— You took over Handley Cellars from your mother, who was obviously a huge inspiration for you, and many others. Can you tell us about her, and some of things she taught you that you have within you today?
My mom, Milla, grew up in the South Bay of California in the 50s and 60s as that area was turning from rural farmland into Silicon Valley. She was always a little different and her somewhat bohemian parents allowed her to be that. She went to a “free school”--a school with no rules– that focused more on arts and crafts than academics. She spent all her spare time riding horses bareback though the hills surrounding her house, untwisting fences, galloping over the perfectly prepared soil for the new 280 Highway before it was paved. She loved horses and competed nationally in Pony Club, but she was incredibly shy and did poorly in school. She told me that she didn’t learn to read till 7th grade, but nobody knew because she would pay just enough attention in class and no one expected much out of her.
After high school, she went to UC Davis against her college counselor’s recommendation, but because it was where she was able to take her horse. There, she studied art under sculptor Robert Arneson, then-veterinary science, and eventually she found her way to enology, the study of fermentation. She wanted to live in the country and thought winemaking might be a good career. It wasn’t a diehard romantic obsession with wine that led her here, but rather a pragmatic approach: winemaking married her interest and background in art and science and she could do it where she wanted to live.
She met my dad Rex McClellan in college, and after graduation they moved north to Sonoma County, and eventually to Anderson Valley. My mom worked for other well respected winemakers but she knew she wanted to be her own boss, so she started Handley Cellars in her home basement in 1982, becoming the 5th winery in Anderson Valley and the first female winemaker & owner to establish a wine label with her own name in the US.
She made wines in a unique style for the time, really groundbreaking wines. California wines were (generally) really oaky, really big, a meal in a glass, and she made wines in a reserved style: low alcohol, tart, good with food not instead of food. This earned her critical acclaim really early on in her career and she grew the business out of her basement. With the help of her parents, she purchased the land in 1985 (where we are living today), built the winery and tasting room and planted her vineyards.
She wanted to make wines that were different from the norm. She found that being in rural, relatively unknown Anderson Valley allowed her to follow her own path and not be swept along with what everyone else was doing. She retired in 2015 and sadly passed away in 2020. I wish I had gotten more time to learn from her and to have her guidance as I stepped into her shoes at Handley Cellars, and in becoming a mother.
I call on her when I am stuck and in need of that inner compass. I know she must have wavered, but she was always able to see past what others expected of her or thought of her. And yet she did this with an incredibly generous and kind heart. She always valued people over her business and never had much, if any, ego wrapped up in her craft.
It’s this combination that I try to hold in me: her ability to not worry about how others perceived her actions, while at the same time, caring for and serving others. While I stumble every day, my mom is a guiding light that helps me reflect and reorient my direction. And as much as I try to fill the void she’s left, I also know that she wouldn’t want me to do anything just to live up to her expectations. She never pressured me to take the reins at Handley Cellars. She always encouraged me to leave and do other things. I think it was really important to her that my sister and I followed our own path. That we had a sense of right and wrong but were motivated by our own sense of self.
— Can you tell us about the area you live in, and how you enjoy its offerings?
I live with my husband Scott and our son Golden outside of Philo, California, a small town in southern Mendocino County. It’s very rural and completely magical here. Its offerings stem from the natural world: forest, river, fog, flowers, animals, mushrooms, stars. We live about 15 minutes from a paved road in the middle of a mixed conifer forest, in the house I grew up in. I love walking in the woods with Goldie on my back, or now walking alongside me, I love to garden and I love to gather friends to cook and eat. An ideal weekend day for Scott and me is driving out to the coast to Navarro Beach to have a picnic or read, and watch Goldie play in the sand and explore the driftwood. There’s no movie theater, mall, food delivery, or 24 hour stores here, and living remotely means constantly dealing with systems that break. Power outages take a long time to fix, city errands take the whole day. These challenges knit our community together. There’s a culture of helping; we all have more work to do than we can, and so people look out for one another, share resources, and work together. Because of the lack of services, you don’t live out here if you don’t like to work, so I think that spending time taking care of our basic needs, like food and shelter, is an interest shared by most people who live here and what draws us together.
— How has your journey been into motherhood? What are some of the biggest surprises for you in this role?
It’s been the most amazing and most challenging journey of my life so far. I love being a mother and it has helped put everything in perspective. Having even just one kid means there is so much less time in the day for work, chores, or myself, and the to-do list is always only ever getting longer. At the same time, difficult choices have become simpler to make, considering the needs of my family. The most surprising thing was finding out how hard the first few months were. How much babies need you, wake up and change all the time, and how normal that is but how unbelievably hard it is. The early postpartum time tested my every limit. I was also surprised by how hard birth and labor were, but that was my own naivety thinking it was going to be easy just because I did yoga and walked and took herbs and ate well--ha! Becoming a mother has made me more in tune with my intuition, more confident in myself, prouder than anything. Motherhood has been the most humbling experience because I constantly realize how silly it is to think I have control over how things turn out.
— Do you practice any family traditions?
Our family traditions revolve around food and gathering with friends and family. My favorite is making garlic pork on Christmas morning, which was a tradition I learned from my mom’s parents. It’s very simple, you marinate pork tenderloin medallions in copious amounts of chopped garlic and olive oil overnight and pan fry them in the morning, make a sauce by deglazing the pan with broth and adding pimentos, and serve piping hot over slices of crusty baguette. That was always our Christmas morning breakfast. Stinks up the whole house of garlic; my grandfather would always go around opening all the windows. It’s such a simple memory but brings me back to all the time we spent at my mom’s parents house and all the quirks they had that make me chuckle.
Both of my parents are now gone and memories like this are so dear. I miss the ways they were in the world–how they walked, hugged, the mischievous/annoyed/amused looks they had, and food has a way of flooding in all the memories of these things that happened in between events. You know? It’s the things that wouldn’t make a good story, or a story at all, that I miss the most about my parents. How they were, not what they did.
— Can you tell us about the wine you are currently making, and also if you are taking Handley Cellars in any new direction, or exploring anything within natural wine making?
We are so lucky to have our winemaker Randy Schock at Handley Cellars. He has been with us for over 15 years and spent a lot of time learning not only winemaking but also personal and community values from my mom. We mostly make Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a handful of Alsatian white wines like Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blanc. We are also making sparkling wine again--my favorite, and my mom’s. She was always excited about bubbly; when she planted the vineyard in 1986, she planted all sparkling wine clones to make methode champenoise wines. In 2021 we made a Pinot Noir Blanc--a white wine made from Pinot Noir grapes--and we are so excited to continue exploring all that this grape variety has to offer.
Randy is making subtle stylistic changes to take the winemaking back to our roots; he’s shifting to make more reserved, quieter wines by picking a little earlier, toning down aromatics, making wines that reflect the understated elegance of Anderson Valley. We farm our grapes about 10 miles from the Pacific and can make wines that are a little tarter but still ripe and full of fruit and flavor. We don’t have to sacrifice depth and complexity to keep our wines lower alcohol and more restrained. We want to make wines that whisper rather and yell, wines that possess what my mom would call a “come hither” quality.
My passion lies in agriculture and in doing our best to tend the earth. Our Handley Estate Vineyard was the first vineyard in Anderson Valley to become certified organic in 2005, and we certified the RSM Estate Vineyard, which my dad planted at our house, in 2017. I’m very proud that my mom took us in this direction so early on, and that we continue to farm all of our land organically. I think of organic as the bare minimum; organic practices mostly reduce harm by dictating what we can’t do on our land. While it’s super important that we minimize the chemical exposure to our workers and the land, I want to also bring practices to our farm that are additive, that go beyond the requirements of organic and positively impact our corner of earth. We are replacing old traditional landscaping with naturalist gardens that are both beautiful and provide year round habitat and food for bugs and birds and other animals. We are trying to create pockets of biodiversity wherever we can on our land. This Fall we are planting a California native hedgerow between our vineyard and the gravel road that runs along the northwest border. Our hope is to keep some of the dust from the road off the grapes while providing a robust habitat for a diverse ecosystem. We are cultivating a different kind of beauty than immaculately maintained landscapes with even spacing around desired plants and no weeds. To me this is a more compelling beauty. It’s a living beauty predicated on biodiversity, balance, and abundance that we facilitate and tend, but the hope is to set it up and let it go.
To me, any kind of claim toward natural winemaking must start in the vineyard, and by living and working where we farm, we do our best to keep in communication with the land. To notice how drought, frost, and weather affect it and to make little human steps to benefit the land, and in turn, the vineyard. Organic farming is not only better for the people working in the fields and the people consuming the product, it should also allow the land to engage in its natural cycles. Allowing life to grow around and among the vines helps the vineyard participate in the hydrologic cycle, the seasonal rhythms of animals, and helps take some of the burden off of us to make sure we provide everything the vineyard needs to grow and remove everything undesirable. The wild edges of our vineyard interact with and support the vines. The more biodiversity we encourage around and in our vineyard the healthier, more resilient, and more dynamic the vines and the grapes will be. Healthy grapes need less intervention in the cellar and provide more unique expression in the wine. We keep our inputs minimal while maintaining enough control of the fermentation process that we can be confident the wines will taste just as good after we’ve shipped them across the country to you.
We have started a tiny side project, called CLAY. We will be releasing about 10 cases of skin contact Pinot Gris fermented in an Italian terracotta egg. The only thing we added to this wine was an aquarium heater to get the fermentation going. This is a funky wine, and it’s really fun to play with, and a tangent from Handley Cellars. Handley wines are clean, bright expressions and we value the dependability we can achieve by inoculating naturally selected yeast and the stability of adding minimal sulfur. Some “natural wine” is incredible, but a lot of the ‘natural’ wine out there is terribly flawed and tastes like it’s gone off. There is no real definition of what makes a wine ‘natural’ and I take issue with labeling wine ‘natural’ if you aren’t talking first and foremost about the farming practices.
— And for yourself, who is a busy woman! How do you nourish yourself, what kind of things do you do for yourself when you’re feeling fatigued or burned out?
Nothing is better than a walk in the forest, without my phone! I love when I get to do yoga. That’s something I miss a lot now that I have a little one. And soup, I can’t overstate how a bowl of hot broth brings me back to life. I love to sit and look at the light and just do that. I feel incredibly lucky to live in a place where nature surrounds me and I try to pause often and appreciate this gift. I also love to knit and watch junky period pieces like Bridgerton and Outlander.
— How did you feel on the Anaak shoot? Did any of the garments or colours spur new feelings or ways of moving for you?
I felt like a woodland sprite wearing the emerald green Airi dress. I wouldn’t have thought silk would make for good hiking wear, but there was a tree down across the road to the vineyard and feeling the fabric of that dress enveloping and caressing me while walking in the woods was delightful. I love how all of Anaak’s clothes are so easy to wear, elegant and feminine.