The Wine Guy - Greg Walter


An enduring jewel on the hill

Of all the wineries and vineyards I have visited around the world in my decades of writing about wine, there have been a few that I can honestly say profoundly affected me to the extent that I would take any opportunity to return to them.  There was something about each of these places — history, the people behind them, the uniqueness of the site — that propelled them far beyond just where grapes are grown and wine is made.

One of those places is actually here in Sonoma. Hanzell Vineyards is pretty much hidden from daily life here, perched up in the hills to the north of and overlooking the Plaza. In my 24 years here and numerous visits to the winery, I have always been in awe of the uniqueness of the place, the sense of history and permanence that I feel when I am up there.  I was reminded of all of this again when I was invited to the winery for a special tasting.

Hanzell Vineyards was founded in 1953 by Ambassador James D. Zellerbach (of the Crown Zellerbach company). Zellerbach began his venture into the Sonoma Valley in 1948 with the purchase of the first 14 acres of what would become a 200-acre property overlooking the town of Sonoma with the vision of creating a small wine estate modeled after the estates of Burgundy.

The first vines, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, were planted in 1953 and those original plantings — called the Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard — are still actively producing and a part of the Hanzell wines. The tasting I recently attended up at Hanzell was specifically focused on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard and I have to tell you the depth, concentration and structure of these wines is an absolute testament as to the value of true “old vines.”

Grape sourcing for Hanzell’s estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir has been exclusively from the winery’s estate vineyards since 1965.  The winery’s estate is made up of five distinct vineyards totaling 46 planted acres: 12 acres in Pinot Noir, 32 acres in Chardonnay and a new addition in 2012 of two acres of Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard plantings sit on various sites on the hillside. The Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard is just below the winery with a western facing; the Zellerbach Vineyard is just below that with the same western facing; the Day Vineyard has a southwestern facing for its 4.5 acres; the de Brye Vineyard has a southern facing and sits on the top of the hill; the Sessions Vineyard is on the steepest hillside with a southeastern facing; and the Ramos Vineyard has a northwestern facing.

The winery was built in 1956 and although it resembles a quaint Burgundian wine estate, it was a model of technical innovation. Hanzell was the first to use stainless-steel fermenters and among the first in California to use French oak for aging. After Zellerbach’s death in 1963, the winery was sold in 1965 to Douglas and Mary Day who in turn sold it to Australian-born heiress Barbara de Brye in 1975. De Brye’s son Alexander is the winery’s current owner. Bob Sessions took over the winemaking reins in 1973 from founding winemaker Brad Webb and remained there for 30 years. During his tenure, Hanzell’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir established a reputation for unique character and longevity. Today’s team at Hanzell includes Jean Arnold Sessions as president and Michael McNeill as winemaker. A new winery and adjacent caves has given the winery a modern production facility specifically designed for small-lot winemaking.

Hanzell’s Pinots and Chardonnays are not your typical California wines. The Pinots are big, tannic, incredibly well structured and seemingly unapproachable in youth. No Chardonnay in California achieves the longevity and consistency in style of Hanzell. As big as they are, both the Pinot and Chardonnay are also very well balanced with deep, nuanced aromas and flavors. They definitely demand and reward time in the cellar, often times taking decades to really shine. Pinot bottlings include the estate Pinot Noir, a Sessions Vineyard bottling. Chardonnay bottlings include the estate Chardonnay, a de Brye Vineyard bottling and a bottling under the “Sebella” label. Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are kept separate and bottled from the Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard in exceptional years.

Hanzell Vineyards is located at 18596 Lomita Avenue in Sonoma and is open by appointment only. For more information, visit Hanzell.com or call 707.996.3860.

As always, you can email me with questions or comments at gswalter@pinotreport.com.

Greg Walter, a Sonoma resident for more than 20 years, has been in wine and food publishing for more than 30 years, 15 of which were spent as a senior editor and later president of Wine Spectator magazine. Today he writes the PinotReport newsletter (Pinotreport.com) and publishes books through his Carneros Press imprint (Carnerospress.com).

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