A group of us mountain people head over to Sonoma for a wedding last weekend. It was the kind of wedding where you can feel the bride and groom’s happiness in your soul. They are just that awesome. Since we were in wine country and among good company, we made a special trip to Hanzell.
The winery is tucked up on the hillside overlooking the Sonoma Valley. As we approached the gate a couple of deer crossed the road. We joked that maybe they were waiting for the gate to open so they could have a little grape buffet for lunch, but they walked off along the fence line and we head up the steep road to the winery.
When we finally reached the top we were greeted by Ben Sessions, the Estate Educator. He was proud of the wines and the vineyard, but really didn’t say so – you could just tell. The wines and vineyards really speak for themselves, but Ben had a lot of interesting stories to tell about the winery and its history.
1953 – The Zellerbachs planted 6 acres now the oldest pinot noir vineyard in America.
1957 – They created their first vintage. The winery was named Hanzell, a contraction of Mrs. Hana Zellerbach’s name, and embarked on what would become recognized as one of California’s most enduring and historically important wine estates.
1965 – The Zellerbachs’ achievement passed to the Day family.
1975 – The de Brye family acquired the estate.
2010 – The original 6 acres has grown to 42 acres and produces 6,000 cases of wine annually (3/4 chardonnay and 1/4 pinot noir).
Ben grew up at the winery; his father, Bob Sessions, was appointed winemaker when Ben was three-years-old. Personally, I can’t imagine growing up on a vineyard, especially one like Hanzell. How cool is it to grow up at a winery?!
After more than 50-years of winemaking, Hanzell has remained a respectable winery. They have created wines in California that respect the Burgundian traditions of chardonnay and pinot noir production. Hanzell makes wine in a style that appeals to collectors and an educated palate, but can teach a novice a thing or two about winemaking. At Hanzell, it seems that every hand that touches the grapes has a deep respect and love for winemaking.
After touring the caves and facility, we were shown a cellar holding 50 years of bottled wine and then led to a second floor tasting room that opened up to the most spectacular view of a vineyard I have ever seen.
We started with the 2008 Sebella Chardonnay which was named for the proprietor’s children (Sebastian and Isabella). The wine was elegant and a refreshing reminder of what California chardonnay can taste like. Flavors of limestone minerality and stone fruit showed immediately. The flavors lingered on the palate refreshingly, and finished with a richness that was balanced with acidity.
Next was the 2008 Chardonnay. This wine was made for the cellar and it seems that it will age well. It was intense, rich and lush, yet brightly balanced. The trend-driven American consumer’s palate likes over-oaked, full-bodied chardonnays, but the winemakers at Hanzell have done an excellent job allowing the wines to taste like the grapes that were grown in the vineyard.
The 2007 Pinot Noir was remarkable. The nose was rustic, smoky and leathery – not the aromas typically associated with a California pinot noir. Flavors of tobacco leaf, blackberry and orange-peel were backed with tannin and structure that will drink well for decades. But, after a few hours in the decanter, the wine was tasting just right.
Something to think about was how these wines could taste so different from others grown just down the road. Hanzell planted the first pinot noir and chardonnay grapes in America and quite possibly the age of the vines adds a certain characteristic to the wines that no other winery can parallel just yet.