Of course, I don’t actually harbor such tyrannical tendencies (really), but the point is that there is so much candied, monotonous pinot noir being made that the subtle beauty of this grape is rarely found in the state.
Bob Sessions, who was the winemaker at Hanzell from 1973 to 2001, made not only wines that had soul, but that also lasted, hands-down, better than any pinot noir outside of the best wines made in Burgundy. Sadly, Sessions passed away May 13 at age 82 after living with Alzheimer’s disease for a number of years.
While he certainly was lucky enough to work with blessed terroir when he came to the Sonoma property — now part of the Moon Mountain American Viticultural Area — Sessions churned out one amazing expression of pinot noir, and not the least, chardonnay, year after year. I’ve been privileged enough to have tasted many of the wines. No doubt Mother Nature had something to do with it, however.
Sessions put Hanzell on a path to glory. He was not only a gifted winemaker, but for decades, Sessions was the humble face of this winery, quietly building its reputation by just making delicious juice without flashy marketing or trying to turn himself into a celebrity winemaker.
It seems as if Hanzell has become better known since he stepped down, but I believe it is because of the wines that are now starting to come into their own, those that were made in the 1990s.
How the post-Bob Sessions-era vintages age, we’ll find out in time, but since the methods he used are still pretty much in place, I’m hopeful. Still, like Gerard Potel, the acclaimed winemaker of Domaine de la Pousse d’Or who passed away in 1997, Sessions had a unique touch.
I think Hanzell’s increased popularity has a lot to do with Jean Sessions, the president of Hanzell, who married Bob in 2002. Jean’s energy is magnetic. She is one of the most genuinely warm people I’ve ever met; a very cool lady indeed.
Every time I’m anywhere near the winery I make a point to stop by, just to say hello to both her and Bob’s son, Ben, who has been working there for as long as I’ve known the family. Ben is a mensch, as sincerely nice a guy as you will ever meet. While I did not know Bob as well, you can get a good idea of someone’s character by looking at those who surround them. And, in Sessions’ case, perhaps also by the fruits of his labor.
I only have a few bottles of old Hanzell left in my collection but will treasure them now even more, and knowing that they will continue to get better for quite some time, I am not in any rush to drink them. Condolences go out to Jean, Ben and the entire Hanzell family.
Pamela S. Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched TheVinguard.com, a blog covering a variety of wine-related topics.