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Milla Handley, gone to the winery in the sky

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I was shocked and immensely saddened to learn of the death of Milla Handley, the co-owner and winemaker at Handley Cellars.

We met a long time ago; I can’t remember the year, but it was when I was working at Wine Spectator, so it must have been around 1990. It was my first trip to Anderson Valley, the Mendocino County wine region, where Milla had founded her winery, in the hamlet of Philo, in 1982.

I liked Milla instantly. She was a rare combination of earthy, country common sense and what I thought of as an Old World dignified charm. A woman of few words and a soft voice, she always had a sparkle in her eye, and a sense of humor that was restrained, but once you learned to detect it, you couldn’t miss it. But of more importance to a wine critic were Milla’s wines.

She specialized in Burgundian varieties—Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that did so well in Philo’s cool, foggy climate—and also in the sparking wine she made from the same grapes. She also was an early enthusiast of Alsatian varieties—Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewurztraminer—which thrive in Anderson Valley. Over the years, I’d run into Milla over and over, because as proprietor of a small, rural family winery, she had to get out there, in front of the public and merchants, and hand-sell her wines. I’d see her at nearly every event in the Bay Area, standing there quietly behind her table, pouring, answering people’s questions, busy; but whenever our eyes met, there was that silent smile, as if to say, “Hello there, old friend.”

Milla, who died of COVID-19 at the too-young age of 68, was a Grande Dame of California wine. She will be missed, and long remembered.

* * *

Too often, these days, they’re leaving us, these pioneers of the boutique era of California wine. What a privilege it was to grow up during it and find a place in the burgeoning industry that was about to take its place on the world stage. Almost everyone you met “back in the day” was famous for one thing or another. Everybody had a compelling story. By 2000 or so, “the story” had become, all too often, a fabricated or exaggerated concoction dreamed up by P.R. specialists. But early on, the stories were real, the characters straight out of O. Henry. Most founding winemakers of the 1970s and 1980s were authentic startups, with little money but big dreams, as opposed to a later era, when the winery “lifestyle” became buyable by rich outsiders. Milla was the opposite of the rich outsider, but she came up in wine in high-class style, working, straight out of U.C. Davis, for Richard Arrowood at Chateau St. Jean (which invented the concept of single-vineyard Chardonnay) and Jed Steele at Edmeades, just down the road from Philo; and if Milla’s Zinfandels lacked the elegant sophistication of those from Edmeades, they were gulpable and affordable.

The wine press today rightfully is headlining Milla’s demise. She wasn’t the best-known winemaker in California, but she symbolized the grit, integrity and can-do spirit of amateurs who succeeded in the industry when it was still an adventurous frontier that rewarded innovation. She symbolized, too, a quality that is fast disappearing in our multi-billion dollar wine industry: humility. Rest in peace, old friend.


Peter Mondavi, Sr.: A vision held steadfast

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I’ve held off commenting on Peter Mondavi, Sr.’s death, because it’s been well covered elsewhere, and also because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to bring to the conversation.

It’s already been noted, for instance here in Wine Spectator, how much Mr. Mondavi contributed to modern winemaking techniques, such as cold fermentation and the use of French oak barrels. Important as those were, on reflection I think his greater contribution was to the sense of continuity he brought to a valley in which well-heeled newcomers enter the arena all the time, often acting as though Napa’s history hadn’t really been complete until they arrived.

This is not to say that Mr. Mondavi’s importance simply was longevity, although that, in itself, is an achievement. It also was an achievement of the first rank that he, together with his family, was able to keep Charles Krug Winery strong and in their hands; this was one outfit that, no matter how hard things might have been here and there, refused to sell out, although I’m sure they had opportunities aplenty.

But perhaps Mr. Mondavi’s greatest achievement—which he has bequeathed to Napa Valley—was that of a vision held steadfast. It can be difficult to define “vision.” Wealthy newcomers to the valley have visions, too; of Parker 100s, $300 wholesale prices on their wines, and all the glitz and glamor that go with the cult wine lifestyle. That is, to paraphrase Churchill, at least a vision…but it is not a particularly savory one.

The vision Mr. Mondavi possessed, he inherited from his parents, Cesare and Rosa, themselves saturated in the traditions of grapegrowing and winemaking. From their humble beginnings in Lodi, in the darkest depths of Prohibition, they were practically the living incarnation of the modern evolution of California wine. Peter Mondavi, Sr. and his brother, Robert, you might say, were born in barrels.

Why does continuity matter? It may be that I perceive its value more today than I might have twenty years ago. Continuity, in the person of a man or woman, is the residual compilation of all that has occurred up to that moment: the person becomes the living embodiment of it, and thus worthy of respect. If a wine region such as Napa Valley can be said to have a soul, then that soul resides not so much in its terroir, nor in its buildings, and certainly not in its newcomers, but in its enduring legends. And Mr. Mondavi was an enduring legend.

You know, in the last several years of Mr. Mondavi’s life, his family made a great deal of him walking up and down that famous flight of stairs on his way to work, even at his centennial age. They were proud of his health and grit, as well they should have been. But whenever I read that he was still climbing those stairs, I thought, not just about a single individual, but about Napa Valley. That it is still there, ascending, persevering, reporting to work every day, despite the nonsense that sometimes threatens to overwhelm it and, in our lemming-media culture, usually does. In that sense, Mr. Mondavi was a metaphor for Napa Valley itself. Just imagine what his eyes perceived over his long lifetime: the events, personalities, achievements, the drama, the ups and downs and tumult–a sweep of history encompassing, through his parents and his own life, most of the twentieth century and, through his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, born and not yet born, what likely will be a good part of the twenty-first and even the twenty-second. That is what Mr. Mondavi means to me. If I ask myself who else in Napa Valley is like him, or ever will be, the answer is: No one.


Rich Smith passes to that great vineyard in the sky

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I can hardly believe the news that Rich Smith has died.

I’ve known Rich for so long, I can’t even remember when we met. He was instrumental in educating me about the appellation he helped to pioneer, the Santa Lucia Highlands, and was a good person to ask about all things viticultural. As for hospitality, Rich always welcomed me to the winery. He was as helpful and friendly as anyone in the wine industry I’ve ever met.

Rich was the founder of Paraiso Vineyards [formerly Paraiso Springs]. As the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association eulogized, He was one of the fathers and visionary pioneers of the Monterey wine region and continually championed sustainability and research to foster the success we all share.” Rich was one of those people a wine reporter naturally bonds with. He had a wry, inquisitive sense of humor in addition to his vast knowledge of wines, vines and local history, a salt-of-the-earth guy who was fundamentally a farmer at heart. He shunned the limelight, even though he was frequently in it—a guy you were drawn to for the dignity and centeredness he projected.

He and his winemaking team made fantastic wine at Paraiso. Rich’s Wedding Hill Syrah was, to my mind, his best wine, but the Pinots, Rieslings and Chards were fine, and Rich was generous enough to share fruit with other wineries, such as La Rochelle, Morgan and Manzoni.

Rich was only 69 years old when he passed away on Dec. 27. He will be missed.

Smith


Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir, and the loss of a pioneer, Daniel J. Gainey

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Santa Barbara County has been much on my mind lately. Last month, we at Jackson Family Wines did our “Sand & Fog” event in L.A. that focused on the Pinot Noirs of the Santa Maria Valley. I followed that up with a small private tasting of additional Santa Maria Pinots. Next week, I’ll do Santa Rita Hills Pinots, up at the company in Santa Rosa. Since Jackson Family Wines has no properties in the Santa Rita Hills, I’ve chosen the following eight wines, which I think give a good representation of the region:

Siduri 2012 Clos Pepe

Loring 2012 Cargasacchi

Brewer Clifton 2012 3-D

Brewer Clifton 2012 Machado

Domaine de la Cote 2012 Bloom’s Field

Lutum 2012 Sanford & Benedict

Foxen 2012 La Encantada

Foxen 2012 Fe Ciega

As you can see, the vineyard sourcing is from all over the appellation, north to south and west to east. There’s also a good spectrum of clonal material ranging from the Dijons to older selections like Pommard and Calera. Some of the wines were fermented without the clusters while others, notably Greg Brewer’s, were whole cluster fermentation. And alcohol levels—always of such interest—range from the Cote’s 12.5% to Siduri’s 15.6%. All of the wines are, of course, sourced from individual vineyards or from specific blocks within vineyards.

Does a blended wine give a better representation of regional terroir than a single-vineyard wine? This is a tough question to answer. A blended wine—say, a Pinot from La Encantada, Cargasacchi and Brewer-Clifton—is hard to imagine in the real world. But if you had no idea what the Santa Rita Hills was like for Pinot Noir, such a mythical beast would undoubtedly give you a good idea. On the other hand, it’s terrific fun to explore individual vineyards, especially provided that you’re able to do so over many vintages. Fortunately, I can always go into my database and see what I’ve said over the years about most of these vineyards. Encantada, Fe Ciega, S&B, Clos Pepe, Cargasacchi—I have a history with these wines, which are all very great expressions of their terroir.

For this Santa Rita Hills tasting, I think we’ll do it blind. It will be instructive to see if, for instance, we can tell the Domaine de la Cote and the Siduri because both are the outliers in terms of alcohol level. I, myself, am not always to detect highish alcohol in a California wine. I always try to, before peeking at the label, but I’d say my batting average is just that: average. I also want to see if we’ll be able to detect the whole cluster wines blind. I’d look for more body, more spiciness and a different feeling to the tannins. I don’t think Greg Brewer would whole-cluster his Pinots if the stems weren’t fully lignified. I’ll be looking for that architectural element that stems can give, which you can feel in the mouth.

* * *

Speaking of Santa Barbara County, just as I was writing this post, I got an email that Daniel J. Gainey, the founder of Gainey Vineyard, has passed away, at the age of 89. I had a great deal of respect for Mr. Gainey, although I was closer to his son, Dan H. I was a frequent visitor to their lovely winery, which was just down the road from Santa Ynez town, where I often stayed at the Santa Ynez Inn. Gainey made excellent wines, from cool-climate Pinots and Chards grown in their Santa Rita Hills vineyards to the Merlots, Syrahs and Sauvignon Blancs from warmer vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. As a matter of fact, before the advent of Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara, I used to write that Gainey made the best Merlot in the county. Over the years, I gave 48 Gainey wines scores of 90 points or higher. Not bad.

Mr. Gainey was a true pioneer, having founded his winery in 1984, when practically no one had heard of the Santa Ynez Valley, or of Santa Barbara County wine, for that matter. He was a true wine lover and a gentleman. My sympathies to Dan H. and the entire family.


Monday Mayhem: Drinking too much, and memories of a P.R. guy

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It’s important for us to have a conversation about drinking too much—about alcoholism—for two reasons. One is because there’s always been, and still is, a neo-prohibitionist mindset in this country that frowns on any use of alcoholic beverages at all; and so, as if in advance of an impending flood, we have to pile the sandbags around the door and be ready for anything. The second is because we Americans are rightfully concerned about our health, and while the debate rages on concerning whether a glass or two or three of wine a day is good for you or not, even people who drink moderately have to wonder, in the back of their minds, if somehow or other they’re actually bringing on diabetes, or cancer, or stroke, or heart disease, or something else we don’t want. The situation isn’t clarified—in fact is exacerbated—by conflicting studies that come out seemingly weekly, contradicting each other and leaving us more bewildered than ever.

No wonder more and more people are taking “Are you an alcoholic?” tests. The key phrase in this latest “self-questionnaire”, from England, is, “If you find that you ‘need’ to share a bottle of wine with your partner most nights of the week, or always go for a few pints after work, just to unwind, you’re likely to be drinking at a level that could affect your long-term health. You could also be becoming dependent on alcohol.” By this metric, I suppose you could say I’m “dependent on alcohol.” But what does “dependent” mean? I’m also “dependent” on breathing and eating. I’m dependent on Gus to bring joy into my life. I’m dependent on warmth in winter and dryness in the rain, on a certain amount of social intercourse, on being creative. I’m certainly dependent on going to the gym. Heck, I’m dependent on PG&E for almost everything! So this notion of “dependency” is a “slippery” one, as even the English questionnaire concedes.

I don’t doubt that some people have a drinking problem. But what gets me is this incessant stream of “self-questionnaires” published in magazines, newspapers and online, in which we’re asked to constantly question ourselves about our habits. The suggestion is that everything we do is potentially some kind of problem. Armchair psychologists make a living at this sort of thing, and they find publishers who are happy to give them exposure.

Another one bites the dust

Many of you knew Harvey Posert, who died last week at the age of 84. I met Harvey many years ago, when he was running Robert Mondavi’s P.R. shop. Then he went over to Fred Franzia’s outfit, Bronco. We had fewer contacts after that, but one was memorable. I’d long wanted an interview with Fred, who was notoriously shy of publicity. I called Harvey for years, but the answer was always “No.” One day, I was in San Francisco, and picked up the free weekly paper. Guess who was on the front page? Freddie, and they had a very long, interesting interview with him. In the free paper? So I called Harvey back and asked, what’s up? How come a throwaway free paper that has nothing to do with wine scores an interview and I don’t? Harvey arranged for a get-together with Fred, at his gigantic bottling facility in Napa. Well, to make a long story short, it didn’t work out. I never got that interview and I never saw Fred again (although I did get to spend a fascinating day with his son, Joey, a few years later), but I did hear from Harvey. He was apologetic, but after all, it wasn’t his fault: Fred Franzia can be a very stubborn individual. Anyhow, Harvey put in his time, the good, the bad and the ugly. He did a fine job the old-fashioned way, pre-Internet, pre-social media, in an era of press kits and controlling the message, and he always sat in on interviews with whoever was his boss (which I always hated). Harvey was one of the last of his breed. To paraphrase an old saying, winery P.R. people never die, they just go to some heavenly lounge and hang out. There are worse ways to spend eternity. R.I.P. Harvey!


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