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Hanzell: Still Quality, Character and Reverence After 50 Years

“Into every bottle of wine made by a vintner of the old school went a little bit of himself. Old time wine drinkers believed that the quality of a man’s wine depended on his own quality and character. To gain lasting fame as a winegrower, a vintner had to be a poet, a philosopher and an honorable man as well as a master craftsman.”

The quote above came to me in a packet recently from Hanzell and although there was no attribution, it was clear that this was a reference to the long time Winemaker, now Winemaker Emeritus at Hanzell, Bob Sessions. Sessions was born in Southern California and was first introduced to the world of fine wine while a student studying English literature at University of California at Berkeley. A summer motor scooter trip with a close friend through France opened his eyes to the profession of winemaking, fine wine, and fine dining. Seven years after graduating from Cal, Sessions took a position as manager and winemaker at Mayacamas Vineyards located at the top of Mount Veeder. It was during his time at Mayacamas that Sessions first met a co-worker, Bradford (Brad) Webb, who became the founding winemaker at Hanzell Vineyards. Sessions is credited with producing renown Cabernet Sauvignons at Mayacamas Vineyards from 1968 to 1971.

In early 1972, Sessions left Mayacamas Vineyards to become the production manager at Souverain Cellars in Rutherford (now the site of Rutherford Hill Winery). It was at Souverain that he gained a preference for small, family operated wineries. While assisting Warren Winiarski with the opening of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Sessions was approached by Brad Webb to interview for the position of winemaker and general manager of Hanzell Vineyards. He welcomed the opportunity and assumed the role of Winemaker and General Manager of Hanzell Vineyards in 1973.

Sessions was the winemaker at Hanzell Vineyards for nearly 30 years. “Such long continuity is one of the things that make us different from other wineries,” he says. “We inherited a standard of ingrained quality and commitment to maintain not just the special taste and smell of the wines, but the breadth, depth and length of the overall quality.” Current proprietor, Alexander de Brye, has worked closely with Sessions since acquiring the winery in 1975 to maintain the standards that were established decades ago by the winery’s founder, Ambassador Zellerbach. Zellerbach, who planted the first vines at Hanzell in 1953 (old Wente clone Chardonnay and Martin Ray Pinot Noir), had the foresight to commit to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at a time in California when very few wineries were producing wines from these two varieties.

In 2002, Sessions retired and assumed the role of Winemaker Emeritus, passing on his knowledge and experience to the winemakers that have followed, including current Winemaker Michael McNeill, only the fifth winemaker in the estate’s history.

Sessions maintained the “Hanzell house style” developed by Brad Webb, and never succumbed to the oaky, buttery style of California Chardonnay, or the highly extracted, ripe and fruit driven style of California Pinot Noir, both of which became so popular over the last twenty years. The “Hanzell way” emphasis restraint, nuance, food compatibility, and above all, age ability. The wines speak of the unique terroir of the Hanzell hillside estate, blessed with a concentration of Red Hill volcanic soil rarely founded in Sonoma County, and cooling maritime winds from the Petaluma gap. At Hanzell Vineyards, the emphasis is on the vineyard and not the winemaker who is but a shepherd of the Hanzell tradition. The current winemaker, Michael McNeill, told me, “I don’t want my fingerprints on the wines.”

Sessions had a steadfast commitment to St. George rootstock and this has kept the estate safe from phylloxera. His belief in rigorous pruning vine by vine kept the quality of fruit at a high level on the estate. His ability to create wines that could be cellared for decades is rare. The most notable milestones for Bob Sessions are listed below.

1973: He becomes only the third winemaker in Hanzell Vineyards’ history.

1976: Sessions plants five acres of the de Brye Vineyard to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec. The remaining eight acres are planted to Old Wente Chardonnay clone on St. George rootstock and Mt. Eden clone Pinot Noir on St. George rootstock.

1983: He installs drip irrigation in every vineyard, recognizing that drought was inevitable. Visionary in his field, the drip system did not need to be used until 1996.

1974: Sessions begins experimenting with whole cluster fermentations for Pinot Noir. Abandoned for a time in the 1990s, McNeill has recently put it back in use after reflecting on the age ability of the older Pinot Noirs.

1993: Sessions grafts over the five acres of Bordeaux varieties in the de Brye Vineyard to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

1997: An additional eleven acres of vineyard was chosen, designed and installed by 2002 on the 200-acre estate.

1999: Sessions research led him to design a special 4.5-acre plot on the estate with eleven different rootstocks and clone combinations of Pinot Noir. Proprietor Alexander de Brye named the newly planted Pinot Noir block in Sessions’ honor.

2002: Sessions is named Winemaker Emeritus in January. A new winery development breaks ground. Sessions and Hanzell President Jean Arnold are married on October 19.

2004: Completed winery has eighteen custom made one-ton fermentation tanks and 500 linear feet of cave. The new “tankitos” replicate the quality and style of the original 1950s tanks designed by Ambassador Zellerbach.

2005: After 28 years, Sessions hands off his winemaking duties to Michael Terrien.

2008: Sessions oversees the planting of five acres of Chardonnay in the Zellerbach Vineyard that is named in honor of the original founder. McNeill joins the winery as winemaker.

2013: 2010 Hanzell Pinot Noir, Sessions Vineyard is released, celebrating Sessions’ 40th year with the estate, the first in a series of estate vineyard selections.

The 200-acre Hanzell Vineyards property in Sonoma Valley includes 46 planted acres divided into six vineyards, and is home to the Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard, the oldest continuously producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines in North America (pictured below overlooking the town of Sonoma).

Hanzell Vineyards producing 6,000 cases annually, three-quarters of which is Chardonnay and one-quarter of which is Pinot Noir. All wines have been estate grown and produced since 1960. As dictated by tradition and the house style, the Hanzell wines have always been aged in Sirugue barrels, 50% new in the case of Pinot Noir and about 33% new for Chardonnay. The Sirugue barrels produced pure fruit expressions with smoky vanillin and fresh-baked bread aromas, and highlight tropical and lemon components. For Pinot Noir, the Sirugue barrels add finesse and subtle aromatics of exotic spices and roasted herbs. Beginning with the 2011 vintage, Hanzell is now working with seven different cooperages but is not planning to chance the overall style of the oak program.

Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay winemaking goes on as follows. The grapes are hand harvested in the cool of the morning. They are promptly brought to the winery and sorted again. Tradition dictates limited skin contact, carefully controlled inoculated fermentations, and a moderate use of new French oak. The 2010 estate Chardonnay was 30% barrel fermented, spending 12 months in 30% new French oak barrels and 6 months in bottle before release. Hanzell Vineyards “Sebella” Chardonnay is 100% stainless steel fermented and finished and aged 6 months in one to four-year-old French oak barrels.

Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir winemaking goes on as follows. The grapes are 100% de-stemmed, cold soaked for 5 to 7 days in one-ton fermenters, inoculated to start fermentation, punched down by hand, and kept in contact with the skins for two weeks following fermentation. Clone and rootstock combinations as well as vineyard blocks are vinified separately until blending decisions are made shortly before bottling. Total élévage in the 2010 vintage was 18 months in 50% new French oak barrels.

The 2010 Hanzell Sessions Vineyard Pinot Noir was introduced in March 2013, celebrating Winemaker Emeritus Bob Sessions. Only 99 cases of this new single vineyard selection were produced. President Jean Arnold Sessions remarked, “Proprietor Alexander de Brye felt the last block of Pinot Noir planted at the estate should bear Bob’s name and we are thrilled to mark Bob’s 40th year with the winery with this special release.”

The four and one half-acre Sessions Vineyard, planted in 1999, is considered the pinnacle and most difficult of vineyard plantings that Sessions created in his career. The numerous rocks, the drainage and the extreme slope were all tremendous challenges in planting this vineyard. Composed of Red Hill Series clay and loam soils, the vineyard rows are planted vertically against the contours of the 38-degree slope. Eleven sub-blocks feature unique Pinot Noir rootstock and scion combinations (seven clones and four different rootstocks) and the southeastern exposure catches the morning sunlight yet shields the vines from direct light during the peak of the day.

Sessions Vineyard photos follow (top to bottom: view of Sessions Vineyard from the top, Sessions Vineyard Pinot Noir, and Sessions Vineyard Cluster).

Hanzell wines are available for purchase by guests visiting the new Hanzell Vineyard’s website at The website includes one of the most in-depth tasting note archives of Hanzell wines publicly available, allowing a search of vintages dating back to 1967. The Collector Program guarantees an allocation of Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and Ambassador’s Circle Exclusive and Private Collector levels provide access to the Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard releases, the Hanzell wine library annual offering and the holiday magnum offering. Two additional Estate Single Vineyard wines will be released this fall: 2011 Hanzell Chardonnay, de Brye Vineyard, and 2011 Hanzell Chardonnay, Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard. In 2014, single vineyard wines from Ramos Vineyard and Day Vineyard will be introduced.

Visitors are received by appointment only (707-996-3860 or email Two levels of visits are offered, both of which include a guided vineyard tour and seated tastings.

Decanting Hanzell wines is highly recommended. Stand the wines upright for some time before opening to allow any possible sediment to settle. At the winery, the wines are always decanted a minimum of one to two hours before service. Both of the 2010 Pinot Noirs reviewed here were significantly better a day after opening a bottle.

I have included the reviews of the latest releases from Hanzell, all of which were the finest young wines I have ever tasted from this winery. They are intriguingly complex wines with hide and seek nuances, and I highly recommend drinking them when you have the leisure time to spend to fully enjoy their charms. These are truly unique connoisseur’s wines. Michael McNeill told me that he is very fond of the 2010 vintage wines. He noted, “The lighter yields gave us very nice concentration. While the 2010s perhaps do not show quite the power as the 2009 vintage, the 2010s have a lovely purity and clarity that I find attractive.”

I also reviewed some older vintages of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from my cellar. I prefer the Hanzell Pinot Noirs from cooler vintages such as 2010. The site is relatively warm and in some vintages, such as 2005 and 2006, the fruit profile is a bit too ripe, the wines lack some verve, and the alcohol is too high for my taste. That said, the wines always clearly and honestly reflect the vintage and terroir and for that they are to be praised.

2010 Hanzell Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., pH 3.50, TA 0.62, 1,287 cases, $95. Cold, wet weather in the spring. Rains through bloom caused shatter. Summer temperatures were mild with only a few days in mid-August hitting the century mark. The weeks before harvest were unusually mild. Harvest began on September 14, three weeks later than usual with the Hanzell and 777 clones. 5% whole cluster. · Moderate reddish-purple hue in the glass. Initially shy, opening slowly even after decanting. Aromas and flavors of dark red cherries and raspberries with hints of spice and savory herbs arrive over time and reach a very flavorful level. Discreetly concentrated with bright acidity and sturdy tannins, finishing with plenty of oak-kissed fruit intensity. Spectacular the following day when tasted from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. I would advise cellaring this wine for a few years to soften and integrate the tannins and allow the fruit to come to the forefront. This will be an exceptionally lovely wine over the long haul. Score: 95

2010 Hanzell Sessions Vineyard Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., pH 3.60, TA 0.59, 99 cases, $95. Harvest began September 14, a full three weeks later than usual. Coastal fog led to a leisure harvest and picking concluding four days later. 667, 777 and Swan clones planted on 3309 rootstock were chosen for the fruit qualities that distinguish the Sessions Vineyard. 100% de-stemmed. Aged 18 months in 75% new French oak barrels. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. High-spirited aromatics of black cherries, black raspberries, cedary oak and spice lead to a mouth coating palate featuring dense flavors of black cherry infused cola, dark plum and exotic spice. The fruit is perfectly ripe and flat-out delicious, making a statement on entry and an impression on the finish which is of uncommon length. The wine is structured but not hard and the acidity is beautifully integrated. A very special wine that stands out even at this young age. Even better on the nose and palate the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle, indicating it will benefit from further cellaring. One of the best Pinots California has to offer in this vintage. Score: 96

2011 Hanzell “Sebella” Sonoma Valley Chardonnay

13.5% alc., pH 3.20, TA 0.81, 2,023 cases, $36. The Hanzell Chardonnay companion label. Individual vineyard blocks have been identified that form the core of this wine, particularly younger blocks that provide the forward and youthful fruit expression for Sebella. Fermented in stainless steel tanks, then racked to seasoned French oak barrels where it finished fermentation and aged sur lie for six months. Malolactic fermentation was inhibited to preserve the fresh, floral qualities and lively acidity. · Light straw color and clear in the glass. A very complex wine that is quite forward. The nose offers an array of aromas including baked apple, mango, lemon, Irish butter, vanilla, nuts, cut flowers and ocean air. Crisp and refreshing, with pleasing flavors of lemon, green apple and white peach, leading to a lemon drop finish exhibiting racy acidity. I am not usually a fan of unoaked Chardonnay, but this wine caught my attention, and will certainly please fans of Chardonnay vinified in this fashion. Score: 90

2010 Hanzell Sonoma Valley Chardonnay

14.5% alc., pH 3.20, TA 0.72, 2,329 cases, $75. Cold, wet spring with rains causing a fair bit of shatter. Yields down over twenty percent. Summer temperatures were mild. Harvest extended from September 13 to 28. Select barrels were included in this final blend. · Light straw color and clear in the glass. Nicely perfumed with aromas of lemon drop, peach, buttery brioche and chalk dust. The palate-staining flavors really pique your interest by their depth, offering notes of baked pear, green apple, grilled grapefruit and roasted nuts. Juicy and seductive with lively acidity, this wine is superb in every way. I rarely talk of finish in Chardonnay but this wine offers superb closing intensity and length . An outstanding wine that makes you want to clap. Score: 95

2003 Hanzell Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir

14.6% alc., 1,507 bottles. · Medium reddish-purple color with no bricking in the glass (unfiltered). Slight wet dog (Brettanomyces) aroma fades over time. Bouquet of an aged wine with scents of black cherry, briar and worn leather. Relatively fresh flavors of dark cherries, black raspberries, anise and spice with soft tannins in the background creating a creamy texture. The finish is striking for its tenacity. A remarkable ten-year-old wine that will go another ten years, but I would enjoy it for its purity of fruit now. Score: 90

“Hanzell Clone”

Paul Masson imported cuttings from Burgundy in the late 1800s that are the known forebears to the Mt. Eden selection of Martin Ray. In the 1940s, Martin Stelling!s To Kalon Vineyard received budwood from Martin Ray!s vineyard. U.C. Davis Professor A.J. Winkler selected the vines from which To Kalon Vineyard manager Ivan Schoch cut the budwood. Ivan Schoch was Hanzell!s vineyard manager when Ambassador Zellerbach planted Hanzell Vineyards in 1953 and it was Schoch who introduced the To Kalon Vineyard cuttings to Hanzell Vineyards.

The “Hanzell clone” has a high incidence of millerendage. These are berries for which pollination failed and the grapes grew no seeds. The seedless grape is naturally restricted in growth and the grape can be the size of peas. The wines made from small grapes have complex flavor and abundant tannin for greater aging potential. Source: Hanzell Vineyards website -

2004 Hanzell Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., pH 3.62, TA 0.57, 1,400 cases. Some head in late April but the vintage was gentle from May to the end of August. Grapes were harvested before a brutally hot September. Yields 1.9 tons per acre. Aged 16 months in 62% new Sirugue oak barrels. · Moderately light reddish-purple color with no bricking in the glass. Aromas of black cherries, dried oak and old books. Very fresh mid weight flavors of black cherry cola backed by sinewy tannins and good acidity which strikes a mineral note. Silky in the mouth with a cherry-driven finish of uncommon intensity. Beautifully balanced for the long haul. Will hold for at least another ten years, but hard to resist now. Score: 90

2005 Hanzell Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir

14.8% alc., pH 3.80, TA 0.56. A rainy spring required shoot-thinning and leaf-pulling into August. First days of September very hot caused rising sugars. First Pinot Noir made in new winery by Michael Terrien. New gentle de-stemmer diminished tannin extraction so fermentation temperature was allowed to climb to its natural peak and after fermentation, the young wine experienced an extended maceration. Aged 18 months in 50% new Sirugue oak barrels. · Medium reddish-purple hue in the glass. The nose offers a ripe fruit profile with aromas of dark berries, game, and smoky oak. The core of blackberry, black currant and raisin fruits is very tasty, although veering to the very ripe side. Still sporting firm tannins that are evident but not hard. Very soft on the palate, maybe too soft, and lacking in acidity. Finishes a little hot. Drink or hold short term. Score: 88

2006 Hanzell Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir

15.3% alc., pH 3.91, TA 0.54. Plentiful crop, brutishly hot July with temperatures reach 114ºF. Fall was unseasonably cool and botrytis was a challenge. Michael Terrien winemaker. Aged 18 months in 50% new Sirugue oak barrels. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. Very ripe array of aromas including blackberry, blueberry, black cherry, grilled plum and brewed tea. A little alcohol shows up on the nose. Very ripe, dark red and black stone fruits and berries are featured with a noticeable underpinning of welcome baking spices. The tannins are well balanced, and the wine is very soft and smooth, but it lacks a spark of refreshing acidity. Drink or hold short term. Score: 88

2007 Hanzell Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., pH 3.70, TA 0.56, 1,361 cases. Dry, cool spring followed by early July heat spike to 100ºF four days in a row. Rest of summer was sunny and warm with morning fog. Sessions, Benny’s and de Brye vineyards. Aged 18 months in 50% new Sirugue oak barrels. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Uplifting aromatics with scents of black cherry, blackberry, blueberry, Asian 5-spice and ash. A big, concentrated wine with a plush core of smoky, tarry black cherry, cassis and spice flavors, wrapped in muscular tannins. Still reserved and opens reluctantly in the glass. Noticeably smooth and velvety on the palate, finishing with slight tannic astringency and a touch of heat. Hold. Score: 90

2006 Hanzell Sonoma Valley Chardonnay

15.0% alc., 3,253 cases. Severe frost in March led to limited yields. Temperatures in the second half of July soared, peaking at 114ºF. 50% of wine was barrel fermented in this vintage. Aged 18 months in one-third new Sirugue French oak barrels. Michael Terrien winemaker. · Moderately deep golden straw color and clear in the glass. Aromas of poppyseed, lemon, vanilla, old book and flint. Modest fullness and creaminess (alcohol-driven) with good vim, offering flavors of lemon curd, honey, yellow peach and marzipan. Finishes with a hint of warmth on the finish. Drink or hold. Score: 88

2007 Hanzell Sonoma Valley Chardonnay

14.3% alc., 2,777 cases. Dry, cool spring with even bud-break. 100ºF four days in early July. Remainder of summer was warm and sunny with foggy mornings. 38% barrel fermented. Aged 18 months in one-third new Sirugue oak barrels. · Light golden straw color and clear in the glass. Bright, fresh aromas and flavors featuring lemon, pear jam, citrus peel, almond and buttered brioche on the nose and lemon, green apple and honey on the palate. Very soft and smooth on entry, finishing on a high note with a zingy, lemon-driven curtain call. Drink or hold. 91.

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