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Santa Barbara, California 93111
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Handley Cellars Alexander Valley Mendocino

Handley Cellars Unveils A Winning Blanc de Blanc

Master brewer Henry Weinhard would have been proud of his great, great, great, granddaughter, Milla Handley. Even in spite of the fact that Milla’s interest has leaned toward winemaking and not beermaking. “The differences are like night and day,” Milla observes. Brewing is done nearly exclusively in a city surrounding. She feels there is relatively little art involved in 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, is primarily a country thing. And each winemaker is encouraged to find their own style, to create their own art, so to speak. Each batch of wine is different and new—much more challenging and rewarding!

That decision to pursue a winemaking career has paid off. 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 16 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 space 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 single-handedly built a solid grass-roots following for her wines during the winery’s first years. 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. As it turned out her 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.

Milla 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.