Updated Aug. 5, 5:39 pm
Milla Handley, one of Anderson Valley's wine pioneers and the founder of Handley Cellars, died July 25 from complications due to COVID-19. She was 68.
Handley was more than just a visionary for the remote and rural Anderson Valley, which she helped put on the map. She was a trailblazer for women interested in wine. In 1975, Handley became one of the first female graduates in fermentation science from the University of California at Davis. In 1982, she became the first woman winemaker in the United States to establish a namesake winery.
"My mother was someone who fearlessly walked her own path," said Milla Louisa "Lulu" McClellan, Handley's daughter and Handley Cellars' current president, in a statement. "She was passionate about making wine and working for herself, and never thought of herself as unusual or brave for pursuing these things at a time when it was rare to see women in these roles."
Born Aug. 17, 1951, in San Francisco, Handley studied everything from art to veterinary sciences while at U.C. Davis before pivoting to fermentation science. After graduating, she worked with Richard Arrowood at Chateau St. Jean. In 1978, she took the assistant winemaker position under Jed Steele at Edmeades in Mendocino County. She and her husband, Rex Scott McClellan, decided to put down roots there in the uncharted winemaking region of Anderson Valley, where she founded Handley Cellars.
Captivated by the valley's potential, Handley was drawn to the northwest corner of the region, or what the locals call the "deep end," where the valley narrows and follows the Navarro River to the Pacific Ocean. In 1986 she began planting her first vineyard, now 28 acres.
The cool locale proved ideal for growing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer, but at the time it was untested, known primarily for sparkling wines. "We weren't sure we could get still wine grapes ripe or not," Handley told Wine Spectator in a 2012 interview. "In the old days, we were using dairy tanks for fermentors."
When Handley founded her winery in 1982, the same year Anderson Valley was granted AVA status, there were just six wineries and less than 600 acres planted. She quickly became a pillar of the community. "She was one of the most community-minded people I've ever met," said Kristy Charles, proprietor of Foursight. "One of Milla's main goals at our wine events was to use the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association to support local chefs, caterers, businesses and charities, as operating in such a rural area can be challenging."
Stay on top of important wine stories with Wine Spectator's free Breaking News Alerts.
Handley was a dedicated land steward, and in 2005, her estate vineyard became the first California Certified Organic vineyard in Anderson Valley. She influenced generations of local vintners while promoting Anderson Valley as one of California's most dynamic wine regions. Charles said she is indebted to Handley for helping crush Foursight's first vintage at her winery. "She was generous to all, and will be very much missed by our community."
"I spent a lot of time with her on roadshows, trying to bang the drum about Anderson Valley while on a shoestring budget," recalled Zach Rasmuson, COO for the Duckhorn Portfolio, who spent 14 years living in the region during the late 1990s and early 2000s. "She embodied the free-spirited nature of Anderson Valley," he said, citing her overwhelming kindness and generosity. "A lot of the success achieved here is due in part to her vision."
Handley stepped back from her winemaking duties in 2017, handing the reins over to Handley's long-time co-winemaker, Randy Schock. Handley's daughter, Lulu McClellan, took over the role of president and national sales manager for the 12,000-case winery in 2015.
Handley is survived by her two daughters, Lulu and Megan Handley Warren, and her sister, Julie Handley. "I can only hope to honor her legacy by continuing Handley Cellars' ethos to make wines of place, and to support the community of Anderson Valley," said Lulu.