When the "food wine" craze hit California in the early 1980s, many vintners talked about changing their style. But there were two winemakers I knew wouldn't.
One was Joe Heitz. Bob Sessions, who died earlier this week at age 82, was the other. Both took a dim view of the new direction. Food wines—made by harvesting grapes at lower sugar levels, with higher acidity—were merely a passing fad in their minds. Grapes picked early had plenty of zip, yet lacked sufficient flavor and body, and neither winemaker had any intention of scrapping their style. They expected food wines would fizzle, and they did.
When I first interviewed Sessions in the early 1980s, we talked for a while and he invited me to the winery to taste a vertical of his Hanzell wines, both the Chardonnay and the Pinot Noir, both of which shared a level of ripeness near the top of the scale at that time. I think the Chardonnay came in between 13.5 and 14.5, and the Pinot might have been a tick higher. Both wines performed exactly the way one would hope, gaining depth and nuance with time. The Chardonnay wasn't really Burgundian. It didn't undergo malolactic, nor barrel fermentation. But because the Chardonnay didn't go through ML, which gives wines a creamier texture, it gained with time like no other in California.
The tasting was awe-inspiring, the kind of event one wishes everyone could experience. At the time, many collectors questioned whether California wines would age well, and that was an albatross for the industry for some time. Too bad those espousing such nonsense hadn't been there that day Bob and I tasted all the wines, dating to the originals of 1957 and 1959. I later leaned that two of Hanzell's Chardonnay vintages when the winery was in limbo (1961 and 1962) had been purchased by Heitz, who slapped his own label on the bottles and enjoyed the accolades the wines deserved.
Tasting Hanzell verticals became an occasional activity. Bob, with his sense of humor, would quip, "Well, maybe we ought to taste through the wines again next year just to make sure we didn't miss anything."
And so it went. Often, before Hanzell's board of directors would meet, Bob would invite me over the day before to taste through the wines, always blind. Hanzell had a deep cellar and few wines were off limits. I never said no.
We would marvel at how the older wines were holding up beautifully, and you could tell when some of the new vintages didn't have what the older wines did. Sessions studied his wines objectively, finding fault with some, but usually the wines were amazing. He was the ultimate caretaker, a minimalist content to steward the grapes from the vineyard to bottle with as little interference as possible. On the times when we tasted all the wines, he too would be in awe, not of himself or his winemaking, but of the vineyard and the site and the wines they yielded. There was no one like him or his wines.