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The Pioneer Queen of Anderson Valley Pinot

Tasting old vintages of Pinot with Milla Handley, one of Anderson Valley's originals
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 16, 2012 11:00am ET

Milla Handley was making Pinot Noir in the Anderson Valley before it was cool to be there. She has championed that remote valley in Mendocino County since launching Handley Cellars in 1982, back when winemaking there was just taking baby steps.

"In the old days, we were using old dairy tanks for fermenters," Handley said. "And we weren't sure we could get still wine grapes ripe or not."

Things change in 30 years. Anderson Valley has matured and is now considered one of California's best spots for Pinot Noir. Handley recently marked her three decades in the business by opening a few older wines from her extensive cellar.

Handley uncorked about a dozen wines, the oldest being a 1993. The wines in general were holding up well, and it was clear that her winemaking style has evolved over the years, in part because she has access to newer and better vineyards and more expressive clones such as Dijon and Pommard.

While the more recently released wines are a bit riper, they remain more elegant and crisp than most of the Pinots made by Handley's neighbors. She and her co-winemaker Kristen Barnhisel also prefer a light touch with French oak. "We don't ever want to stomp the fruit with oak," Barnhisel said.

Having a library of older Pinots, Handley said, has been invaluable when it comes to learning how to make better wines. "You really don't know [how they age]," she said, "until you've drunk the same vintage for years."

Below are my favorite wines from the tasting. The wines were all tasted non-blind and are rated on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.

Handley Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 1993 Score: 91
Beautifully floral, with a brickish-red hue and flavors that are soft and extremely delicate, including crisp cherry, herb and tea. Faded quickly in the glass.

Handley Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 1997 Score: 92
Still youthful, with just a hint of brick in the red, plus dark cherry aromas and tea and mineral flavors. Has a silky texture, and some tannins remain.

Handley Pinot Noir Anderson Valley 2000 Score: 92
Offers floral strawberry and cherry aromas and retains a supple, rich, minerally texture plus a hint of vanilla toast.

Handley Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Reserve 2004 Score: 90
Sweet cherry blossom aromas lead to rich and still-dense fruit. The flavors are ripe and focused, with accents of caramel and spice.

Handley Pinot Noir Anderson Valley RSM Vineyard 2009 Score: 90
Bold aromas of cherry blossom and earthy minerals, with rich and layered flavors that take on density and tannin toward the finish.

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento , CA —  May 16, 2012 4:12pm ET
Funny.. I just won a 2006 Handley Pinot in a ring toss at my daughters preschool fundraising auction (I was aiming for the Paul Hobbs chard behind it but missed). It was not well scored in the magazine but based upon your description of the wineries style I am excited to drink it! Thanks!
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  May 17, 2012 4:15pm ET
Interesting, I stopped by Handley I believe in 1999 on my way to Roederer (headed east from the coast) and tasted through some wines with one of the family members, perhaps Milla's son. I especially recall tasting the Chardonnay which was indeed a lean Burgundian style with a distinct new oak character. I was very surprised to learn that it was aged in 100% new French oak barrels. How times change.

Lora Pallatto
San Francisco, CA —  May 21, 2012 2:30pm ET
Why are you rating these Handley Pinot vintages 90+ in retrospect when Wine Spectator has never rated any Handley vintage higher than the 88 points the magazine granted to the 2005 and 2006 vintages? It doesn't seem very consistent. Why would they seem better in retrospect than when they were initially tasted and scored? Can we expect than the 90 rating given to the 2009 vintage will hold when it comes time to do the blind tasting?

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