anderson Valley.

“Milla is seriously independent. She began making wines not with the commercial market in mind, but by being true to the soil and the climate,” Lederle says.

Handley’s original plan was “to make small lots of terroir-driven, delicate wines.” However, in the late ’70s, the local fruit was off the mark. “When I moved here, all the wrong varietals, like French Colombard, were planted,” Handley recalls. She credits Navarro owners Ted Bennett and Deborah Cahn with seeing that the region offered more. “They were the first ones who came in with a different vision of what to plant.”

Handley and Navarro are now friendly competitors in two key Anderson Valley-grown varietals–Pinot noir and Gewurztraminer. “Navarro’s Gewurztraminer is the standard by which you judge yourself,” Handley says.

Peer respect aside, Handley says, “I’m thrilled when I kick off a Navarro Gewurztraminer or a Roederer Brut from a restaurant list.”

Handley began planting her estate vineyards in 1986. The Philo property has about 12.5 acres planted to Chardonnay, 12.5 to Pinot noir and another five planted to Gewurztraminer. In addition to buying fruit from her father, Handley buys Pinot noir from Anderson Valley growers Carol Pratt, Corby and Vidmar, and from River Road Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands; Gewurztraminer and Pinot gris from local grower Steve Williams and Sauvignon blanc from Ferrington Vineyard.

She and her husband also grow 5 acres of Pinot noir and 3 acres of Pinot gris on their home property near the winery and sell the fruit to Handley Cellars.

Numbers Game

Anderson Valley, with its wide swings of temperature from day to night, creates some oddities in the vineyard, Handley says, and the numbers don’t always tell the story.

Her 2001 Gewurztraminer, for example, is drier than the typical offering, at .26 residual sugar and .58 acid, but tastes more acidic than it actually is. “We know we have good flavors even though the numbers are comparatively lower. The most important thing in winemaking is not to focus on the numbers. You must go by your palate,” Handley declares.

Wines Mysteres

As she marks 20 years in the ever-challenging wine business, Handley is also revising her still wine portfolio to reflect consumer demand for more reds. She has invested in an open top fermenter she can use for Pinot noir, as well as for the Zinfandel and Syrah she is adding with the 2001 vintage.

Pinot noir is the key, Handley believes, since the appellation produces great fruit. She loves the intricacy of the varietal. “It is intellectually stimulating. You have to dig into it. What you want in a wine is come hither, that there’s more you can discover with each sip.”

Handley thinks of her wine as being in the style of former French Laundry owner Sally Schmitt’s cuisine. “It’s like comfort food. You want to keep going back and eating it, as it evolves on the palate. That’s what we want to achieve with our wines.”

(Jean Deitz Sexton is a contributing editor to Wines & Vines. She can be contacted at edit@winesandvines.com.

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