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Bob Sessions Had Something to Show

He always looked forward to the next vertical of old Hanzell wines
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: May 16, 2014 11:50am ET

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.

Kerry Winslow
San Francisco, California, USA —  May 16, 2014 12:59pm ET
Hey James,
I have been lucky enough to taste early 70's Hanzell Chards, but only got to meet Bob in passing. His wines still are etched in my memories, some of the first old vintage California Chards that performed on par with some of the Burgundian masters, Bob certainly will be missed.

Tim Mc Donald
Napa, CA USA —  May 16, 2014 1:48pm ET
What a great tribute to an original and authentic wine man Jim. I was lucky to have tasted many an "older" wine that Bob made...and every time it was a WOW. He was kind, smart, and always looking forward to the next vintage and sharing them with Hanzell fans. His wines were one of a kind and always special for me. Cheers to Mr Bob Sessions!
David Gunkle
Apex, NC, USA —  May 18, 2014 1:48pm ET

Although many Cali Chardonnays are ageworthy wouldn't harvesting at lower sugar levels, thereby preserving higher acidity, only increase the life spans of these wines. Wouldn't this drive sales for those looking to stock their cellars? Could California experience this trend among more reputable producers?
Steve Balmuth
Dana Point, CA, USA —  May 18, 2014 4:45pm ET
Besides the great wines Bob made at Hanzell, his 1968 Mayacamas Late Harvest Zin was probably the first Late Harvest designated wine ever produced.

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