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Handley Cellars - Mendocino


91 Points by Wine & Spirits , 4 Stars by Restaurant Wine magazine

From basement winemaking to raking up a collection of Gold Medals that few Dry Creek Valley winemakers can rival, Milla Handley has come quite a long way in 26 years.

Born in the rarefied air of Los Altos Hills, near Sunnyvale in northern California, Milla’s father, Raymond Handley, found his fortune early on when he submerged himself into commercial real estate construction during the Silicon Valley’s boon town years. Surrounded by beautiful, expansive scenery, Milla grew up with a love for animals and the country and enjoyed riding horses in her free time, a passion she continues to pursue today.

Milla enrolled at U.C. Davis and changed her area of focus quite a bit, initially thinking of animal science, and then moving on to pursue a future in art. Neither seemed to click just right and she ultimately transferred into enology. The decision was made on the bases that her dad’s best friend had owned a wine shop close by and she’d always been surrounded by wine, so the transition seemed both natural and destined.

After graduating in 1975, Milla worked for a number of winemakers in California and made her way into Anderson Valley which was then largely uncharted viticultural territory.

“I was captivated by the valley’s possibilities,” Milla explained. “The people here posses an independent spirit, and I felt I could follow my own path.”

Her own independent spirit fit right in with the area, and she began to follow her vision of building an all-sparkling-wine winery from Anderson Valley grapes. It seemed like a great solution for the valley’s cool climate and the grapes being produced in the area were brimming with bright fruit flavors.

In 1982, Milla and her husband, Rex McClellen, established Handley Cellars and as it turned out, her first wine was not a sparkling wine, but rather a Chardonnay. Because she had made Chardonnay many times before in her previous jobs at various California wineries, Milla was comfortable with the varietal and felt that Mendocino County had an ideal climate for growing Chardonnay.

She also had access to good fruit. Milla’s father Raymond had recently purchased a 20-acre vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley, which was divided between Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah, and Milla became his exclusive customer.

Handley Cellars’ first release, a 1982 North Coast Chardonnay, won a Gold Medal at the prestigious Orange County Fair Wine Competition and it is Chardonnay that became the root of the winery’s success.

During the first four years, Milla endured the cramped quarters of her 600 square foot basement, also spilling operations out into the garage and yard. Due to the size restriction, she was only able to grow from 250 cases to about 1,000 cases per year.

In 1986, Milla and husband Rex bought 32 acres of land they had been eyeing for years, just up the road in Mendocino County, north of Philo. The following year they built a new winery and immediately kicked production up to 7,000 cases.

Milla’s father Raymond also lend a helping hand, bringing his background in construction and working with his daughter to oversee the design and building of the 18,000 square-foot winery facility.

During the winery’s first years, Milla built a strong grass roots following for her wines. She recalls how she literally went from wine shop to wine shop trying to convince wine shop owners to buy her wine.

“Of course no one at the time had heard of Handley Cellars,” recalls Milla. “Everyone would ask, ‘Why should I buy your wines?’ Or ‘What makes your wines so different?’ – until they actually tried them!”

Milla admitted those early days were difficult, but she soon found that the real problem was not going to be selling her wines, but making enough wine. Throughout the winery’s history, Milla has had to allocate her wines to thirsty distributors and retailers who are anxious to sell her product.

Handley Cellars did eventually release three versions of sparkling wine – Brut, Brut Rose and Blanc de Blancs, but the focus has remained on still wines, to follow the market demand.

In 2002, Milla began pursuing organic certification for Handley Cellars’ estate vineyard, a 3-year process that was completed in August 2005 and require the vines to undergo strict sustainable growing practices.

Handley Cellars has now reached an annual production level of 18,000 cases, and continues to receive award-winning recognition and top industry reviews, including being named ‘Value Brand of the Year’ by Wine & Spirits magazine this past year.


  1. Handley
    2005 Chardonnay
    Handley
    Dry Creek Vineyard
    Mendocino County

    $18.00

    $20.00
    91 - Wine & Spirits
    id: 322
    Special
    Gold

Pioneer winemaker Milla Handley

Milla Handley has emerged as a champion of Anderson Valley’s grape growing region over the past two decades. Along with her co-winemaker Kristen Barnhisel, she is committed to producing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, sparkling wines, and other varietals that are elegant depictions of her valley and her art.

About The Region

The fruit for Handley Cellars is drawn from two different appellations, offering an interesting and varied collection of expressive wines. The estate vineyard lies within the Anderson Valley, which is located in the rolling hills of the coastal region of Mendocino County, about two hours north of San Francisco. Only fifteen miles long, this beautiful valley is home to a unique group of wineries producing a broad range of excellent wines. The cool foggy nights and bright sunny days allow a great climate for the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer that dominate the Handley varietals planted there.

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