Interview: 1996 Hanzell Chardonnay

The 1996 Hanzell Chardonnay is slim and pretty, wearing a beige cashmere roll-neck sweater and looking a little like Natalie Portman with a lighter complexion and blonde highlights. She sits with good posture, her legs crossed and her hands folded over her knee.

Matt: Welcome to the table.

‘96HC: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Matt: It’s an amazing moment for you. Tell me about life. What’s it like to be you right now?

‘96HC: Well, Matt, I am feeling especially blessed lately. I really just feel incredibly lucky. Things are really starting to hit on all cylinders, and I feel as though my self-expression has just turned a corner.

Matt: These last few years have been good to you.

‘96HC: They have.

Matt: Well you certianly look beautiful. I have to say, you have a kind of radiance about you.

‘96HC: Thank you Matt.

Matt: So tell me, how does the world look today, to you–I mean now, in 2008?

‘96HC: Do you mean the world of wine, or are you asking me to comment on the entire globe?

Matt: (laughs) I’d love to know your thoughts on a whole range of other subjects, but the wine landscape is so interesting right now, isn’t it?

‘96HC: Oh it is Matt. There’s so much change and so many winemakers pushing the envelope in all sorts of interesting ways. It’s a very exciting time to be viticultural.

Matt: And what’s your sense of where we are right now?

‘96HC: I guess if I were to try to offer a snapshot of my sense of things now it would be that intensity seems to be on the rise. You have to remember, Matt, I come from a vintage that was really the tail end of a blessed little run in California in the early to mid-1990’s.

Matt: Yes.

‘96HC: Because, you know, beginning in 1990 we basically had this run of lovely little vintages.

Matt: Until 1997.

‘96HC: Well of course 1997 represented a watershed, at least in Napa–you know, I’m from Sonoma. But in the years between 1990 and 1996, we had these growing seasons that were all extraordinarily temperate, even though of course they all had their subtleties. Especially the back half, though, from ‘93 through my vintage, just produced an incredible number of wines that I think are truly among the greatest wines California has ever produced. 1994 and 1995 of course were nearly perfect, though I find the ’94’s for the most part to seem like stunners in evening gowns and the ’95’s to have a bit more meat on their bones.

Matt: Do you think those wines have long lives ahead of them?

‘96HC: Oh, I think they’ll live to ripe old ages.

Matt: And so too with the ’97’s?

‘96HC: Wow you’re really interested in the ’97’s, aren’t you?

Matt: I remember a lot of talk about them.

‘96HC: Yes, there was.

Matt: Robert Parker loved that vintage.

‘96HC: Yes, he did.

Matt: And the wines had a lot of hype, and from what I understand there’s been some dissent to the idea that it really was a great vintage–

‘96HC: Yes, I think Matt that the whole situation wiht the ‘97 wines–specifically Napa cabernets I think are what you’re talking about, I just think it’s all been very unfortunate.

Matt: How so?

‘96HC: Well, because the truth is that those wines were very ripe, and continue to be, but all of that praise from Parker I think confused people, who thought that a great, classic, long-lived vintage and a favorite Parker vintage are the same thing. And it has turned out now that the ’98’s, which Parker didn’t like very much at all, are in excellent shape, probably because of brighter acid, and that many people actually prefer them to the majority of ’97’s.

Matt: What do you think of Mr. Parker?

‘96HC: I think he’s brilliant, to begin with. And I think he’s done a tremendous service to the country, really, with all the attention he’s brought to the world of wine. He hasn’t ever seemed very interested in me or Hanzell of course, but we’ve had our friends over the years–and there hasn’t been very much of us to go around anyway.

Matt: How many cases?

‘96HC: For most of Bob’s tenure–do you know about Bob?

Matt: Bob Sessions, you mean.

‘96HC: Yes, well Bob Sessions is about the most wonderful man in the world. Am I allowed to say that about the man who made me? (giggles) Bob made Hanzell wines from the early seventies until five or six years ago. Well never mind the story of Bob. You asked about production. It was usually between 500 and 1000 cases–both the chardonnay and the pinot noir. I think they have it in mind to make a touch more now.

Matt: Who is ‘they’?

‘96HC: Well Jean Arnold Sessions, Bob’s wife, and Michael Terrien, who is the winemaker at Hanzell now are running the winery.

Matt: And have things changed there since Bob left? It must be difficult to maintain continuity in a transition like that.

‘96HC: I think it is Matt. Certainly Jean and Michael are both working hard to promote Hanzell and in so doing to preserve the legacy that Bob created. My feeling is that Michael’s tastes are not Bob’s tastes exactly, but that almost goes without saying. No two people have exactly the same attitudes about something as artistic as winemaking.

Matt: Tell me about that. How can those approaches be different.

‘96HC: Well I’m no expert in winemaking, but it seems to me that it all depends, to some degree, on what the actual process of making wine means to you. I think I would say that Bob’s greatest legacy, the thing about him that really separated his work especially from a lot of what’s going on today, was his humility and his willingness to let the wines speak for themselves. Whatever that hillside in Sonoma produced from year to year, whatever the qualities of the fruit, I really believe that Bob just felt like a steward. He was there to facilitate, which when you think about it, when you think about that sort of communion with nature, to just show up for work everyday for thirty years and care for vines and grapes–it’s quite an amazing thing.

Matt: Do you think that Michael Terrien approaches his work the same way?

‘96HC: Well you have to understand, Matt. It’s such a different world today than it was even in the early 1990’s. Wine has become big business, in just about every way. There’s a star quality that goes along with making wine now, and there are a lot of dollars on the line, and the examples of prominent wineries that escape those realities are far and few between.

Matt: So how does Michael approach his job differently, say, than Bob does?

‘96HC: Well listen, Matt, Michael is a very wonderful guy. He’s bright, and very hard working, and I think he’s an excellent winemaker. But I do think that to compare the way he approaches his work with the way Bob did is to compare apples and oranges. Michael is still young, and he’s a little brash, and I think he thinks about making a splash and really putting Hanzell on the map. I’m not sure Bob ever thought about a map. I’m really not. He’s very shy, you know, and I think he worked like a monk for all those years. The magnificent result is that he made thirty years worth of the greatest wines California has ever produced, even though when we’re young we’re not particularly flashy or, you know, opulent.

I do think that Michael is interested in making wines that are somewhat more opulent when they’re young, but I don’t blame him for it any more than I celebrate Bob for doing what he did. I think it’s just a matter of a changing world, and the dynamics of the wine market.

Matt: Doesn’t it make you sad, though, to think that a tradition has gone by the boards?

‘96HC: I prefer to think of these things in terms of phases. We’re living in a time now when winemakers juggle a handful of different projects at once, and people like Michel Rolland–what’s his nickname? The flying consultant, or something like that? People fly around and analyze a grape here or a grape there and computers make the wine and that’s the way it is. But that doesn’t mean that’s the way it will always be.

Matt: What a pleasure it has been to have you here, and I have to say, to drink you. Thank you.

‘96HC: Thank you Matt. I’m honored to have been opened at this stage in my life.

Matt: I look forward to checking in on you again in a few years.

‘96HC: See you then.