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Handley Cellars - Mendocino


In 1992, Handley Cellars was honored as one of the top ten best small wine producers in the United States

The last time we visited Mendocino county’s Handley Cellars was just over two years ago. A few members may even be lucky enough to have a bottle or two left of the fabulous 1988 Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine that was featured (we tried a bottle this month and it’s still drinking beautifully!). Milla Handley’s wine was such a big hit that we decided to revisit her. We’re excited to introduce her wines to new members and allow veteran members to sample a different varietal from her selection of great wines.

In 1992, Handley Cellars was honored as one of the top ten best small wine producers in the United States, by Wine & Spirits Magazine. Her wines have won award after award since she began making wine in her basement 13 years ago. During that time, production at the winery has grown from 250 cases to 15,000 cases. “We’ve been about the same size now for several years,” explains Milla. “At this level it’s working well,” she continues. “I’m not as interested in size as I am in quality.”

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 make about 1,000 cases a year. In 1986, she and husband Rex McClellan 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 had built a strong grass-roots following for her wines during the winery’s first years. She recalls how she literally went from wine shop to wine shop trying to convince store owners to buy her wine. “Of course no one at that 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 to us that she really didn’t enjoy those early days of trudging around knocking on doors to sell her wines. But she found out very quickly that the real problem was not going to be selling her wines, but making enough wine. Throughout the winery’s short history, Milla has had to allocate her wines to thirsty distributors and retailers who are anxious to sell her product.

Prior to actually starting her winery, Milla thought she’d like to have an all-sparkling-wine winery since she and husband Rex enjoyed drinking it so much. Not exactly the best basis for a marketing plan, but a shrewd plan nonetheless. Milla knew that Mendocino county had an ideal climate for growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the principle grapes for making sparkling wine. With it’s consistently warm days and cool nights, the area has a long growing season allowing longer hang-time on the vines. As a result, the grapes are generally slow to ripen, and mature differently than in other growing areas. Milla understood she was indeed fortunate to be in Mendocino county. Apparently, the French knew something too. For it was that same year the well-known Champagne house, Louis Roederer, elected to locate their first sparkling wine endeavor outside of France, right there in Anderson Valley. Since then another major Champagne house, Pommery, has settled in Mendocino county, near Handley.

As it turned out Milla’s first wine was not a sparkling wine, but rather a Chardonnay. This was because she had made Chardonnay wine many times before in her previous wine jobs at Chateau St. Jean, and Edmeades wineries. She was very comfortable making Chardonnay and luckily had easy access to good fruit from her Dad’s 20 acre vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley. Her first release, a 1982 North Coast Chardonnay, won a Gold Medal at the prestigious Orange County Fair Wine Competition. It is Chardonnay that is the root of Handley Cellar’s success. It is what initially got her noticed in a crowded field of other Chardonnays and is the base wine for most of her wonderful champagnes.

Milla went on to produce another great Chardonnay, made from Anderson Valley grapes. Still later, she added Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürtztraminer, and then finally, three versions of sparkling wine–Brut, Brut Rosé, and Blanc de Blancs.

Milla has added another 27 acres to the original 32, making room for 25 total acres of estate vineyards. Gradually, she would like to grow all her own grapes and phase out the other growers from whom she still purchases. “The main reason is to gain total control of the fruit quality. We take better care of our own vineyards,” says Milla. Although she quickly concedes she will probably always want to purchase the excellent fruit from her Dad’s vineyard.

Milla Handley’s philosophy of winemaking is to strike the right balance between the grape and the winemaking process. Her wines are neither big and heavy, nor thin and weak. She strives to make her wines true to variety, pairing the winemaking effort to match the particular grape she is using. She looks for a nice, pleasant in-the-mouth texture for her wines. Her hallmark Dry Creek Valley Chardonnay is sure to please your palate



Milla Handley - Owner/winemaker

Milla Handley has never been a city-girl. Although she grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, ever since she can remember she has wanted to live in the country. Perhaps it was because she loved animals so much. That’s why as a young girl, she thought a career in animal science would be fun and rewarding. That is until she had to dissect a frog. She simultaneously decided to turn loose the frog and the idea of a career in that field!

Her focus instead turned toward art. Art is in her blood due to her father. He owns two folk art shops in San Francisco and raised Milla to understand and appreciate art. When she went to college, it was to become an art major at U.C. Davis. However, she was soon disillusioned by the caliber of art professors at Davis and decided to change direction. Going back to her roots, another idea was brewing—both literally and figuratively. Her mother’s great-great grandfather was Henry Weinhard of beer brewing fame. But she had also acquired an interest in wine over the years. A family friend owned a top retail wine store in the area, so Milla had grown up around fine wine.

These connective interests led Milla toward both enology and brewing courses at U.C. Davis. It didn’t take her long to narrow it down to enology. ”The differences were like night and day,” Milla remembers. Brewing was done nearly exclusively in a city surrounding. She felt there was little or no art to the brewing process. After all, one of the keys to a successful brewhouse is producing the same consistent brew each and every batch—boring, she thought. Winemaking on the other hand, was primarily a country thing. And each winemaker was encouraged to find their own style, to create their own art, so to speak. Each batch of wine is different and new—much more exciting she thought!

Out of U.C. Davis in 1975, Milla landed a job as a quality control lab technician at Chateau St. Jean in southern Sonoma county. Three years later her husband Rex, then also in the wine business, took a job at Navarro Vineyards in Mendocino. There Milla found a job working at now-defunct Edmeades Winery. She gained valuable experience at Edmeades, working with Jed Steele (of Kendall-Jackson fame), as an assistant winemaker. After a few years, Milla decided to strike out on her own.

Looking back at the last 13 years, Milla claims there is little she would change. ‘We’re happy with the progression of the winery,” she says. ‘I think we’ve been successful at making our wines both memorable and affordable,” she adds. Considering the slew of medals that Handley Cellars has earned over the years and the fact that their wines are always quick sell-outs, we’d say Milla is right on track.

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