Profiles in Pinot Noir: Hanzell

Sep 23, 2003
Winemaker Bob Sessions refined Hanzell's style until his retirement in 2001.
In Pursuit of Pinot Noir
After decades of struggle, American vintners are finding success with this difficult variety
Williams Selyem
Domaine Drouhin
Pinot Noir: Today
Pinot Noir Tasting Report
Santa Barbara's New Frontier
Santa Rita Hills is making its presence known with cool-climate Pinot Noirs

Zellerbach built Hanzell, his Sonoma winery, to look like Burgundy's medieval Clos de Vougeot. On a chilly April morning, Bob Sessions stands in the shadow of the winery, fingering a small ledger. Its pages list Hanzell harvest dates and tonnages for every lot in every vintage up to the present. Most of the entries are in Sessions' handwriting, as he was the winemaker from 1973 until he retired in 2001.

On the first page, under the heading "1965," the careful script of Hanzell's original winemaker, Brad Webb, notes that sources for the winery's first commercial Pinot Noir included the home vineyard, which spills down the hill from the winery, and several other growers, including Louis Martini.

That 1965, tasted recently at the winery, still has freshness and clear Pinot Noir character, tasting of cherry at the core, its rich texture becoming richer with air. It has plenty of life and depth, mineral and earthy overtones, and sweet leather and spice notes as the flavors linger. It has the sense of the ethereal that distinguishes great Pinots.

It's all the more impressive because Webb was, essentially, working in the dark. He had no models, no consistently successful California Pinot Noirs to emulate. But he was among the first in California to realize that Pinot Noir could not be made using the techniques that turned out good Cabernet or Zinfandel.

From the beginning, Hanzell innovated, using California's first temperature-controlled, stainless steel fermentation tanks, small French oak barrels, controlled malolactic fermentations and a bottling system that used nitrogen to prevent oxidation.

"They were trying to duplicate Burgundy," says Sessions. "Brad went to Burgundy several times to see how they did it, and tried to do the same here."

Sessions looks younger than his 72 years. He's trim and moves easily, and his shock of wavy hair is not entirely gray. He speaks with some hesitation, like a shy man who has learned to overcome a natural reticence. His wines have the same reserved personality, but they reveal a snap and a freshness with aeration.

In his 29 vintages at Hanzell, Sessions says he carefully built on Webb's success, letting the style evolve as new portions of the estate were planted, an eventual 14.5 acres spread over several distinct hillsides and exposures. Over the years, the style became more, well, Burgundian, a reflection of what was happening generally in California Pinot Noir circles. The wines of the 1990s show more silkiness and offer more charming fruit character on top of their distinctive earthiness.

"That's when the de Brye vineyard [named after the family that has owned the property since 1975] started to dominate," Sessions notes. "It adds a pure cassis flavor."

Like many pioneers, Sessions came to winemaking through the back door. He never got a degree in enology from University of California, Davis, or anywhere else, but thrived in contact with some of the biggest names in California at the time. He started out helping at Mayacamas Vineyards on breaks from his job as a cook in San Francisco. Soon he was managing operations at Mayacamas, and after a year of working with Lee Stewart at Souverain of Napa, he went to the then-fledgling Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. In 1973, Webb chose Sessions to take over at Hanzell.

At that point, Sessions had never made Pinot Noir. Today, it would take more impressive credentials to be hired as winemaker for a serious California winery, but over the years, Sessions made some great wines. In a way, that's a perfect reflection of how far New World Pinot Noir has come. Step by step, unconventional thinkers have moved the story ahead.

United States California Red Wines Pinot Noir