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Wine Tasting at Hanzell Vineyards

As the car rounds the last bend in the steep, winding road that climbs from the town of Sonoma to Hanzell Vineyards, high above Sonoma Valley, the original winery building comes into view. A two-thirds scale replica of the medieval press house at Clos de Vougeot, the winery is a picturesque homage to the historical home of Pinot Noir. And it is something more: a home of Sonoma County Pinot Noir history.

The Ambassador of Burgundy

Burgundy was a loosey-goosey category of California wine back in the 1950s, often made up of Zinfandel or other red grapes—if it was white, it was called “Chablis,” no matter the grape. The real Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines of Burgundy, meanwhile, were known and appreciated by a few connoisseurs—people like Ambassador James D. Zellerbach, who traveled extensively in Europe while helping to employ the Marshall Plan in Europe following the Second World War.

Although Zellerbach was later appointed US Ambassador to Italy, he had developed a love for the wines of Burgundy. He knew what just he was aiming for when he bought a parcel of woodland in the Mayacamas mountain range for his vineyard and winery.

This would be no retirement project for the industrialist, who was fairly busy between diplomatic duties and presiding over the Crown Zellerbach Paper Corporation (besides, his wife Hannah—for whom the winery named— preferred the city life in San Francisco). Zellerbach entrusted his founding vision to winemaker Brad Webb and viticulturist Ivan Schoch, who sourced vine cuttings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Napa Valley.

Although rare, these grapes were not unheard of in the 1950s. The source for the original vines were what we now call “heritage clones”—the Pinot, for instance, is descended from vine cuttings brought from Burgundy by California wine legend Paul Masson in the late 1800s.

Today, the winery is owned by the heir of the third owner after Zellerbach, the Countess Barbara de Brye, and guests may find that their tour guide is the son of winemaker emeritus Bob Sessions. That’s remarkable continuity for a California winery of its age—but take a peek inside, and you’ll see why this little winery may well earn its boast as “the birthplace of quality winemaking in California.”

Touring Hanzell

When I last toured Hanzell, with current winemaker Michael McNeill as my host, I marveled at what a backroads discovery this historic little winery is, in spite of its groundbreaking early achievements. Like the rustic little vignette on the wine label itself, it seems frozen in time.

Today, the winery is performing a balancing act between preserving history and moving forward, while the accommodating hospitality staff juggle up to 12 tours a day. Be advised that the group tour may include multiple parties, while the private estate tour is led by a wine educator for one party only.

Both tours include a look-see at the innovations in the historic winery, which now houses the wine library (look for your “vintage,” if you’re a sapling of less than 60), as well as views of the newer production facilities with their shiny, but also tiny fermentation tanks.

Few vineyards open to the public offer such sweeping views from Sonoma Valley to San Francisco Bay as this, while the cool confines of the wine cave are welcome on hot summer days.

Tasting Hanzell

The area around Hanzell is better known for Cabernet Sauvignon than Pinot Noir, and indeed, the winery grows a small parcel of that grape as an homage to the late Countess de Brye, who preferred the wines of Bordeaux. But it’s on the very southern tip of Cab country, facing the cool winds that first brush the Burgundian varieties of the Petaluma Gap and Carneros regions, just to the south and west. Hanzell wines are prized for their lean, earthy and even brooding style, rather than upfront fruitiness.

The lineup is just three wines: from younger vines, the 2014 Hanzell Sebella Chardonnay ($36) retains a clean, crisp palate of lychee berry haunted by the scent from a seashell, after just three months aging in neutral oak. Butter lovers beware, the 2013 Hanzell Chardonnay ($78) bears aromas that only suggest toasty oak and the rich, malolactic style of Chardonnay—this is perfumed almost as if it’s still sleeping in a nearby barrel. Lean, grapefruit acidity rules the palate.

The 2013 Hanzell Pinot Noir ($98) is one to save up for, and one to save, perhaps: cool cranberry fruit broods beneath charred toast and candle wax, while potpourri and gravel hint at bouquet complexity to come. Somewhat grippy and firm, it demands decanting and the right entrée pairing.

Wine Geek Corner

As a captain of industry, Zellerbach cut no corners in his plans for his then cutting-edge winery. Here were the first temperature-controlled steel fermentation tanks in California. Over there, the oldest Pinot Noir vines in the New World. And in little Tank 21, the first controlled malolactic fermentation was completed (with Pinot Noir) thanks to collaborative effort—now a routine practice that helped later adopters to create wine empires in the decades since.

Hit the Road

The winding road from Hanzell Vineyards levels out into a quiet, residential area that is not at all far from the restaurants and hotels of the Sonoma Plaza. To the right, Highway 12 continue north to Glen Ellen, where the history-minded can stretch their legs and explore Jack London State Park, and the lunch-minded can make a picnic at the Glen Ellen Village Market.

18596 Lomita Avenue, Sonoma, CA 95476. Visits by appointment only: group winery tour, $45; private estate tour, $65. 707.996.3860.

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