Archive for May, 2014

Remembering Bob Sessions

Friday, May 16th, 2014

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.

On Being a Sommelier

Friday, May 16th, 2014

I did not enjoy watching the film ‘Somm,’ which was released last year and is about four young men and their breathless pursuit of something called a ‘master sommelier’ accreditation. The film follows them through months of preparations, of studying flashcards about some of the more arcane corners of wine production and geography, of a countless number of late nights spent tasting unknown wines in order to refine their practice of identifying what was made when or where or by whom, without having anything to go on but the smell and the taste. The film seems to invite some quick and ready objections with a shrug, as if to say, for instance, who cares that the story is so unrelentingly male? We should perhaps suspend our disbelief as the quaintly peripheral girlfriends and wives watch the guys cultivate their alpha-dog competitiveness and swing their dicks around; true passion for wine is not something for women. It was hard for me not to squirm through all of the “we can do this!” and the goal-orientation, as though wine is something that with a good push can be summited like a Himalayan peak.

But there are two rough spots in the film which seem more deeply problematic, and which finally are even more central to widely-held, ever-creeping misconceptions about wine. The first was broached by a savvy young New York sommelier named Carson Demmond, who cautioned in an article she wrote for the online journal called Punch that we should hope to remember that to be a sommelier of any level or accreditation is first and foremost to have a particular job. The word sommelier itself actually has quite a lot less to do with expertise than it does with service and stewardship. Nobody with a wine list in her hands at a restaurant or a wine bar wants to be approached by someone who doesn’t know whites from reds, of course. And of course no meal was ever made worse by someone who simply had good information about one Burgundy vintage or another. But good earnest service and simple good taste are foolproof. If you’re nothing but the smartest guy in the room I think I’ll probably come up with a choice on my own thanks.

The restaurant work and guest service which are given little more than the pass of a toreador’s flag in the film are not exactly the same as a summer walk in a vineyard. The hours are long and frequently last late into the night, and serving the public and trying to make everyone in a dining room happy is a kind of grueling challenge that any seasoned professional will describe colorfully without too much of a prod. And while it should be said that some of the 135 earnest souls who have won their master’s lapel pin in North America continue to arrive four or five nights a week for pre-service meetings and be on hand for late-night conversations about whether to drink Vouvray or St. Aubin, a vast number of freshly-minted masters seem to view passing the exam exactly as a quick ticket OUT of the restaurant business. Wineries and sales companies that rely heavily on branding and status, eager to have their luxury brand associated with an aura of expertise so rare, are more than happy to expedite their move to the private sector.

Then there is the question which seems to me to dwarf all the others, which regards the amount of time that it takes to reach this vinous summit, to become the wine expert who finally remains to set our olfactory pathways aglow and flutter our taste buds. One need not have an abundance of experience with wine to surmise that there are a few things to know about it, or that many of the impressions worth having are incremental sorts of thoughts and capacities, the subtle kinds of things that someone who is interested in craft understands tend to arrive on their own schedule. Mastery of this sort is a matter of years and years, and comes not by way of a six or twelve or even twenty-four month course of study. Not since the Karate Kid waxed on and off for two hours to find his Zen has anyone entertained the possibility of a connection between youth and so much wisdom.

A young sommelier who is paying attention will commit herself to learning the basics, about regions and appellations and winemakers and varietals and vintages. And one lucky day she will for the first time hold a short glass of Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage, and she will know from smelling it that she’s holding something with explosive flavor. She may have some sense that there is something singular about it. The first taste feels like a tidal wave of ripe complexity—she can hardly catch her breath as she wonders whether those were fine tannins she just swallowed. What she cannot know, through no fault of her own, is how the 2009 Chave she just tasted compares with the 2008 wine from the same address. Neither can she know how the 2009 compares with the 2012, which is still in barrel in France. Neither does she know anything about how a Chave Hermitage from a comparable vintage made ten years ago seems today, but wow she would love to taste the 1999. Neither does she know very much about how Jean-Louis’ wines are stylistically different from the wines his father made for thirty years before Jean-Louis assumed the family mantle, or what broader implications for the wine world could be discerned in a generational handover of the winemaking reins.

And here is the rub, the great and most wonderfully-singular thing about wine: there will be no rushing any of it. Mother Nature allows no shortcuts here, no new technology to help in the quest to ascend faster than everyone else. If you know someone very generous and with a deep cellar of course you could sit and consider five vintages of Chave at once, but it won’t mean much without more context. It’s terrific that you’re fixated by 2010 white wines from the Jura; save your money and go to France and talk with winemakers in Arbois about sous voile winemaking and vintage variation in the foothills of the Alps. Eat Raclette until your skin smells like it. You’ll still have to wait five years to taste the next five vintages of the wines. There’s just no getting around it. The dial comes around every twelve months, my friend, not too much faster or slower. This is something about which to feel inspired and humbled.

Tasting wine and talking with people who have been tasting and talking about wine for ten or twenty or forty more years than I have, whether they have ever heard of carbonic maceration or not, reminds me of everything about wine and tastes and culture that I don’t know. And that is very likely exactly what it is that puts a kick in my step when I’m really enjoying dinner service. You never know what’s under the cork of that old bottle you just pulled from the cellar, or how it’s going to taste with the pizza. I’ve only tasted nebbiolo from the 1970’s twice before. Let’s open it.

So I think I won’t ever be interested in the master’s lapel pin, because I’d rather act the part of the guy who doesn’t know everything, because the old adage about realizing that you know less about wine as you start to know more is true. Because when it comes to wine, it pleases me to say, I have so much to learn.

And it’s not because I haven’t studied my flashcards.