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Handley: Anderson Valley's Independent Spirit
By Gerald D. Boyd
Jul 3, 2012
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When Milla Handley graduated from the University of California-Davis in 1975, her aim was to find a place where the independent spirit of winemaking was still alive.  It took three years, with a few stops along the way to learn about winemaking outside the classroom, before she settled in the Anderson Valley, Mendocino’s cool climate outpost. 

“I could follow my own path here, somewhat removed from the entrenched winemaking culture,” said Handley about her home since 1978.  “What attracted me is the independence of the people and the abiding spirit of the Anderson Valley.  I wanted my wines to capture the essence of this extraordinary place,” explained Handley at a recent retrospective tasting of Handley Pinot Noir in Santa Rosa.  Handley shared the spotlight with her elegant restrained Pinots and her co-winemaker Kristen Barnheisel.

When Handley settled in the Anderson Valley, in 1978, the rural enclave was still in the backwater of California wine and even by Mendocino standards the valley was remote.  In the 30 years since, Anderson Valley wines have stepped forward, thanks in part to wineries such as Handley, Navarro, Edmeades, Lazy Creek and Roederer Estate, focusing on cool climate wines.  “There are not many places in California that are right for cool climate grapes like Pinot Noir and Alsace varieties,” says Handley about the Anderson Valley.  “It’s a focused valley, unique for such a small area that stretches from Boonville to the winery about six miles northwest of Philo.”  

The promise of Anderson Valley as a unique place for trying your hand at making Pinot Noir is what attracted Kristen Barnheisel to Handley.  After studying in Italy and working for Ruffino, then making Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot at other wineries in California early in her career, Barnheisel became intrigued with Pinot Noir.  “It wasn’t until I was at Belverdere that I just fell in love with Pinot Noir, as we were making Russian River Pinot at the time.”  She admits that her degree in Italian Literature is not directly applicable to her job at Handley, “but studying and working in Italy became the reason I chose a career in winemaking.”

Pinotphiles are unabashed about their love for the “heartbreak grape,” the very qualities in Pinot Noir that Barnheisel didn’t discover in the Bordeaux varieties.  “I found the flavors and aromas more subtle in Pinot Noir than in other red varieties.  And it is more challenging to make a balanced wine with good acidity and a long finish on the palate.  Pinot Noir is a subtle wine that changes most times you taste it and go back to it…and I find it more rewarding when it turns out well,” she says.

Barnheisel’s introduction to the style of Russian River Pinot Noir at Belvedere, on Westside Road in the heart of the Russian River Valley AVA, stayed with her.  “I think the closest comparison to Anderson Valley Pinots, based on style and flavor profile, would be the Green Valley district of Russian River Valley.  We share the cool climate fruit, with flavors of ripe cherry, cranberry, citrus, good acidity, texture and palate length.”  Milla Handley added that the flavor profile for Anderson Valley is a mix of red and dark fruits and a balanced midpalate.

Still, Barnheisel had a steep learning arc to deal with when she came to Handley to make Pinot Noir.  Commenting about working with Milla Handley, Barnheisel said, “I learned to always pay attention to the vineyard, well before harvest. We are in such a cold climate here in Anderson Valley that we have to gauge the season, drop fruit early and again just before picking.  I have learned a style that is very clean and fruit forward, with less oak.”

As co-winemakers, Barnheisel and Handley perform different duties throughout the year.  Barnheisel handles the day-to-day management of the cellar, including making the white wines and the fining trials on the red wines.  In the vineyard, they do the berry sampling together and taste the Pinot Noirs several times with their production crew.  Barnheisel says it takes three or four blends “to get it right.” 

Equally important is the close care and stewardship of the vineyards.  In addition to Handley’s 28-acre estate vineyard, grapes come in from a number of vineyards across Anderson Valley, including the RSM Vineyard, named for Rex S. McClellan, Handley’s late husband, who planted the steep 6.5 acre vineyard on the hillside adjacent to their ridge-top home.  “The RSM Vineyard has changed over the years, since it was planted in 1999 and 2001,” says Barnheisel.  She believes that over the years, as the vines matured, the flavors evolved from simple, black cherry and chocolate to deeper cherry, violet, earthy flavors with dark chocolate, meaty and coffee tones. 

Pinot Noir from the 26-year-old vines in the Estate Vineyard show more hibiscus, cranberry, lavender and orange peel.  Stylistically, Barnheisel believes that it’s the blend of the various elements, but also vineyard elevation and soil types that separate the styles of the Anderson Valley and RSM Pinot Noirs.   Handley’s grapes are grown organically, a position that Barnheisel believes is very important, to protect the environment and the people working in the vineyards.  “We make wines conventionally and have had very good success with organic grapes,” she says. 

One winemaking key to Handley Pinot Noir is the use of different yeasts for fermenting the different Pinots.  “I have tasted the differences in the finished wines after fermentation, “ says Barnheisel, and find some to be more fruit-forward, some to have more texture and some to develop more structure from the fermentations.”  Cool climate grapes like Pinot Noir are expected to have good natural acidity, but Barnheisel says that malic acid levels change from season to season, so “some years, we have to adjust the acids after fermentation to keep them closer to their original composition.”

The Handley Pinot portfolio currently includes the 2009 Mendocino, 2009 Anderson Valley and 2009 Anderson Valley RSM Vineyard.  Although sold out at the winery, a few bottles of the 2007 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and the 2004 Anderson Valley Estate Reserve may still be found in wine shops and restaurant wine lists and are worth the search.  Handley also makes an expressive Brut Rosé sparkling wine that is mainly Pinot Noir.

At the recent retrospective tasting, a few library bottles were poured by Handley and Barnheisel, including a lovely 1993 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir that is fading slightly but still shows a delicate nose of faded roses and leather.  Other older Handley Pinot Noirs that showed well at the tasting and may be rewarding to those who have a bottle or two in their cellar include the 2000 and 2005 Anderson Valley Pinots and the 2004 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir.  Less impressive was the 1997 Anderson Valley Pinot that is beginning to dry out and the 1998 Estate Reserve that shows more tannins than fruit. 

Milla Handley found what she was looking for in the Anderson Valley and Kristen Barnheisel discovered a wine she has come to admire and respect.  Together, the co-winemakers are making tasty Pinot Noir.  “I think (the Anderson Valley) is the best place on the West Coast to grow Pinot Noir,” claims Barnheisel.