California Chardonnay may be ubiquitous now, but there was a time when James Zellerbach’s urge to plant Burgundian varietals in Sonoma County was pretty wacky. At the time--1953--there were less than a few hundred acres of each in the state, and Sonoma County was still trying to find its identity. His success with Hanzell Winery was a sea change for the region, especially once Joseph Swann and Joe Rocchioli followed suit. Twenty three years later, a California Chardonnay was winning gold in the infamous Judgement of Paris!
Hanzell has been a pioneer for 60+ years, with innovations like the first stainless steel fermentation tanks. These days, winemaker Michael McNeill is at the helm, channeling their creative spirit to the vineyard. In the last ten years he’s taken their farming from entirely conventional to biodynamic. Instead of using fertilizers and herbicides, he methodically moves a herd of sheep, pigs, chickens, geese, and dogs through the vines so they do their thing--grazing and pooping--while helping soil biology. “Feels better to be out there,” he says. “You can see the biodiversity in the vineyard.”
McNeill came to wine the old-fashioned way, by completely geeking out over it. He had a chemistry degree and, at a wine tasting in the Sierra Foothills, he discovered a home winemaking shop in Sacramento. He thought, “Oh my god, this is the perfect hobby for me,” and bought the booklet. But it turned out to actually be a career epiphany. (And no, he never ended up making wine at home.) He soon found himself working at Chalone and developing a serious passion for Pinot. It wasn’t until he landed at Hanzell that he really fell in love with Chardonnay--especially the energy of the grape.
This Thursday, you can taste that 30-year love affair with these two grapes. McNeill will be pouring the 2014 “Estate” Chardonnay--made in the classic style that put Hanzell on the map--as well as the 2015 “Sebella” Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “Sebella” is his pet project, in a fresh, vibrant style that he loves. All three wines come from drought vintages, and there’s serious concentration there. But, then again, the Hanzell site is one where Pinot and Chardonnay can’t help but do a happy dance. It’s nestled in the Mayacamas above the town of Sonoma, with a cooling wind careening over the Petaluma gap. Their slopes of old vines face west, south, and east--about 270 degrees of exposure, bestowing a deep complexity of flavor to these classic California wines. Come on out on Thursday and we bet you’ll be doing your happy dance, too.
Thursday, April 26, 5:30 to 7:00 PM $5
Click here to find Hanzell wines at K&L.
- Kate Soto