Handley Cellars: Wine, Food and Folk Art

Handley Cellars: Wine, Food and Folk Art

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

One of the appeals Handley Cellars has held for me ever since I worked there in the 1990s is that Milla Handley makes a wine for every course on the menu. Not only is there a wine to serve from appetizers through dessert, there is also wine for many ethnic cuisines. In the tasting room an extensive collection of African, Asian and Balinese folk art inspired the food and wine pairing as well as the label on Handley’s wine.

A wine and international culinary adventure begins in Handley Cellars’ tasting room. Handley’s variety of carefully crafted wines, which range from Gewurztraminer to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir to Zinfandel, Water Tower White to Estate Brut sparkling wine, have recipes to go with them. In the tasting room on the old English bar, boxes hold Asian, South American, New World and African recipes arranged by wine varietal.

“Our food pairings and the design on our wine label are inspired by the tribal art collected by my parents from around the world,” says Milla Handley. Her father Raymond Handley founded the gallery Xanadu located in a Frank Lloyd Wright building on Maiden Lane in San Francisco.

Handley grew up in Los Altos Hills. Once in college the lure of wine beckoned. As the great granddaughter of Henry Weinhard, one of the original brewmasters of Oregon, her interest in fermentation seems to have been inherited. In 1975, she was one of the first women to receive a degree in fermentation science from the University of California at Davis. After graduation she worked with Richard Arrowood at Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma Valley. In 1978, Handley and her late husband Rex McClellan moved to Anderson Valley.

McLellan worked for a while at Navarro Vineyards and Handley worked with Lake County winemaker Jed Steele, who was then at Edmeades Winery. “I figured out pretty soon that I wanted to have my own place,” Handley remembers after working at other wineries.

In 1982, she established Handley Cellars. The winery is located on an old sheep ranch on Highway 128 northwest of Philo. The old ranch house, with its wraparound porch, has been meticulously restored and is used for winery guests and special events. A watertower and restored barn are among the historic buildings.

The first sign of the artwork to come is the gate at the entrance to Handley Cellars. The diagonal block design, which is also represented on Handley’s wine label, was inspired by ancient textiles of the Shoowa tribe from ancient Kuba kingdom in central Africa. On the first weekend of the month, the entrance sports a flag announcing a culinary adventure awaiting in the tasting room, where a food sampling is paired with a featured wine. Recent examples include Chardonnay with Indonesian fish curry, Pinot Noir and Indian masala-spiced duck and Syrah with Chinese five-spiced short ribs.

With her youthful appearance and direct style, Handley has a calm presence that belies the ever-changing responsibilities that come with running a 20,000 case winery. “Every day, every hour is different,” she says, “no matter how much wine you produce.” While running the winery Handley also raised two daughters. Megan Warren, 30, is married, a lawyer and lives in Hawaii. Lulu, 22, just graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in rhetoric. She worked the last harvest and is getting ready going to Peru to study potato farming in indigenous cultures. She may come back to join her mom in the wine business.

Handley’s winery and tasting room is staffed by a talented group of locals. It includes longtime business manager PJ Nielsen, hospitality director Jeanne Eliades, inventory manager Diane Hering (who also hosts a radio show on KZYX), and a warm and welcoming tasting room staff. Co-winemaker Kristen Barnhisel grew up in Sonoma County and has a masters in enology from UC Davis. Handley’s vineyard manager, Jose Jimenez has been here there since 1990. He and his wife have three children and live in a house on the ranch built for them.

The winery, tasting room and ranch house are surrounded by twenty-six acres of certified organic vineyards. Most are planted to Pinot Noir, but there are also eight-plus acres of Chardonnay and five acres of Gewurztraminer, the spicy aromatic grape that goes so wonderfully with Thai curry and Mexican carnitas. “Our Gewurztraminer is pretty dry with just a hint of sweetness,” says Handley, sitting at her office desk off the hallway between the tasting room and winery. It is one of Anderson Valley’s Alsatian varietals featured in the upcoming International Alsace Varietals Festival February 21-22 at the Mendocino County Fairgrounds in Boonville. Handley also makes Pinot Gris and Riesling, which she calls “two other important Alsatian wines grow well in Mendocino County.”

She also makes Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Syrah from her family’s vineyard in Dry Creek in Sonoma County. And she contracts with other Mendocino vineyards to round out her menu of wines. Syrah is grown by Neil and Lila Mettler’s Kazmet Vineyard in Redwood Valley. Zinfandel comes from Mettler and Bill Olden, also of Redwood Valley, and from the historic Gianoli Ranch on Fish Rock Road. Handley combines a “minerally” Riseling from Cole Ranch on Boonville Road and fragrant “peachy” Riesling grown at McFadden Farm in Potter Valley.

Although she now only produces it every three years, one of Handley’s loves is sparkling wine, made in the “methode champenoise” style of French champagne. Her current release is 2003 Brut is made of 65% Pinot noir and 35% Chardonnay. When she makes it, the Rosé sparkling wine is ninety percent pinot noir blended with ten percent Chardonnay. “Rosé is the most fun,” she says, adding, “we make our sparkling wine to showcase the varietal.” The results are creamy with tight tiny bubbles and European style aromas and flavors, an easy wine to serve with any cuisine.

We reminisced about the 1987 vintage Rosé sparkling wine which was just released when I worked in the tasting room. It had so much color, it almost looked like sparkling burgundy, but the taste was dry and fragrant with plenty of acidity. Milla laughs at the memory. A turkey had flown into the overhead electrical wires and cut off the power. She had to wait until daylight–many hours longer than most years to remove the Pinot Noir grapes from the juice, adding extra color to the wine.

The flavor, not unpredictably, was lovely and fun to share with people coming into the tasting room… where visitors are often surprised to find this first class exhibit of extraordinary international folk art. Then, tasting from a dozen-plus wines with all their nuanced aromas and potential for a myriad of cuisines, the bonus is taking home recipes paired with a particular Handley varietal.

At Handley Cellars food, wine and art are featured at the upcoming Handley Cellars Art in the Cellar, a benefit for Anderson Valley Art in the Schools, which includes large format artworks and jewelry made by local artists from February 6 through 8.


TASTING NOTES: Duck, roasted with a rub of Chinese Five-Spice seasoning, mirrors the fruit-rich spiciness of Handley’s 2006 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. It was also perfect with duck cracklings in a spinach salad dressed with mild sesame seed oil vinaigrette.


For more information on Handley Cellars contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission at www.mendowine.com or www.handleycellars.com.


For information on the International Alsace Varietals Festival contact www.avwines.com