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Hanzell Celebrates 50th Anniversary

Hanzell is California’s first ‘boutique’ wine estate. Diplomat James D. Zellerbach and his wife, Hana, became fond of Burgundy and its wines while he served as an American ambassador to Italy. Zellerbach was president of Crown Zellerbach, a large forest products company at the time. The Zellerbachs were so inspired that they purchased land on Sonoma Mountain above the town of Sonoma and set to building a winery of redwood and local stone fashioned after Burgundy’s Clos de Vougeot. They planted their first vines in 1953: Chardonnay using the Wente clone and Pinot Noir using the Martin Ray clone. The Martin Ray clonal material was reputedly from a clandestine late night raid on a Napa Valley vineyard by Hanzell’s initial winemaker, Brad Webb. Over the years, the vines have mutated and new vines propagated from them creating a distinct Hanzell selection.

Winemaking at Hanzell was very Burgundian from the beginning and Zellerbach was among the first in California to utilize French oak barrels. In addition, Zellerbach designed the first temperaturecontrolled stainless-steel fermentation tanks used in conjunction with the traditional French oak barrels. He was also was the first to use nitrogen in bottling. Small amounts of wine were sold starting in 1957, but 1965 was the first full-scale commercial vintage.

Bob Sessions followed Brad Webb and was the general manager and winemaker at Hanzell for 33 years. He retired in 2005 and was replaced by Michael Terrien. Today, Hanzell’s vineyards have increased to 42 acres (27.5 acres of Chardonnay and 14.5 acres of Pinot Noir) which produce 3,000 cases of wine. The current owner is Alexander de Brye. The Chardonnays have been the star at this winery and often hold up beautifully to and beyond 20 years. The Pinot Noirs have had their advocates as well.

In 2003, an elevated level of the chemical TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) was found at Hanzell in the winery itself. Sales of the wines were stopped (the 2000 Chardonnay and 1999 Pinot Noir were eventually sold to interested consumers since the amounts of detectable TCA were extremely minute) and the original winery was abandoned. A new winery was constructed and a cave system excavated for cellaring wine. James Laube of the Wine Spectator brought the TCA problem to Hanzell’s attention. Hanzell’s TCA problem was minute - 2 parts per trillion in the Chardonnay and 3 parts per trillion in the Pinot Noir (equal to two or three grains of salt in a swimming pool!). The wines from the 2003 vintage on have been clear of TCA.

The original Hanzell Pinot Noir vines planted in 1953 by Zellerbach are claimed by Hanzell to be the oldest Pinot Noir vines in California. The vines at Mt. Eden were the oldest producers until they were pulled out in 1997. John Haeger has spoken in recent years of a 1946 block of Pinot Noir at Chalone but it is unclear to me whether these vines are still producing. Regardless, the vines at Hanzell were fifty years old in 2003. To commemorate the 50th anniversary, Hanzell selected five barrels of a single vineyard bottling. A total of 110 cases were produced ($160). Like all Hanzell wines, the special bottling is highly allocated to wine club (Ambassador Circle) members. The 2004 Estate Pinot Noir (1,400 cases, $90) is the current regular release. The label on Hanzell wines (pictured right) has never changed.

1997 Hanzell Vineyards Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc.. · Gorgeous garnet color. Noteworthy heat on the nose and finish. Heady cherry fruit flavors. Soft in texture with fine-grained tannins persisting. Admirable for a ten-year-old California Pinot Noir but rather one-dimensional.

Hanzell Vineyards is located at 18596 Lomita Ave, Sonoma. Tours and tastings are by appointment (707-996-3860). The website is

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