Wine Column: Carving out her niche, California-style

Milla Handley has been making wine in California since 1975. Back then, she was one of very few women actually down in the cellar, dragging hoses around and monitoring fermentation temperatures. In 1978 she and her husband, Rex McClellan, moved to the remote Anderson Valley, north of Sonoma, where, over time, they planted 29 acres in chardonnay, pinot noir and gewurtztraminer. In 1982, she began to make her own wine in their basement.

At the time, Milla and Rex were true winemaking pioneers. While Napa was surging to prominence under the leadership of such wine greats as Robert Mondavi, the Anderson Valley was a little too far from San Francisco, a little too cold, a little too rural for the kind of investors who poured money into Napa. But Milla liked its isolation. She enjoyed the camaraderie of her hardscrabble farming neighbors. Even after Rex’s death, she continued making wine there despite its many challenges.

At Milla’s vineyard, heavy fog from the Pacific Ocean makes for cold nights (around 50 degrees during the growing season). When the fog clears, it can get as hot as 112 degrees. Most of the time, a 35-degree change in 24 hours is typical there. This makes the vines struggle to ripen, but it also conserves acidity in the fruit. Just when the fruit is almost ripe, autumn rains begin, sometimes forcing a premature harvest.

I met Milla in Manhattan at Keen’s Steakhouse, where a small group of wine writers was led through a retrospective tasting of 12 Handley pinot noirs from the 1997-2009 vintages. We tasted silently and seriously, then asked questions of Milla and her co-winemaker, Kristen Barnhisel. It was indeed a tasting worthy of focused attention; the wines were seriously good. But what I liked best about the tasting was Milla herself. She and I began making wine at the same time (1975), and she told stories that I could really identify with about raising two children while making wine professionally.

As much as Milla liked the remoteness of her Anderson Valley home, from a very early age her eldest daughter wanted to live in a more populated area. “Mom,” the child said, “Let’s move to New York.”

“No,” said Milla. “New York is too far away.”

“Then can we move to San Francisco?”

“No,” said Milla. “That’s too far, too.”

“Well then,” asked the child, “How about Booneville?”

My own daughter, at age 3, used to say, quite regularly, “I wanna go somewhere!” And we were already in Cutchogue, which was about as populous as Booneville back then.

Milla may live in the middle of nowhere, and favor a laid-back personal style, but she is sophisticated in the world of wine. She told me of her meeting with the cellar master at the famed estate of Romanée Conti in Burgundy. This man, revered for his wines but a notorious fanny pincher, encircled her shoulders with one arm, grasping her breast in one hand while firmly holding a bottle of 1966 Le Montrachet in the other. Being a true lover of wine, and not wanting to compromise her chance to taste one of the world’s finest white Burgundies, Milla ignored the inappropriate gesture.

“Hey, he’s French! And he was scheduled to have a triple bypass. He looked like a garbage man,” she told me. “Besides, the wine was worth it.”

Having survived this and other forms of disrespect familiar to many female winemakers (“We were once called a coven,” Milla says), Milla has expanded Handley Cellars, so that now she makes wines from several vineyards. Still, my favorites were those from her home vineyard, called “RSM” after her late husband. The 1997 had a wonderful subtlety rarely found in California pinot noirs. As old as it is, the wine still blossomed in the glass, with flavors of black cherries and allspice.

I also admired the 2005 RSM Pinot Noir, which had nuanced fruit and sweet, nutty wood.

Other tasters preferred the bigger, more extracted wines, like the 2009 RSM, with its brilliant color and lush fruit. But this is a style one expects from a California pinot. When Milla said, “New York has a European palate,” someone yelled, “No they don’t. They want fruit bombs!”

That’s an issue for Long Island’s vintners, too: Wine critics have led consumers away from subtle, cool-climate wines. I sympathize with Milla, who said, “I’m trying not to be a bitch. I’m trying but I fail sometimes.”

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.