Bob Sessions was perfectly tailored for Hanzell Vineyards. Quiet, humble, hardworking and skilled, Sessions became the winemaker at the historic Sonoma winery in 1973 and oversaw winemaking there for 28 vintages until his retirement in 2001. Still winemaker emeritus, he died May 13 in Sonoma at age 82 after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
"With the winemaker’s mind that he had, he was one of the best," said fellow vintner Richard Arrowood. “He was one of the nicest fellows I’ve ever known; he never had a bad word to say about anyone.”
Few winemakers mirrored the wines they produce as much as Sessions. If ever a winery and winemaker were perfectly suited, they were. It was hard to think of one without the other.
Hanzell was the dream of James D. Zellerbach, then U.S. ambassador to Italy, but it was Sessions who kept the dream alive. A fancier of Burgundies, Zellerbach built his winery in 1957 as a replica of Clos de Vougeot in the hills above Sonoma, with a vineyard planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Zellerbach died in 1963, and his wife sold the winery. Sessions arrived in 1973, two years before Barbara de Brye bought the property. De Brye and her son, who inherited the winery, lived abroad, and though they kept the estate immaculate, precious little changed, even after Sessions arrived. Visiting the winery was like stepping into a time warp and landing in the 1960s.
Sessions resisted technological innovation like a monk in a cloistered monastery. He felt bound by Hanzell's traditions and honored them, leaving a library of great wines most winemakers could only dream of. In the 1980s, the owners decided to experiment with Cabernet Sauvignon, and for a decade Sessions did. It was made in a similar style to Hanzell’s Chardonnays and Pinots, trim and tight upon release, built to age. But it never achieved the same notoriety.
"He had one of the toughest jobs in the entire world—taking over the legacy of a winery such as Hanzell," said Joel Peterson. “Bob was inheritor of the Hanzell legacy, and he didn’t feel like he could change anything, but he was fine with that. He wasn’t able to expand until the very end, when [Hanzell] expanded the vineyards."
Because Hanzell's Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, particularly those from the 1960s through the 1970s, aged so incredibly well, Sessions never wanted to deviate from the recipe. (The wines were picked very ripe and were high in alcohol for the era. Chardonnay was fermented in stainless steel before going to barrel; both wines were filtered.) Repeatedly, they proved to be relentlessly long agers, the kinds of wines that gained appreciably in the bottle and refused to die.
"Bob had an astonishing but low-key career," said Williams-Selyem winemaker Bob Cabral. "He was not high profile, but he was doing things back then that many still aspire to today."
With no formal education in winemaking, Sessions began working in the cellars of Mayacamas Vineyards from 1965 to 1971, labored alongside Lee Stewart at Souverain and had a short stint at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. Brad Webb, Hanzell’s first winemaker, chose Sessions to take over in 1973.
Sessions adopted the Hanzell style of producing wines that would rival those of Burgundy. He was a pioneer in stainless steel fermentors and the use of French oak barrels for aging. However, the oak treatments were always minimal, and Sessions was content to let the vineyard do the talking for the wines. The Pinots were well structured, firmly tannic and built to age. The Chardonnays likewise were bold, deeply nuanced and rewarded time in the cellar.
Sessions is survived by his wife, Jean Arnold Sessions, president of Hanzell, and two children.
—Additional reporting by Aaron Romano.