Handley Cellars isn’t a sexy new winery; Milla Handley founded it in 1982, seven years after she earned a degree in fermentation science at UC Davis.
It isn’t in one of Northern California’s more accessible wine regions, but Mendocino County’s remote Anderson Valley.
It isn’t recognized as much for that valley’s most glamorous varietal wine, pinot noir, as it is for such unfashionable white wines as gewürztraminer, pinot blanc and riesling.
It doesn’t make a whole lot of wine, only around 12,000 cases a year.
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And yet, Handley Cellars is a staple of the Sacramento wine scene. Restaurateurs and grocers who look for reliability, character and value almost invariably stock a couple of wines from Handley Cellars. When I stopped by Taylor’s Market not long ago, ample shelf space in its compact wine department was devoted to Handley’s gewürztraminer, pinot gris and riesling. Corti Brothers had all those, as well as the Handley chardonnay and the Handley pinot noir.
In short, Handley continues to do what it’s done for three decades: grow the kinds of grapes most fitting for the cool and damp Anderson Valley, pluck that fruit when it’s just ripe enough to yield wines of unusual exuberance and deliver them to consumers unencumbered by beams of oak, rigid tannins or scorching alcohol.
But the honors Handley wines have won on the competition circuit haven’t gone to the heads of the people running the place. They continually if quietly take steps to better their wines.
Portions of the original estate vineyard where production has been declining are being replanted with new rootstock and new strains of chardonnay and pinot noir “easier to ripen in our cool climate,” says Randy Schock, who for the past decade has shared winemaking responsibilities with Milla Handley.
The two typically take a light-handed approach to styling their wines, but with recent vintages their touch has been even gentler. Grapes of the 2012 and 2013 vintages were so splendidly ripe and expressive, for one, that Handley and Schock entirely eliminated the use of animal-derived products as they processed the fruit into wine, such as egg whites, isinglass, gelatin and casein.
“Our goal at Handley is to express the vineyard and vintage, so we decided to look for less aggressive methods to finish our wines,” Schock says. It helped that more efficient yeasts and new vegetable-derived products to help winemaking also had become available. “A side benefit is that these wines can be considered vegan, but it is really the expression of terroir that drove our decision-making,” Schock adds.
While that mountainous and woodsy terroir can get warm and hot during the summer, it is one of California’s cooler settings for the growing of wine grapes. Thus, Anderson Valley for decades has been most closely identified with such cool-climate grapes as gewürztraminer, chardonnay and riesling, but its viticulture makeup is changing.
Pinot noir also responds well to relatively cool climates. That, coupled with the varietal’s popularity over the past decade, has led to a redrawing of Anderson Valley’s viticulture profile. A census of vineyards by the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association for 2010 found that more than half of the valley’s 2,244 acres in wine grapes were planted to pinot noir, a jump of 256 acres in just four years. During the same span, acreage devoted to chardonnay fell 93 acres to 500 acres and vineyard land planted to gewürztraminer slipped from 122 acres to 85 acres.
Still, Handley Cellars, while not unmindful of the allure of pinot noir, remains stubbornly and largely committed to cool-climate white wines.
At last summer’s Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition, five of the seven Handley wines to win double-gold or gold medals were whites. The other two were pinot noir, the classically structured, forthright and plush 2012 Anderson Valley Helluva Vineyard Pinot Noir ($42) and the pretty and snappy 2013 Anderson Valley Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir Rose ($22).
But when I stopped by Handley Cellars the next day to taste through its lineup, the white wines generated the most excitement, including gewürztraminer, riesling and muscat.
And Handley and Schock don’t take chardonnay for granted, either, to judge by the authority and elegance of the 2012 Anderson Valley Estate Vineyard Chardonnay ($25). Schock takes a wary approach to malolactic fermentation, the popular procedure that transforms tangy malic acid into softer lactic acid. He appreciates the sharp malic acid that Anderson Valley’s cool summer nights retain in grapes, so he either eschews malolactic fermentation altogether to retain fruit intensity and sharp acidity in his wines or employs it cautiously, as he did with the chardonnay, producing an interpretation vivid with apple and tropical fruit, profoundly aromatic and enduring in the finish. The chardonnay was one of the gold-medal wines at the fair competition the day before, as was the leaner and spicier 2012 Mendocino County Chardonnay ($18).
Another was the 2013 Anderson Valley Gewurztraminer ($20), as complete and complex take on the varietal to come out of California. While loaded with suggestions of honeysuckle, peaches, lychee and spice, it fairly zips across the palate for its bracing acidity and steely build, leaving the palate lusting for more. Schock attributes the wine’s layering to the three vineyards from which he gets grapes for the wine and the three types of containers in which he ferments and ages the wine – stainless-steel tanks, oak puncheons and oak foudres.
Other favorite whites were the delicately sweet yet sinewy, edgy and slightly spritzy 2013 Anderson Valley Riesling ($22), whose expression of fruit was fresh and wide ranging, including peach and pineapple, and the astutely balanced and surprisingly persistent 2013 Mendocino County Brightlighter White ($16), a fruity, mineraly and mildly sweet blend of half each gewürztraminer and riesling. “Brightlighter” is local jargon for someone from outside the immediate area, in particular city folk who likely had electricity before the locals.
Other reds that stood out were the solid and complex 2010 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($32), the gorgeous and silken 2011 Anderson Valley RSM Vineyard Pinot Noir ($52) and the huskiest wine in the portfolio, the 2010 Redwood Valley Vittorio Vineyard Table Red ($25), a dark, rich and robust blend of zinfandel, carignane and petite sirah that in its weight and assertiveness harkens to Mendocino County’s early winemaking days.
Handley Cellars is in transition, not only in the replanting of its vineyard but in its administration. Milla Handley, who has been closely identified with the Mendocino County wine scene since she went to work for Jed Steele at Edmeades Winery nearly four decades ago, remains engaged in the winery, but she is turning over more responsibilities to her daughters, Megan and Lulu. If she’s tutored them well, and with Randy Schock still in vineyard and cellar, Handley’s standing for wines of clarity, balance and value should remain high.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The tasting room at Handley Cellars, 3151 Highway 128, six miles northwest of Philo, is as much art gallery as sample counter, given over to an extensive collection of Latin American, Balinese and African folk art. Daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. during the winter, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. in the summer.
The tasting center is pet friendly, with water and treats provided for dogs, and includes a complimentary charging station for electric vehicles.
For more information, including recipes for dishes meant to accompany Handley wines, go to www.handleycellars.com
Editor’s note: This story was changed at 2:15 p.m. March 4 to correct the address of the winery.