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Milla Handley, gone to the winery in the sky


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.

  1. Christopher and Eleni says:

    Well said. We miss you already, Milla.

  2. Bob Rossi says:

    This brings back memories from many year ago. Back in the 1980’s, before my wife and “discovered” France and started travelling there, we made frequent trips to northern California. While we often stayed in the Sonoma area, we made frequent trips to Mendocino County, including the Anderson Valley. We frequently stopped at Navarro Winery, and also at Handley. I don’t know if I ever met Milla Handley, but it was a very enjoyable place to visit and taste wines. Those were the days when there was no charge for tasting (although we pretty much always bought wines), and when the person pouring in the tasting room might be the winemaker or the owner. It’s been many years since we’ve been back to California wine country, but that kind of tasting experience is what we generally find at the small wineries we visit in France. So thank you for writing this piece.

  3. A heartfelt tribute to a pioneering woman winemaker who cared deeply about Anderson Valley. When we interviewed Milla several years back she said: “I was captivated by the possibilities of the Valley’s isolation and beauty. I felt I could follow my own course, somewhat removed from the entrenched winemaking culture. I wanted by wines to capture the essence of this extraordinary place.” Thank you for helping readers get a better understanding of the founding winemakers of the 1970s and 1980s.

  4. Thank you Lucia.

  5. Regina M Lutz says:

    Steve, thanks for this lovely note about Milla Handley; she will be truly missed.

    That said, I also miss your wonderful writing…about wine and life! Please do more.


  6. Hi Regina, yes, we will miss Milla and always remember her.
    Re: my writing – thanks for the compliment. I still blog just about every day, although admittedly, it’s usually on politics.
    Be well!

  7. Thank you Steve for this wonderful tribute to my mom–it’s been my favorite written. Hope to get to spend time with you someday. You are welcome anytime at Handley. Best,

  8. Dear Lulu, thank you so much. Milla was a wonderful, life-affirming woman!

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