Handley Cellars

Scaring Off Bears in Anderson Valley

Handley Cellars

Two years of drought have created serious problems for California farmers. But the bears in Anderson Valley are not happy either. The food supply in their habitats has diminished, forcing them into the vineyards. Milla Handley never leaves the house at her RSM vineyard without two barking dogs after bears feasted on the grapes. Only yesterday, one crossed her path as she was driving to the winery. They are small black bears, she reports, not the larger and more aggressive grizzlies. If she met one on foot, she would expect it to run in another direction, especially with her dogs in tow.

“They’re just trying to survive like everyone else is,” Milla says sympathetically. And in the same soft tone, she remarks, “We’re putting up a hot wire around the vineyard. They’ll think long and hard when they put their little noses on a zapper. I have no bad feelings for them. I just hope they have a nice winter and visit someone else besides me.”

Despite the grapes that the bears ate at her home vineyard, the harvest was plentiful and the fruit delicious, Milla says. And like many California wineries, Anderson Valley vintners had harvested most of their fruit by the end of September, the earliest in many years. “It was all crammed into a very short period of time, too. It flew by. It was like we’re sampling the grapes, then oh they’ve been picked. Where did the Chardonnay go? Oh, we picked it yesterday.”

The upside of the drought is that warmer temperatures in this normally cool region near the Pacific Ocean have ripened fruit to higher sugar levels. Usually, local winemakers worry that their wines could be too austere. Because of cool temperatures, Anderson Valley is home to the sparkling wine producers, Scharffenberger and Louis Roederer, who require higher acid and lower sugar levels for their champagne production, which consists mainly of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

But apart from sparkling wine, Pinot Noir made as a still wine reaches its highest expression in cooler regions and has become the principal red grape of Anderson Valley, along with a series of whites, especially Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Gris. The popularity of Pinot Noir has brought many high-profile names to this remote and rural valley, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. Dan Duckhorn from Napa developed Goldeneye, and the Ferrari-Carano owners purchased Lazy Creek. Today around 70 wineries occupy the appellation, most of them dedicated to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Above the valley, more vineyards and orchards are appearing on the ridges as high as 2000 feet and above. “We’ll see if they survive big rains because we haven’t had big rains here for a long time. They could have slides from run-off. You don’t know what soil will hold and what will slip,” she cautions.

Does she have enough water during this drought, a question on every California vintner’s mind? “Yes and no,” she answers. She has a 20-acre pond, which she explains is enough to “sprinkle a lot of water everywhere,” But that was before the blackberries proliferated to the point that they began to invade the banks and suck up the water. “We’ll see if we get enough water this year during winter to do what we need to do. It’s always something.”

Since 1982, Milla has been farming her 59-acre Holms ranch, which in 2005 was certified by CCOF, California Certified Organic Farmers, the first organic certification entity in the United States. The vineyards consist of 13.4 acres of Pinot Noir, 12.2 acres of Chardonnay, and 3.2 acres of Gewurztraminer. Located in the hills above the winery, her home property, the RSM Vineyard, is named for Milla’s deceased husband, Rex Scott McClellan, who finished planting seven acres of Pinot Noir there in 200l.

Milla’s dedication to the land and to the wines it produces compels her attention almost entirely. Many winemakers worry about “house palate” or being overly focused on their own wines instead of experiencing them in the context of other wines made in other places, which in turn could stimulate improvement and innovation. “I’m not very good at going out and tasting people’s wines. I go home, and I go to work, and I go home.” Instead she has her ear to the ground, listening to the vineyard, governing what it produces in its particular place. “Each winery is different,” she says, and each wine is different, a reflection of its place when it is allowed to be that.

Milla has always aimed for finesse and elegance regardless of the bigger and richer wines that California has presented in the last 15 years. And she seems unconcerned that a correction is taking hold with many winemakers attempting to produce more balanced wines. “Some love the cool climate wines with lower alcohols, and there are others who like them a little more round.” But she insists that “you don’t want to be forcing the wine somewhere. You can’t make fruit from one region taste like fruit from another.” Since Anderson Valley is a cool climate region where fruit does not ripen to high sugar levels, her wine has been and will be lower in alcohol regardless of consumer trends or winemaker enthusiasms. As they should, her wines will reflect the weather during a particular vintage, a little rounder in warmer vintages, and more austere in cooler ones.

Describing her reasons for moving to Anderson Valley 32 years ago, she writes on her website, “I was captivated by the valley’s possibilities. The people here possess an independent spirit, and I felt I could follow my own path, somewhat removed from the entrenched winemaking culture. I wanted my wines to capture the essence of this extraordinary place.”

California Wines of the Month

Artisan Series

Handley Cellars 2010 Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley

Winemaker Milla Handley’s Notes

This Pinot Noir is a blend of fruit from several different Anderson Valley vineyards, and a large portion consists of fruit from the warmer Boonville end of the valley. The 2010 growing season was cool, and we had later than usual harvest dates, particularly in the “deep end” of the valley where Handley is located. Fortunately, we had a hot spell towards the end of the season, which helped with ripening. The mix of clones in Romani, RSM, and our Estate vineyards provide complexity to the riper Boonville profile. For 10 months, the wine was aged in French oak barrels, only 25% of which were new. The wine is rich and intense with aromas of black cherry, raspberry, and graphite. Flavors of red currant, black cherry, and plum hang on an ample structural backbone. Pair this wine with grilled salmon (alcohol 14.2%, total acidity 0.57 g/L, pH 3.63, cases produced 2406).

Anna Maria’s Notes

This 2010 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir has pronounced Pinot Noir aromas and flavors with a lean and elegant texture, perhaps more typical of its European cousin than most other California Pinots. It’s a versatile wine that you can serve with almost any dish.

Handley Cellars 2012 Chardonnay, Estate Vineyard, Anderson Valley 

Winemaker Milla Handley’s Notes

The 2012 growing season produced the largest berries, clusters, and overall yield in recent history. Our estate fruit came in very clean with little botrytis. The mild, dry fall weather also allowed the fruit to achieve higher sugars than in recent years. Scents of kiwi fruit, guava, pear, apple blossoms, and chamomile flowers mingle with the mineral quality of crushed oyster shell. Flavors of crisp citrus with hints of fresh apricot and apple lie delicately on a sleek structure. Pair with rich seafood dishes or cheeses such as Cana de Cabra or Comte Jura. Serve chilled (alcohol 13.5%, total acidity 7.0 g/100ml, pH 3.30, cases produced 1436).

Anna Maria’s Notes

This 2012 Handley Chardonnay is a most un-Chardonnay Chardonnay in the sense that it’s lean and clean with mineral qualities and crisp fruit flavors most like apple and pear. Serve chilled.

Winemaker Series

Handley Cellars 2011 Pinot Noir RSM Vineyard, Anderson Valley

Winemaker Milla Handley’s Notes

The 2011 vintage was one of the coolest and latest harvests of the last decade. This made ripening fruit a little more difficult in the ‘deep end’ of Anderson Valley, where the winery is located. However, up on the ridge above the winery where the 10 year-old, seven acre RSM vineyard is located, ripening fruit was a little easier. The sugars can jump quickly on this site due to warmer nighttime temperatures, vines which are protected from the wind, and shallow soils with little moisture holding capacity. The wine was aged for 10 months in French oak barrels, one-third new, and selected to impart a stronger impact to match up with this dense, dark mountain fruit. Generous aromas of red plum and boysenberry with additional notes of black pepper, California bay, and red clay minerality. Flavors of tart black berries and cocoa nibs finish with hints of fraises des bois and ample structure. The wine’s concentrated fruit and ample acidity make it perfect for game meats, such as wild boar, turkey, or venison. It is a delectable foil for the richness of duck confit or Boeuf Bourguignon (alcohol 13.2%, total acidity 5.8 g/L, pH 3.78, cases produced 366).

Anna Maria’s Notes

“Dense mountain fruit” describes this wine well. It’s very layered, concentrated, and nuanced and would pair with roasted meat on the wild side if you could find it, but even goat or lamb from your local market.

Handley Cellars 2011 Zinfandel, Vittorio Vineyard, Redwood Valley

Winemaker Milla Handley’s Notes

This very limited release is a new wine for us. The vineyard, located on bench lands just east of the Russian River, is named for Vittorio Testa, an early farmer who planted numerous vineyards around Ukiah and Redwood Valley. It is currently being farmed by the fourth generation of the Test family, his granddaughter Kathryn and her husband Jessie. Vittorio Vineyard is a treasure chest of Italian Varietals, old head pruned vines that are now CCOF certified organically farmed. The wine aged for 10 months in a mix of American and Hungarian barrels, one third new. This wine has aromas of wild blackberry cobbler, star anise, coffee, and a hint of orange peel. In the mouth it presents flavors of red raspberry, boysenberry, marionberry, and cocoa powder. With a supple weight and refined texture, its fruit flavors are focused by bright acidity. The juicy berry fruit of this Zinfandel pairs wonderfully with grilled meats, barbeque sauces, and full-flavored pasta dishes (alcohol 14.2%, total acidity 7.1 g/L, pH 3.54, cases produced 151).

Anna Maria’s Notes

This Handley Zinfandel, made from grapes harvested from the Vittorio Vineyard, is a great foil for most of the Zinfandel in the market place, which usually weighs in at around 15% alcohol and more. But made in the Handley style, the wine portrays actual Zinfandel flavor that a richer and riper Zin could never have. If you really love apples, you wouldn’t want to eat one that is over-ripe, and the same holds true for Zinfandel.

Menu of the Month


Changing Seasons

First Course

Grilled polenta wedges, dusted with freshly grated Parmegian cheese

Main Course

Sausages braised with red grapes


Fresee & argula salad with finely sliced fennel and a lemon-olive oil dressing


Cheese plate with fresh pears

Recipe of the Month

Sausages Braised With Red Grapes

The markets are full of table grapes now, but you have probably never thought to braise them. Nor had I, until I saw this delicious recipe in Umbria, Regional Recipes from the Heartland of Italy, by Julia della Croce. You will be wonderfully surprised by this highly unusual combination of freshly made sweet Italian pork sausages braised with red grapes.


8 sweet Italian pork sausages

½ cup water

¾ pound seedless red grapes, stripped from their stems


Poke a few holes in the sausages before cooking them. Select a heavy-bottomed pan and place on top of the stove, adding the sausages and water, and cooking over medium heat. When the water has evaporated and the sausages have begun to color, after about 12 minutes, add the grapes. Reduce the heat to medium low and continue to cook the sausages, pricking them occasionally to release excess fat, until they are cooked through, and the grapes begin to release some of their juice and soften, about 15 minutes longer. Do not prick sausages too much, or they will dry out. Transfer the sausages and grapes to a large warmed platter, leaving behind any fat, and serve immediately.