A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards: Part 1

The History of Hanzell

When it comes to heritage, Hanzell Vineyards and Winery carries some of the deepest in California. It’s chardonnay and pinot noir serve as a hallmark of excellence in the United States,  its vineyards among the finest.

The winery proves historically important too for its history of innovation.

Ambassador James Zellerbach worked with viticulturist, Ivan Schoch, to establish Hanzell, purchasing the property in 1948 with the goal of planting vineyards that could grow wine among the best in the world. At the time, pinot noir and chardonnay were rarely planted in California.

Today, vineyards at Hanzell include blocks established in 1953, home to the oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay vineyard in North America. The Hanzell clone of each are considered among the important heritage clones of California.

Hiring winemaker-scientist Brad Webb in 1956, Zellerbach’s vision evolved in the winery as well. At Hanzell, Webb would become one of the first in California to use French barrels to age Chardonnay. More remarkably, he also established controlled malolactic fermentation by identifying the bacteria involved, and then went on to invent temperature controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks. Both inventions would change winemaking worldwide.

In 1973, Bob Sessions succeeded Brad Webb in winemaking. Having worked previously with Webb, Sessions work at Hanzell would begin congruent with the style established by the original winemaker. Through his tenure, however, Sessions slowly evolved the iconic Hanzell style.

Today, Michael McNeill serves as winemaker, having taken the helm after a brief tenure by winemaker Michael Terrain. McNeill regards himself as a guardian of the Hanzell style, wishing to maintain its unique signature while continuing to grow its quality.

Earlier this month I met with Michael McNeill curious to better understand how he sees his role as winemaker in a heritage house. We have tasted together previously but this meeting was an opportunity to converse in depth about McNeill’s work as winemaker.

Following is a transcript of our conversation split into two installments — the second will be shared here Thursday. As the original conversation lasted almost three hours, the transcript has been edited for length, and in a few places for clarity.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Looking out over Hanzell Vineyard with Michael McNeill

looking out over the historic Ambassador’s Vineyard, inside the historic Hanzell Winery with winemaker Michael McNeill, April 2014, photo courtesy Kate McKay

Elaine: Hanzell has had a few winemakers, including one that seems like a distinct style shift from what was established by Bob Sessions, and what you’re doing now. Part of what I find interesting in talking with you is how you describe your role as winemaker. You’ve said you’re job is to remain consistent with the Hanzell style. I’m curious how you worked to identify that style considering the various shifts and changes in winemaking here?

Michael: Well, initially it was a lot of information gathering when I got here in 2008. And unfortunately at that point in 2008, Bob’s dementia was setting in. So what I tried to do was really look back at what was being done in the late 90s, through the 90s, and essentially emulate that. But looking at the wines, tasting the wines, trying to in a way project how we would make those wines today.

I was looking through the records of what had been done, to get a sense of how things were done. I’ve had many conversations with Jose Ramos [Director of Vineyard Operations], Ben Sessions [Bob’s son who also works at Hanzell]; there is some living history here that I have been able to reference. I describe the way I see my role here as being guardian of the style of wine that we’re making here. But, being a winemaker, you always want to push the boundaries of quality. You always want to make it as best you can, or better than it was before. And how do you go about doing that while still respecting the style? It’s a challenge.

So, I view it very much like steering a tanker, with a real eye looking way ahead, making small, careful, thoughtful adjustments, so that you’re not changing things drastically, but you’re doing small-scale experiments to see how those changes might work, and carefully evaluating them over time.

Looking at Bob’s career here, 30+ years as a winemaker, if you look at where he started and where he finished, there were some pretty radical adjustments. We went from no barrel fermentation to 25 percent barrel fermentation. That’s a jump, but it took 20 years to get there. I see my role as kind of the same. We have planted new vineyards. We’re integrating those new vineyards into what we’re doing here. The Hanzell Sebella Chardonnay has been something for me to sort of – if I need to have my own ego stroke or my own project – Sebella has been very much something that I’ve brought here. But I strongly feel that Hanzell is really about this place and about the style that we’ve developed over many, many years.

Elaine: In some ways, it’s easy to guess the answer to this, but just to make sure I understand where you’re coming from: What about that period in the 90s makes you choose that as a concentration of focus?

Michael: One, those wines were spectacular, and have certainly shown their ageability; they have stood the test of time. And I really feel that those wines really showed what Bob was doing at his best. There was a real clarity, a real transparency to the wine that really is uncommon.

Elaine: That makes sense.

Michael: One of the nice things about being the Winemaker here at Hanzell is that it’s already here. It’s already established. It already has a style so I don’t have to wave my hands to get attention. So many young winemakers have to make a real bold statement to get attention now just because of how the wine industry is. I learned to make chardonnay and fell in love with pinot noir when I was at Chalone Vineyard back in the early 90s, so I think that I was uniquely qualified to come to Hanzell.

I spent six years at Chalone. It was a very, very special place to me personally. And back then, when we talked about age-worthy Burgundian-style chardonnay and pinot noir in California. It was Chalone, Calera, Mount Eden, and Hanzell. Chalone is no longer what it once was; and I really felt that — it really saddened me deeply. I don’t want to see that happen again. I don’t want to see it happen here.

Chalone was my winemaking finishing school. That’s where I really feel I was developed as a winemaker. At Chalone there was an established house style, so the challenge was making the wine better, but still, respecting the style of the house has been something that I’ve been brought up with.

I’ve done the opposite as well – after leaving Chalone, making wines in Oregon, up and down the state of California, having to make impact wines. But coming here felt very natural. I really and truly felt like the prodigal son coming home. Hanzell is a perfect place for me, and I hate to say I’m perfect for it, but I think I bring a unique set of sensibilities that most others wouldn’t. I certainly think that there are probably better winemakers out there. But I think to be successful here requires you to subvert your own ego, and really be able to take the back seat.

The historic Hanzell winery with Michael McNeill

standing in the historic Hanzell winery next to the original temperature control tanks, with Michael McNeill, April 2014

Elaine: I’m curious where you find satisfaction in this work.

Michael: Every time somebody tastes one of these wines, or makes the comment like, “Gosh, I really don’t like chardonnay, but I really like this wine,” it gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction. It was funny – every year we do library tastings with the entire staff, prior to offering a selection of library wines to our Ambassador’s Circle collectors. We – Lynda Hanson [Associate Winemaker] and I, started at the same time, we had one of our wines in the Library offering. We just looked at each other and said, “We’ve arrived.” We’ve been here long enough where we have a library wine now. That was very, very rewarding.

[At an event] last night, I took a magnum of ’98 chardonnay. I had a lot of people coming up to me, “This is the wine of the night.” And even though obviously, it was Bob’s wine, I’m still proud of its place. I’m proud of the style, it’s something that I really believe in. You know, that’s really satisfying. When people say, “Oh. Hanzell, this is fantastic,” … for me, just being associated with the property and the legacy here is very satisfying.

And the other thing is when I started, and we still do, we have tasting panels. The first few tasting panels, included myself and Lynda,  Jean Arnold, and Bob — who would still taste with us then because he had a lot of clarity — but also Kim Giles who was Bob’s predecessor. Kim Giles still sits in on tasting panels. And Michael Terrien sat in on them as well. In that I had access to the experience of Hanzell from 1967 until that day. So we were tasting through various blends and such, as Ben Sessions likes to say, there was a lot of constructive disagreement. But at the end of it, they all said, “McNeill, good luck with that.”

It’s great because I get a lot of input from people who have been so closely associated with the wines and the making of the wines on the property to bounce ideas off of. That’s the kind of thing I think is rare today, to have that kind of depth of history that’s still a part of the current day. Does that make sense?

Elaine: Yeah. That definitely makes sense. It seems like even those relationships, and bringing all of that to fruition would be rewarding; being the one that continues the legacy that means something to you. What made you want to shift back to a more heritage approach for your career after that period in Oregon and other parts of California?

Michael: Well, I guess I went from Chalone up to Oregon, and that was in 1996 and 1997, beginning of 1998. But I was there for the ’96 and ’97 vintages. The winter of ’96-’97 was a record year up there for rain. And the way the winery was set up, I walked in, in August, and I was handed a stack of two-dozen contracts, and told, “Go make wine.” And so I was driving from vineyards all the way from Eola Hills in Willamette Valley all the way down to Ashland in the Southern part of the state. I put 7000 miles on my truck in six weeks.

Then I went from making wine there to Savannah-Chanelle in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There I was doing similar things. I was making wine from vineyards from the Russian River all the way down to the Arroyo Grande Valley. There’s something kind of fun about seeing all these different vineyards and working with all this different fruit. But then I got the job at Keller Estate in 2003, and I really enjoyed working with the vineyard, and I got much more involved with grape growing. I guess my career started in the lab, my degree is in chemistry, so that’s a natural thing. It started there and went to general winemaking, and then I kept going farther out into the vineyard. That’s been great for me, because it’s been a constant learning experience because I hadn’t been in agriculture or a farmer before.

Tasting Hanzell

Elaine: So then you went from Keller to here?

Michael: Um-hm.

Elaine: Yeah. Was it just too exciting an opportunity not to come here? How did that happen?

Michael: It’s a great story, actually. I had been at Keller for five years. It was interesting. Jean Arnold was president here at Hanzell, and I had actually interviewed with Jean twice before. Once at Chalk Hill; when Dave Ramey left Chalk Hill, I interviewed there for the job. That’s when I first met Jean. I didn’t get the job. And then in ’98, I had just come back from Oregon and I started at Savannah-Chanelle, and I got a call from the same headhunter, and it was for the job at Williams Seylem. And Jean was then the president, and I didn’t get the job.

But Jean really made an impression on me, and I made it a point to maintain a relationship with her. Every time I saw her at a tasting, I made a point to go say hi. And if I hadn’t seen her for a long time, I would just call her up out of the blue just to say hi. But I’d never actually come here. I would just say, “Hey, Jean, how are you? How are things?”

So in April of 2008, it was a Thursday, I had an epiphany that I had pushed the rock as far as I could up the hill at Keller, and I was like, “God, what am I going to do? All I’ve done is chardonnay and pinot noir. Where would I go? What kind of winery would want me?” And I said, “Well, it doesn’t matter. This weekend, I’m going to clear my calendar and spiff up my résumé and get ready to look for a new job.” And when I came back from lunch on Friday, there was a message on my voicemail: “Hey McNeill, it’s Jean Arnold. How are you? Hey, we’re looking for a new winemaker. Maybe you know of someone. Give me a call.”

Elaine: Oh wow.

Michael: So yeah.

Elaine: That’s remarkable timing.

Michael: I still get goose bumps telling that story because it was one of those perfect storms. I just thought, “My god, that’s the place I need to be. I’m perfect for this job. It’s the perfect place for me. I have to get this.”

Elaine: That’s cool. So then you started in 2008?

Michael: Yes, I started July 1.

***

The remainder of the conversation with Michael McNeill will post Thursday. In it we discuss McNeill’s views of whole cluster fermentation in pinot noir, the idea of starting your own wine label, and what it means to capture site expression as a winemaker.

For the second half of our conversation: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/28/a-conversation-with-michael-mcneill-hanzell-vineyards-part-2/

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

1 COMMENT

Leave a Reply