Bob Sessions, who was the winemaker at Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma for thirty years, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 82. A vineyard photo of Hanzell has hung at the head of the Heirloom dining room for four years since the restaurant opened, but probably only a handful of our guests know how important he and the winery are to me and to the restaurant. I’m grateful to have a chance here to say a few things about one of the greatest men I have ever known.
Sometime in 2003, around the time that wine began to shape many of the ways in which I think about food and life, I visited Hanzell Vineyards in Sonoma for the first time. I had known about Hanzell wines for a three or four years, having been introduced to what was probably a 1996 Chardonnay by a young sommelier in Boston who handed me a glass I’ll never forget. Sometimes—often maybe, words don’t offer a lot by way of accompanying the experience of tasting something, and I can clearly remember Christian, his thumb and index finger holding the base of the glass and his arm outstretched, looking at me as though he was waiting to watch something momentous happen to me. When I left Boston and landed in Los Angeles at a restaurant called Campanile, where the wine list was focused mostly on Italian and French wines but where Hanzell bottles were regarded like family heirlooms, I learned that that first delicious sip in Boston had come from a winery with a bit of standing in California’s wine history.
On my first trip to Napa and Sonoma, at the end of a long and winding mountain road that led to the top of the most beautiful vineyard-planted mountain I still have ever seen, I was greeted by Bob and Jean Arnold Sessions, who received me with a warmth—how do I say this? They received me with a warmth that doesn’t seem very common in this world. They had recently found each other after long careers in the wine industry—Jean spent years working at Chalk Hill and for Jess Jackson and Bob had been the winemaker at Hanzell for three decades. It was easy to see that their love had been worth the wait. Jean had become the president of the winery around the time they were married; the man she married was as much a part of the magnificent property as the giant oak tree outside their offices that still stands like a guardian over the rows of mid-century chardonnay and pinot noir vines. I remember an early impression of these two people and their enchanted home that made me think of a sort of bucolic Camelot.
In the years and visits and tastings and meals and walks through the vineyards with Jean and Bob, I came to have a very particular idea about what it means to preside over something with grace and beneficence and excellence for more than thirty years. What was most immediately striking about Bob, besides his length—he was probably 6’3″ (though I always had the sense that he curled his shoulders just a little so I wouldn’t feel short next to him)—and besides his huge hands (me: winemaker, you: restaurateur), was the way he immediately made you feel as though he was as happy to be around you as you were to be with him. I think he was the kindest and most modest person I have ever known. That he was a major figure in the history of California winemaking was a notion that seemed, truly, never to have crossed his mind. People who make wine are sometimes (though less and less often) described as stewards of the land on which they work, like selfless vessels through which the rains pour and the grapes grow and the juice ferments. Ten minutes with Bob was enough time to grasp such a characterization in its entirety.
And in spite of how sweetly self-effacing he was, or more likely because of it, the wines were, and remain, unspeakably transcendent. When I arrived on their doorstep eleven years ago it was because I had located a stash of Hanzell Pinot Noirs from the mid-1970’s, and I had been awestruck by the depth and complexity and youthfulness of each of the bottles I too quickly opened. I thought in those days that I had happened upon the tip of a vinous iceberg—that old Hanzell wines were just my first discovery in what would probably be a line of glorious old wines from California and around the world. I was wrong. The pace of my cork-pulling slowed precipitously as it dawned on me that no more than dozens of most of these wines remain, but bottle after bottle affirmed what had been initially only a vague suspicion: these were among the greatest wines in the world. Having now spent years working in fancy dining rooms, and having been offered my share of sips of old and rare (and priced accordingly) bottlings from Romanee Conti and Roumier and Leroy, I can say with at least some authority that it’s a very rare thing indeed to taste a great Burgundy of comparable age which is fit to warm up the stemware for an old bottle of Hanzell.
Why exactly this is so I can’t say, and not because I’m keeping a secret. It was impossible to get Bob to talk about the singularity of the wines he made, I think because he was convinced to his core that there was nothing to it. Yes, some whole clusters, yes some judicious use of oak, yes, harvesting at the right time. It was all the rhythm of Hanzell, it had been laid out by Brad Webb (the winery’s first winemaker) in the 1960’s, Bob might have told me that all he did was come to work everyday. What the wines almost certainly were—and what I would give to know exactly what a young 1974 Hanzell Pinot Noir tasted like, was very tannic. Bottle after bottle from that era unleashes a preternatural freshness and a structure that simply doesn’t make any sense in forty year-old pinot noir. While I can’t say for sure, I have always been inclined to the supposition that these wines were deeply idiosyncratic in their youth. Legend has it that the entire first vintage of Hanzell Cabernet Sauvignon, which arrived in 1979 for what turned out to be a twelve year trial, was shelved—never released for sale—because Bob thought the wine was too tannic.
What is for certain about Bob, and what for me had come to seem the most salient single aspect of his work and career, was that he hardly seemed to know or care that someone might have been sitting at a desk in New York and assigning a score to one of his wines. It was a different age certainly—when Bob started at Hanzell Marvin Shanken was several years away from launching Wine Spectator, Robert Parker was still in law school. And as the modern age of glossy magazines and flaccid criticism and 90 point scores began to reshape global winemaking in the late 20th century, suggesting to winemakers everywhere that the public prefers this style or that, I believe quite firmly that Bob Sessions was not listening. I believe that he listened for hours instead to Jose Ramos, who arrived at Hanzell shortly after he did and became the property’s vineyard manager, because the love and camaraderie between the two of them, who managed decades of harvests together, was clear as a Sonoma sunrise. I think he listened intently to the vines and the dirt and the fermentation tanks.
It should be said that the economics of the wine world forty years ago, like the economics of every other industry, also hardly resembled the patterns of behavior in our own contemporary age of chasing profit. With not more than a hunch I’ll suggest that Hanzell was never in those days a place where oceans of money were made, and the quietly brilliant work Bob conducted in the vineyard and the cellar was buttressed by a string of owners of the winery who were probably not finally obsessed with triumphant profit and loss statements. Still, one can’t help but wonder about the diversity and relative integrity of wines which are produced in the context of different economic circumstances, and this one can’t help but think that we passed for a minute through a golden age when work for its own sake and modest craftsmanship were ever more prevalent than wine scores and shiny full-page magazine advertisements. Bob marched at the front of that parade, and he did it, as the saying goes, like nobody was watching.
In the midst of the grief and the sympathy I feel for his wonderful Jean, the greatness and sterling character of Bob Sessions and of the wines he made will gently remind me of these and other things for years to come.