During the winter, until the wild flowers bloom in February through March, it can be a bit challenging for the wine country photographer. In this season vines tend to look like nothing more than a twig sticking up out of the ground. So, for the wine country traveler and photographer it is a good time to either visit urban wineries which have no vineyards or check out wineries that have very old gnarly twisted vines which look quite interesting even when barren.
With that in mind I made an appointment to visit Hanzell Vineyards located in the Sonoma hills which is home to the oldest Chardonnay vines in California. It was originally owned and founded by James David Zellerbach (future United States Ambassador to Italy) who acquired 200 acres in the Mayacamas Mountains in 1943 and began planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in 1953. The first planting consisted of two acres of Pinot Noir and four acres of Chardonnay and since then it has grown to a total of 42 acres planted between 1953 and 2001. The winery’s namesake is a conflation of David wife’s name Hana Zellerbach (Han-Zell) who owned the winery from 1943-1965. Then it was owned by Douglas and Mary (née Schaw) Day (1965 - 1975) and it is currently being stewarded by the de Brye family, Jacques and Barbara, and now their son Alexander (1975–present).
The original vines planted at Hanzell are purported to be the oldest continually producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines in the Western Hemisphere. The original Chardonnay vines planted at Hanzell are Wente Clone derived from the McCreas’ Stony Hill Vineyard in St. Helena, which obtained its cuttings from the Wente Livermore Vineyard in 1948. I recently visited Stony Hill Vineyard so it was interesting to find that both wineries are of the same high caliber and similar in style as they both produce extremely well balanced age-worthy Chardonnays, a very rare-find in California.
The original Pinot Noir vines planted at Hanzell were cuttings derived from Martin Ray estate which I visited in March 2012. They are now commonly referred to as the Mount Eden clone. The original Pinot Noir vines at Mount Eden Vineyards were pulled out in 1997, and the original block of Pinot Noir at Chalone planted in 1946 was replaced in 2003. As of 2010, the 1953 blocks (C53 and N53) at Hanzell continue to produce quality fruit, which is usually blended with grapes from the vines planted in subsequent years. However, when merited by a particularly favorable vintage, wines derived solely from these old vines are bottled separately and labeled “Ambassador's 1953 Vineyard” wines.
Four winemakers have been served at Hanzell since its founding. The first winemaker was Brandon Webb (1956 - 1973) who was followed by Bob Sessions who served for nearly 30 years and continues to advise the current winemaker Michael McNeill.
Before sampling their wines I took a tour of the vineyards and was amazed by the breath-taking views. Hanzell’s 44 acres of vineyards are planted on hills overlooking the town of Sonoma on one side and with a fantastic view of the San Pablo Bay on the other.
I then explored their wine cave and then headed into the historic tasting room with the tour guide where I sampled the following wines:
The first pour was the 2011 Hanzell Vineyards “Sebella” Chardonnay, which on the nose displays subtle green apples, pears, and white flowers. On the palate it has sharp tart apricots, green apples and a Chablis-like minerality. It is very crisp with rather high acidity and it seems somewhat austere. After much swirling and warming of the glass (it was 55 degrees that day!) additional subtle tropical notes arise followed by a very prolonged finish. An absolutely superb wine which sells for $36, I brought four of them home. One to “drink now” and the others to lay down for 5 – 10+ years
The second sample was the 2010 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay. It is a little more golden in color, on the nose it is distinctly different than the previous wine with more pronounced aromas of peach, apricot, lemons, limes, a faint hint of marshmallow followed by a waft of orange blossoms and honeysuckle. On the palate it is slightly creamy with medium body and extremely well balanced with a very prolonged finish. It is a bit steep at $75 a bottle, I brought two of them home. One to “drink now” and another to lay down for 5 – 10 years
The final wine was the 2006 Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir. It has explosive fruit on the nose, with aromas of luscious rich dark cherries, strawberry preserves, cinnamon, cloves, black tea, and smoky forest floor which combined reminds me of a scented Christmas candle. Refined tannins, medium bodied, medium (+) acidity, more pronounced spice on the palate, with an extremely long spiced finish. An absolutely superb wine, without a doubt the best Sonoma Pinot Noir I have ever experienced! It was probably THE most expensive Pinot I have ever purchased (thus far) at $95 a bottle, but I just had to bring one home.
Hanzell Vineyards is a “must visit” winery, especially if you are a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir lover!
To visit or for more information:
18596 Lomita Ave
Sonoma, CA 95476