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Handley Cellars

January 20, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks, Mendocino County 5 Comments

What makes California such a tremendous force in American and World wine, is the same reason that makes California tremendous force economically, creatively, and physically. California has it all. I don’t mean this in an arrogant way: California is paradise! But then again, I do kind of mean it that way. But California does have it all. To be fair, California is much larger (and longer…a very important geographical advantage to our agriculture and wine), than most other states of the Union.

However, what it contains within its large borders is what is most important.  From the lowest to highest points in the lower 48 States, to the largest trees, celebrities, and budget deficits, California does everything on a large scale. There are many more clichés to add here about our Governor, etcetera, etcetera, but you get the point.  Aside from the general imagery everyone conjures up of palm tree lined beaches and very public celebrity meltdowns, California remains a naturalist’s dreamland. There is a reason much of the modern day environmental movement first started with California: it is a glorious place.  The diversity of snow-capped peaks, boiling desserts, vast valleys, and jagged coastline is what give California wine such tremendous range and potential. Often you hear comparisons between California and France’s wine regions (Central Coast and Rhône, Napa and Bordeaux). If there is an award-wining region of France, California has an AVA that mimics its ancient European predecessors.

A winemaker in my area referred to the Santa Ynez Valley and surrounding regions as “God’s Country”, and he is right to say so. However, these divine landscapes are duplicated all over the state. Mendocino County with its rugged and dramatic coastline is no exception.

Milla Handley has been owner/wine maker of Handley Cellars, which operates in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, a cool climate region known for it’s Pinot Nior, since the earlHandley Cellars calls picturesque Mendocio County home.y 80’s. Her résumé of associates and experience is impressive. But in many ways, her career in wine was a unique choice for Milla, one that reflects her independent do-it yourself spirit. Wine making was not necessarily the obvious career path for Milla. None-the-less, wine chose Milla just as much as she chose wine. Milla’s father made a good living for his family in commercial real-estate in the Silicone Valley. Even though the family had a history of alcohol production (Milla’s Great-Great-Grandfather was Henry Weinhard the legendary Oregon brewer), her early passions were for the arts and animals. So how did Milla end up in a rather remote valley in Northern California making wine?

I asked Milla how she got into wine, why she likes it, and who has inspired her along the way.

You had any number of opportunities open to you as a young woman. Why wine?

“I started college as an Art major, but changed my mind. I then turned to physical sciences with the idea that I might be interested in animal science (horses) or fermentation science. I couldn’t deal with the number of animal labs that involved live animals so started to focus on fermentation science. Winemaking seemed best for many practical reasons. I wanted to live in the country and wanted to have an enjoyable job that would place me in rural environments. Most jobs are in the countryside, which was where I knew I’d want to live and most areas where premium grapes grow have wonderful climates. Wine was regularly included during our family dinners and I knew I liked wine so winemaking seemed a good idea. Other than my decision to go into winemaking not viticulture I really didn’t worry about being a female.”

The wine industry as whole is male heavy. While you and Co-wine maker Kristen Barnhisel have been pioneers in more than one way, do you feel there has been any special challenges you have had to confront as female wine makes? Or is making wine a tough job no matter who you are?

I’m somewhat oblivious, but I did know that women were in a minority. While going to school at Davis, of the about 30 undergraduates in my class I think there were only three women. In 1975 when I 1st got into winemaking, most females worked in labs or sales. My 1st winery jobs were in labs. I didn’t think a lot about being a minority. In 1979 I started working not only the lab but in the cellar and gained a lot of confidence in my abilities.”

As a hands-on manager and wine maker, is there one aspect of wine making you most enjoy?

“Probably enjoy visiting vineyards and grape sampling during harvest most. Its great to get out in the vineyards and the grapes will be the foundation for the vintage.”

You started with sparkling wines in your basement. Is there a varietal you enjoy working with most of all today, and if so why?

“I enjoy Pinot Noir because it’s challenging; it’s also grape that excels Anderson Valley.”

Who has inspired you in California wine?

“All of my first bosses and co-workers. I worked for Marty Bannister (currently of Bannister Wines), Richard Arrowood (Chateau St. Jean, currently Arrowood Vineyards and Winery) and Jed Steele (Edmeades founder, Kendall-Jackson founder, currently Steele Wines) and they had a tremendous influence on how I approach wine making. Mary Anne Graf was around when I started and has been someone who has helped when ever I’ve asked. The many people who have given me advice and helped me when needed, have been inspirations to me to take the time when I’ve asked for advice.”

At present, Milla oversees the production of 12,000 – 13,000 cases anually, producing varietals such as: Pinot Nior, Zinfandel, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Reisling, Vionier, and Brut.

Milla tends to her vineyard in Anderson Valley.

Photos courtesy Jamey Thomas, copyright Jamey Thomas Photography

For more information, or to buy wine, contact Handley Cellars at

Phone: (707) 895-3876  Toll Free: (800) 733-3151 Email:

More Reading on Milla:

Jean Deitz Sexton (Wines & Vines) – Milla Handley: Anderson Valley individualist.

Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. jamey thomas says:

    Does the California Tourism Board know how hard you’re working on their behalf? Its good to be reminded how lucky we are to live here.
    Whenever I remember the time I spent up at Handley I always come back to what a nice group of people work there and the high regard they express for Milla. Great wine and great people = double good times.

  2. Wayne says:

    Maybe I should remind them 🙂 I could use some stimulous money to promote Californian wine for sure! Milla was great to work with. And everything I have read tells me her staff has a very high regard for her.

  3. […] Read this article: A Long Pour {Fifty-Two Weeks With California Wine} » Blog Archive … […]

  4. […] from across California. Jayme Thomas is one of them. Jamey contributed pictures for my article on Milla Handleyat Handley Cellars and has done some beautiful work for Ridge Monte Bello and Lytton […]

  5. […] I first came across Milla and her Handley Cellars at the start of my year-long project. It was all by chance really. I wanted to include wineries from Mendocino, which I knew little about at the time. So, like any office jockey would, I did what was easiest, I Googled “mendocino wineries.” A few websites and a couple of emails later and Handley Cellars was my first Mendocino winery on A Long Pour. read the original here […]

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