High above the Sonoma Valley on the western side of the Mayacamus Mountains is the Hanzell Winery. Since 1957 the winery has been making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. James Zellerbach of Crown Zellerbach, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Italy (1957-1960), founded the winery. The winery is a gem in the Sonoma Valley in more ways than one. We recently had a wonderful tour and tasting at this winery, courtesy of our wine friend who has been a Hanzell wine club member since 1986.
Over the years, I had been to most of the wineries in Sonoma Valley, but not this one. I have to say it is one of the most breathtaking wineries in the area. I was impressed by the view, the treatment of both the land and the winery’s employees, and the delicious Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines. The winery is not for everyone. The wines are at the upper end of the scale and limited in quantity. For wine country travelers who wish to visit this magnificent winery, it is open by appointment. To taste and tour, the fee is $45 per person.
Our tour guide was Zakk Murphy and he did a great job taking us around the vineyards in an SUV. We then walked through the cellars and the cave, followed by our tasting in a separate room. I always appreciate a wine tour much more when the tour guide is enthusiastic and passionate about the winery. Among many things we learned from Zakk: The winery’s first vintage was 1957. The two winemakers at the time were very scientific and inventive. They developed, and were the first to use, temperature controlled stainless steel fermenting tanks. They were also the first to use an inert gas to prevent oxidation. Today this method is universally used. James Zellerbach was a Burgundy aficionado. He insisted that Hanzell use French oak barrels to age the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Hanzell was the first winery in California to adopt the French oak barrel for aging.
Sustainability is the operative word in the vineyards and the cellars. As we drove the vineyards, we spotted a small growth of tall Redwood trees surrounded by vineyards. Those trees have been preserved because they are the home to many Red-Tailed Hawks, and those birds of prey keep the rodent population in check. Cover crops grow in between the rows of vines, and are now in the process of being plowed under. There are several plots of vineyards and each one is named after one of the winery’s significant employees, past and present. Sadly, one of the great winemakers of California, Bob Sessions, recently passed away. He was the longest tenured winemaker at Hanzell. His memory lives on from the wines made from the Sessions Vineyard.
James Zellerback named his winery Hanzell, combining the first name of his wife Hana and their last name, Zellerback. Following James Zellarback’s death in 1963, his wife sold the property and wine cellars and moved back to San Francisco. A little bit of winemaking trivia: She sold the Hanzell wine in tanks and aging barrels to Joe Heitz who used that wine juice for his first vintages in the Napa Valley. The current owner is Alex de Brye, who at the age of 16 inherited the winery from his mother Barbara. He is now 39 years old and lives in London. He visits the winery each summer with his family for an extended period of time.
At the tasting we sat down and tasted the three currently-released wines. The first wine was the Sebella Chardonnay 2012 ($36).This is their highest-production wine, 3500 cases bottled. It is a fresh tasting Chardonnay with a great mouth feel. No malolactic fermentation and some neutral oak barrels make this wine particularly appealing as an aperitif. The 2011 Hanzell Vineyard Chardonnay ($78) had depth and complexity. This deep tasting wine might even pair well with a juicy steak from the grill. It is a wine to savor and ponder with each sip. A very elegant wine. The 2011 Hanzell Vineyard Pinot ($98) was young and fruity, one that will age to a wonderful character. We also tried, as a bonus wine, a beautiful tasting 2009 Pinot Noir. Wow! This is the best way to describe it. This wine is available for wine club members but only in the amount of two bottles. I very much enjoyed the wines. I purchase one bottle of the Sebella but the other two wines are way out of my price range. It was certainly a treat to be able to tour and taste at the historic Hanzell winery, and a big thank you to my wine friend Ray for inviting me.
Following our visit to Hanzell, we went to lunch in Kenwood at Café Citti, an Italian Trattoria. My friend Mike is an avid wine collector and brought along a bottle of Hanzell Chardonnay 1977. The wine had a yellowish color from aging, but the taste of this Chardonnay was absolutely stunning. It will go down in my memory as one of the finer Chardonnays that I have tasted. It’s a tribute to the way the Hanzell wines are made.
If you decide to visit the Hanzell Winery, be sure to view our complete guide to the Sonoma Valley wine country. We suggest wineries, places to dine and lodge, as well as good picnic wineries.