Milla Handley founded Handley Cellars more than 30 years ago
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 late 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.
In1986, Milla and 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 lent 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. Milla now produces Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Zinfandel, and Syrah with much success.
About the Vineyard
The fruit for Handley Cellars is drawn mostly from the Anderson Valley, 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.
Handley also sources from Redwood Valley and Mendocino Ridge (within Anderson Valley) for their Syrah, Zinfandel, and Late Harvest Riesling. The climate in the Anderson Valley appellation is tempered by cool marine air. Towards the coast, the summers are cool and moist with frequent fog, while the interior Anderson Valley features a warm to hot summer climate similar to nearby interior regions. Such a broad span of climate allows multiple grape varietals to thrive in the wine growing region.
Randy Schock & Milla Handley - Winemakers
Milla Handley shares winemaking responsibilities with Randy Schock, who began as cellar master for Handley Cellars 2004 and was promoted to co-winemaker in November 2012. Randy has lived in Anderson Valley since 1998 with his wife Gina and their three sons. His winemaking career began as assistant winemaker at Fieldstone in Alexander Valley before moving to a harvest job at Navarro Vineyards and finally serving as winemaker for Philo Ridge Winery. Randy’s winemaking philosophy is compatible with Milla’s, allowing grapes to express themselves naturally with as little manipulation as possible
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 and 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 as well as the idea of a career in that field!
Her focus instead turned toward art, which has long been a part of her life due to her father. The owner of two folk art shops in San Francisco, he raised Milla both to understand and appreciate art, and 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, and had always enjoyed it at the family dinner table.
These connective interests led Milla toward both enology and brewing courses at U.C. Davis, but it didn’t take her long to narrow it down to enology.
‘The differences were like night and day,” Milla remembers. Not only was brewing was done nearly exclusively in a city surrounding, but she felt there was little or no art in the brewing process. After all, one of the keys to a successful brew house 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 his own art, so to speak. Also, 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.
Deeply taken with California’s Anderson Valley, Milla saw a future there and wanted to make wines that captured the essence of the land. Now, more than 25 years later, Handley Cellars’ wines do just that.
Milla also found a way to tie in her love of nature and art into Handley Cellars’ wine labels. Since her parents had been collectors of tribal art, Milla had always been drawn to artifacts, textiles, and jewelry that were inspired by the beauty of the natural world. The ancient tribal textiles of the African Kuba tribes had been one of her favorites over the years, and are now the inspiration for the beautifully woven designs pictured on the wines’ labels.
Joined in 2004 by co-winemaker Kristen Barnhisel, an active winemaker who was actually the first American and the first woman to work harvest for Ruffino/Nozzole winery in Tuscany, Italy, Milla works closely with her to incorporate a number of techniques and specialized programs to meet the particulars of each vintage, varietal, and vineyard source.
Milla carefully balances the roles of proprietor and winemaker at Handley Cellars. She is involved in every aspect of the winery operation, from vineyards and wines to her unique tasting room.
Looking back at the last 27 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.