Napa, Sonoma, and Hanzell: History in a Glass

A few of us buyers recently embarked on an overnight trip through Napa and Sonoma Valley to check the pulse on wineries as spring dawns on North Coast wine country. Our trip took us through Napa Valley one day and Sonoma County the next.

We walked sacred vineyards in the heart of Napa Valley, and we heard amazing tales of heroism saving wines during the horrific fires of 2017 in both counties. While everyone we visited had their share in the history of American winemaking, the outstanding highlight of the trip for me was our last visit, to the legendary Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma.

For all the innovations and new faces that have sprung up over the past decade, I maintain a fondness for the venerable estates that have turned out world-class wines from world-class vineyards for longer than I’ve been in the trade. Hanzell Vineyards is truly one of the most historical properties in all Sonoma County and a pioneer in American viticulture.   

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Founded in 1953 by Ambassador James D. Zellarbach, Hanzell has since been quietly producing some of California’s finest wines. Under the supervision of famed winemaker Bob Sessions, who took over in 1973, the reputation of the wines gradually grew, becoming even more highly regarded.

Peering out over the valley from its perch high atop the western flanks of the Mayacamas Mountains, the view basically remains the same since its founding in 1953. Sure, there are more homes and highways down below, but up here, the mountain lions and rattlesnakes still roam the hills and the hawks continue to patrol the skies.

The first part of our tour had us gazing across Sonoma Valley as we toured their old-vine vineyards. The emphasis here is on farming and maintaining the integrity of the land. Across their 46 acres of vineyards, they deploy a menagerie of wildlife, all playing a role in maintaining the health of the land. Sheep, pigs, geese, dogs, cats, and more all roam the property doing their job to sustain the biome.  

One of the more intriguing techniques was the “mobile” chicken coop. A long and narrow cage is moved up and down the vineyard rows each day so that the chickens can eat pests and fertilize the soil while their talons aerate the soil. Collectively, these practices allow Hanzell to significantly reduce the carbon footprint of the winery.

Most importantly, the wines are stellar. The Hanzell lineup includes an estate-bottled Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as well as the two “Sebella” bottlings that are crafted from younger estate vines along with fruit sourced from a few select growers. The Sebella series can be enjoyed young or aged for several years. The estate wines beg for a few winters in your wine locker.

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The flagship wines are the estate vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Both of these wines were inspired by the time Mr. Zellerbach spent in Burgundy, yet both represent the pinnacle of California winemaking.

The fruit for the Chardonnay is sourced from four different blocks with an average vine age of 35 years.  In their quest to keep the wine fresh, vibrant and ageworthy, 75% is fermented in stainless steel while only 25% of the wine is barrel-fermented. In order to capture the contrast, only the barrel-fermented wine goes through malolactic-fermentation. All of the wine is then aged one year in 60-gallon French oak barrels.

The Pinot Noir is sourced from two estate vineyards including the prized “Sessions and Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard.” They use 10% whole-cluster fermentation and age the wine for 18 months in two-thirds new 60-gallon French oak barrels. The result reminds me of a hypothetical blend of Chambolle-Musigny and Morey-St.-Denis; perhaps the Bonnes-Mares of Sonoma!

The finished wines stands amongst the finest wines made in California. The current release is the 2014 vintage. We savored our pour as we looked out over the stunning hillsides below the partially cloudy afternoon.

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I’m proud to be part of the domestic wine buying team for K&L. While I’m incredibly excited by the emergence of a whole new breed of winemakers, I’m still totally in love with the classics. This is arguably the greatest time in history to be drinking wine from the great state of California.

- Kaj Stromer  

On the Trail