Handley Cellars

Searching for Balance in Life, in the Vineyard, in the Glass

Handley Cellars

Milla Handley’s voice has a melodic soprano ring, enthusiast at some moments, reflective at others. As though affectionately describing unruly children, she precedes expressions of disapproval with a mischievous “bless their little hearts,” whether she is talking about uncooperative adults or recalcitrant grapes. But beneath her ingénue exterior, exists unmistakable brawn. In 1975, Milla Handley was one of only three women in a class of 30 to graduate from the fermentation science program at the University of California, Davis, and soon after she became assistant winemaker at Chateau St. Jean, also a man’s world then. “Young women have no idea what working conditions were like for women at that time,” she says. During the first trimester of her pregnancy, she worked 120 hours a week for four weeks during harvest. Staying home with a sick child was not an option. One of the reasons that she developed her own winery in 1982 in her home basement was to eliminate some of the child care issues that she experienced working for others. Fortunately, her husband and father were both supportive, she says, but integrating work and raising children is a complicated dance. On the same day that she gave birth to her second child, she remembers that she and her husband were making decisions about the winery. But Milla resolved problems and make good decisions, perhaps because she knew who she was and what she wanted. “Figure out why you’re not happy and fix it.”

Milla’s attitudes toward humans and fruit are similar. She feels that both have innate essences, which should be respected. From the time that she was “in single digits,” she knew that she preferred country living. The driveway to her home in Mendocino County’s remote Anderson Valley is a half mile long. She has devoted her winemaking career to Pinot Noir because that grape varietal thrives in the cool temperatures of Anderson Valley. “You have to listen to the grapes, not force them to be something they’re not. It’s like mothering, bringing out the best. You give them guidance. But if you’re making something that the grapes really didn’t want to be, it’s going to show.” And further she says, “You can’t make fruit from one region taste like fruit from another. The wine will be a knock-off just like a purse. Why would you want to do that?”

Yet winemakers can hardly be faulted for trying to please consumers, and consumers in the middle are still reaching for big, high-alcohol wines. Instead, Milla focuses on the grapes and makes wines that present varietal character. “You don’t want to be forcing the wine somewhere.” Pinot Noir is naturally light in color, and in order to express its characteristic aromas and smooth fruity and spicy flavors, it should be picked before it becomes overly ripe, which reduces the alcohol content that some people expect. Milla hired assistant winemaker Kristen Barnhisel because, when she asked Kristen to describe great Pinot Noir, Kristen responded that the wine should be perfumed and that it should taste of red, blue, and black fruit. Other applicants stated that the wine should taste like dark fruit without understanding that the finest expression of Pinot Noir does not resemble Syrah in either color or flavor.

In 1981 when Scharffenberger purchased property in Anderson Valley for sparkling wine production, followed by the famous Champagne house Louis Roederer a year later, the world took notice of this small, obscure coastal valley. Champagne is made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which then began to proliferate there. Transforming the grapes into sparkling wine requires that they be high in acid and ripen to lower sugar levels, because later more sugar will be added to the wine to stimulate a second fermentation that creates the bubbles. Because Anderson Valley was one of the coolest wine regions in California, it was ideally suited to Champagne grapes. During the growing season, day and night temperatures can fluctuate as much as 60 degrees.

But apart from sparkling wine, Pinot Noir made as a still wine reaches its highest expression only in cooler regions like Burgundy, France, where it is indigenous. California winemakers experimented for decades before finding suitable places to plant it. They complain that the grape varietal is challenging to grow and make into wine, but Anderson Valley growers had a head-start on the learning curve, cultivating Pinot Noir long before it enjoyed the appeal that it has now. More recently, other high profile producers have moved there, adding to the valley’s renown. In order to produce world class Pinot Noir, Dan Duckhorn from Napa developed Goldeneye, and Ferrari-Carano owners purchased Lazy Creek. Today around 70 wineries occupy the Valley, most of them dedicated to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay although Gewurztraminer and Riesling have always been staples in Anderson Valley. Pinot Gris thrives there as well. “You have to make wine that works in your region,” Milla says. “Our region is too cool to grow everything and even dictates wine styles.”

From her student days at U.C. Davis, Milla remembers a class taught by famed Professor Maynard Amerine. The subject was sensory analysis and Pinot Noir specifically. Amerine remarked that a good wine should have a “come-hither” quality, because it should invite the drinker to return for more. The wine shouldn’t “wow” the drinker initially, and then remain the same with each successive sip “that Texas thing,” Milla says. “The wine should give you more as it goes along, kind of a tease, not all up front. I try to keep that in mind.” In order to create the complexity and nuances of flavor that Amerine was describing, Milla blends fruit from different areas, different soil types, different clones, and different climates from her own 28-acre estate but also from other Anderson Valley vineyards, and sometimes from different appellations. And to obtain the complexity that she aims for, she prefers a range of ripeness. “I don’t want raisins and prunes, dehydrated and cooked flavors, and I don’t want green, hard flavors. I want to be in the mid range.” Balance is the goal.

But without balance in the vineyard, balancing wine becomes difficult. Milla farms her estate organically because she feels that organic practice keeps the grower “honest.” Since farmers can’t apply quick-fix toxins to threats that appear in vineyards, they need to prevent problems by slowly building soils and balancing vines. In other words, they need to be very careful farmers. She feels that organic grapes are not necessarily better tasting than those produced by conventional farming. “Many non-organic farmers use good practices.” But when a problem occurs, mildew for example, the organic farmer can apply only topical sprays, not systemic ones “like antibiotics that go through your entire bloodstream.” So if contact sprays are the only permitted remedies, fruit needs to be thinned so that clusters don’t overlap and either court mold or hide surfaces that might require sprays. In a cold year such as this one, thinning also regulates ripening. The vine produces sugar, which migrates to the fruit. So the less fruit that a vine must ripen, the greater the chance that the fruit will ripen properly. Yet thinning is the hardest task for farmers. Fruit represents money, and when farmers drop fruit, they literally throw away money. The task is difficult even for workers because they are paid more to pick fruit than to drop it. Even doing the job evenly without ignoring certain bunches is difficult, so the job might require two or three passes.

Thinning fruit so that it is properly exposed to sunlight and air circulation is vital but also directly related to quality. “A healthy vine is always going to produce more fruit than it can ripen,” Milla explains. And in a cool year dropping fruit is crucial. Anticipating weather becomes an art form. “Everyone looks at satellites, TV weather, three days out, seven days out. Some people are very good at predictions, but no one’s going to always get it right. We have a dial-the-weather for Mendocino County agriculture on Fox News. But he’s a little excitable. His long range forecast is better than his three-day one.” Programmed with information from various sources, including their own intuitions, farmers develop a sense for what the weather will provide in any given growing season, and if they’re prepared and perceptive, they properly adjust farming practices to accommodate nature.

California Wines of the Month

Artisan Series

Handley Cellars – 2007 Pinot Noir, Mendocino County

Milla Handley’s Notes

Thirty percent of the fruit for our Mendocino County Pinot Noir came from Iron Oak Vineyard in Potter Valley, and inland valley that characteristically produces Pinot Noir with mid-palate texture, soft tannins, and red fruit flavors. The remaining 70% was sourced from various Anderson Valley vineyards, all situated in different areas and as much as 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the one in Potter Valley. The Mendocino Pinot Noir is a fruit-forward wine that is multi-layered. It shows aromas of blackberry and dark plum in addition to nuances of dried cherry, blueberry, cinnamon, and vanilla. Cherry flavors continue with hints of raspberry and a suggestion of toast. After aging for nine months in French oak barrels, the wine developed a smooth texture that carries the flavor into a long finish. This wine is versatile for food pairing. It has a special affinity for caramelized flavors, such as crisp herb-roasted potatoes and root vegetables, roast leg of lamb with rosemary and garlic, grilled teriyaki beef or chicken, and Bolognese style lasagna (alcohol 14.2%, brix 23.8, pH 3.55).

Anna Maria’s Notes

If you gaze into your glass, you’ll see through the wine to your fingers, holding the stem. This is typical color for Pinot Noir. Everything else about the wine is also true to the character of the grape, the pronounced perfume, graceful flavors, and smooth texture. The wine opens up further in the glass if you have the patience to leave it there for a few minutes before tasting. Enjoy.

Handley Cellars – 2009 Pinot Gris, Anderson Valley

Milla Handley’s Notes

One hundred percent Pinot Gris, most of the fruit for this blend comes from the warmer end of Anderson Valley near Boonville, which tended to promote more tropical flavors, while the Romani and Narrows vineyards in the Deep End offered more delicate floral and mineral qualities. Our 2009 Pinot Gris explodes out of the glass with aromas of lemongrass, orange blossom, honeysuckle, and white peach, while the flavors follow through with pear, melon and cucumber. The texture is creamy and the finish long and spicy. This is a very versatile food wine. Enjoy it with a variety of dishes, including cheeses, roasted fennel, asparagus risotto, chicken or seafood (alcohol 14.5%, brix 24.4, pH 3.36).

Anna Maria’s Notes

The Handley Pinot Gris is a field of flowers and spice in the glass with an acid zing like sparkling wine. It’s truly delicious, and one of the best that I’ve tasted from California. The wine will stop conversation around your holiday table. Serve chilled with appetizers and first courses, and with main courses of poultry and fish.

Winemaker Series

Handley Cellars – 2006 Holmes Ranch Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley

Milla Handley’s Notes

In 2006, we discovered a few vineyard lots that we felt were special and would allow us to highlight and recognize the Holmes Ranch where Handley Cellars is located. In addition to our estate grapes, we blended those of Romani Vineyard just behind Handley Cellars, and grapes from the hillside vineyard RSM. The result is a bright wine from start to finish. Bing cherry, red plum, and rose petal aromas lead into dried cherry, tea leaf, and a hint of dark chocolate. Aged for nine months in 39% new French oak barrels, the wine has a texture that is both silky smooth and substantial with a graceful and lingering finish. This Holmes Ranch Pinot Noir has an affinity for smoky and grilled dishes, such as slow cooked pork tinga (the mild Mexican version), rib eye steaks, simple grilled salmon, roast quail with dried cherry glaze, and tomato-based pasta dishes (alcohol 14%, brix 23.7, pH 3.70).

Anna Maria’s Notes

This Holmes Ranch Pinot Noir shows the unique stamp of cool-climate Anderson Valley. The wine displays lighter color, a full bouquet of Pinot Noir perfume, layered flavors, and fine texture, all of which will draw you back for more… and more. Serve at cool room temperature.

Handley Cellars – 2007 Kazmet Vineyard Syrah, Redwood Valley

Milla Handley’s Notes

The fruit for this wine came from the Redwood Valley, a small, warm inland valley north of Ukiah, first settled by Italian immigrants in the 1850s. Its warm climate and well-drained soils are suited or growing Syrah and Zinfandel. This vintage of our Kazmet Vineyard Syrah provides an intriguing combination of aromas and flavors. While the nose is filled with blueberry, raspberry, violets, and spice, the mouth explodes with blackberry, black raspberry, strawberry, cocoa, anise, and a long silky finish. The deep fruit flavors and balanced acidity of this Syrah make it especially enjoyable with Indian spiced meats or duck confit (alcohol 14.2%, brix 24.6, pH 3.48).

Anna Maria’s Notes

The worst that Milla Handley might say about a Pinot Noir is that it is Syrah-like, in other words inky and heavy, not in character with how the grape wants to express itself. Her Kazmet Syrah, though, is Pinot-like, and I mean that as high praise. The wine is very elegant, medium bodied but carries a wallop of spicy, peppery flavor, not unlike the French version from the Rhone region, the varietal’s place of origin. This might be the first California Syrah that you’ve tasted in this particular style. You’ll love it.

Menu of the Month


Holiday Supper for Six

First Course

Rice & sweet pea soup

Main Course

Roasted pork loin with herbs, served with roasted apples and red onions
Braised Swiss chard with pine nuts


Organic red lettuce, apple slices, & red onions with seasoned rice vinegar,
garlic, & olive oil dressing


Holiday Log Cake with nuts, dates, & spice filling

Recipe of the Month

Roasted pork loin with herbs

Pork loin is a lean, mild tasting meat, but butterflied and rolled with herbs, garlic, and mustard, it radiates delicious flavors. The roast is easy to slice and serve and is elegantly festive with its internal ring of herbs. We’ve adapted the following recipe from Cristina of Sun Valley, a collection of recipes that Cristina Ceccatelli Cook uses in her restaurant in Sun Valley, Idaho. We wish you and your families Happy Holidays. Enjoy!


2.5 pound boneless pork loin

¼ cup Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

6 sprigs fresh rosemary

6 sprigs fresh sage

6 cloves garlic

Extra virgin olive oil

Salt to taste

3 apples halved and cored

6 red onions halved

½ cup apple cider


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Ask your butcher to butterfly the pork loin. If you do it yourself, keep the flat side of the knife parallel to the cutting board and cut through the loin, unrolling it into a 1-inch thick rectangular slab. Rub with half the mustard and half the fennel seeds and scatter 3 sprigs of rosemary needles, 3 sprigs of sage, and sliced garlic from 3 cloves. Add salt and drizzle with olive oil. Roll into a long round and tie with kitchen string. With a sharp knife, make 6 to 7 small incisions in the meat. Insert a sliver of garlic, a few rosemary needles, part of a sage leaf, and salt. Push into the hole with your fingers. Rub the surface of the meat with the remaining mustard, fennel seeds, and salt. Place in a roasting pan with apples, onions, and remaining rosemary and sage. Roast for 30 minutes. Then add apple cider to the pan and cook until the inside temperature reaches 135 degrees F. for rare. Remove the loin from the oven and let stand 8 to 10 minutes before slicing, adding more cider if needed. Slice the pork thinly and serve with the apples, onions, and juices from the pan. Serves 6.