The Mendocino County wine industry mourns the loss of a true leader, an inspiration, a maverick, a colorful character, and a dear friend. Milla Handley blazed the trail for winemakers in Anderson Valley, and left behind a legacy of innovation and quality, friendship and fun.
Gathered here are some wonderful “Memories of Milla” to celebrate the ever-playful and lovable…MILLA!
Although we both were raised in Los Altos, I didn’t get to know Milla until she worked with Jed Steele at Edmeades Vineyards. I started Greenwood Ridge Vineyards in 1980, she started Handley Cellars in 1982; there were only a few wineries in Anderson Valley then. We all worked together and supported and helped each other in many ways; she and I grew up in the wine business together. She was as genuine and down-to-earth as one can be. I’m delighted to see her daughter Lulu keeping Milla’s dream alive.
Milla hired me to design her labels and visual image in 1982. In a bizarre coincidence I found out that at the same time my father was working for Milla’s father designing a renovation and restoration to his Folk Art International store on Maiden Lane in San Francisco.
We always seemed to be connected somehow. In 2013 we collaborated on a cruise to Alaska for our wine club members, where she demonstrated her typical generosity as a gracious host.
I was never clear if Milla was an introvert or an extrovert. I saw both. When she was inspired by a story her eyes would sparkle and her enthusiasm peaked. I can recall one story about pigs. Actually, wild boar. The story started with a family of wild boar running along the road. Milla was giving chase (why?). The piglets would tire before the mother pig and Milla was soon able to catch the slowest in the group. Leaning down she scooped up the breathless runt and then headed back home with the piglet tucked under her arm. A feast for supper? A pet for Lulu? I don’t know exactly how the story concluded. But the image of Milla running down a dirt road in pursuit of a family of pigs stands by itself.
While Milla was very adept in the winery, her real love was being in the vineyard. She chose to farm organically, not just for the land, but for the people on it. She was not afraid to put ugly things in her mouth and really taste things. I did not believe her in 2008 when she came back to the winery saying the unde-rripe grapes had smoke taint and tasted like licking a dirty ashtray. Same with sour rot in Sauvignon Blanc from Dry Creek. She picked up on the little things in the vines that I did not notice. With her help, overtime with focus I began to notice subtle things that were very apparent to Milla. We shared a love for family, animals, and the outdoors. Little things in nature got her attention and brought her joy. She was fascinated by damselflies, wild mushrooms, changes in season, and if the redwood lilies bloomed again in their secret spot. She very playful and mischievous, especially when outdoors and when we walked the vineyard. I remember her one day throwing rotten Asian pears at me, and of course I fired back. Just like two kids laughing all the way, and that’s how I like to remember her. With love and I appreciation, I say goodbye to a dear friend and mentor who supported and encouraged me to be the best person I could be, not just a winemaker.
What I remember most about Milla was how much I liked it when she was behind the bar at the tasting room. She brought a wholesome simplicity to the wine you were sampling. I also remember the pride she expressed with the opening of the new winery. The following image is Milla in the original winery, which was her basement in 1987 before Handley Cellars winery was built, later to become Claudia Springs winery. Her wines always reflected her pure down to earth attitude about what see was doing. No pretense, just purely clean enjoyable wine…a perfect reflection of her personality.
Just one of my many recollections of Milla is that she never got upset or overly excited, but she still got the point across when something wasn’t “quite right”. I remember a time in the late 80’s I was moving case goods out of the old winery at her house to the existing winery. Along the way something did not go quite right, and a couple cases fell off the truck and broke. I was sure she was going to come unglued! But she took everything in stride and never lost her cool. Back then we would sometimes do a 38-hour shift at harvest and she would always have plenty of food for the crew and was always so appreciative of all the work we did. It made the day never seen all that long and it was a great pleasure to work with her.
Milla was at her happiest when she was in the vineyard and the cellar, even in the chaos of harvest. One day, she was experiencing a problematic fermentation, and rushed out to buy dry ice to slow it down. Sometime later, she came into the office, covered from head to toe in grapes and grape juice. “It exploded!” she exclaimed, with a happy wide grin on her face.
I have emails and notes of communications from Milla going back more than 20 years. We met in the mid-90’s. She was one of the first women of wine I ever met that kept it real, was genuine about everything, smart and kind. She was strong, she was a visionary. Milla had an interesting depth of knowledge and perspective of things wine that I had not encountered before. She was an inspiration. I loved that she said what was on her mind and never held anything back. I was always so grateful that she shared so much about the wine world, as she knew it, from her lens. She was always humbled when I sang her praises and even sometimes made me feel like a bit of an overzealous fan. I was. I am. Uncorking my last bottle of 2003 Handley Sparkling Rosé as I write this, I feel the memories of Handley cellar aromas, the beauty of all vistas around her vineyards, the art, in every form that was ever present at every turn on her estate. Reflecting on the first Anderson Valley Pinot Noir tech conference when she held nothing back once she had the floor. She was not a comfortable public speaker, but she rocked it, nonetheless. She was happy to share things that might have made some people in the audience a bit antsy… like, “oh planting our vineyards back when we did may have been a good screen to hide all of the pot growing.” I almost fell off my chair, the stuffy woman sitting next to me (I won’t name drop) certainly was disturbed. Everyone else in the room laughed, applauded, and went with it. What a time that was, like so many. I will miss Milla. I am very grateful to have had Milla in my life and for this glass of her sparkling Rosé; while wishing I had more bottles of it, it holds in it a thousand bubbles each bursting with memories that will linger long after the last sip has been enjoyed.
I have so many memories of Milla because we shared an important part of the history of winemaking in the Anderson Valley. Some of the memories are of course about wine: committee meetings to form the appellation, wine tasting events, even a radio interview we did together. However, my best memories of Milla have more to do with raising our children together and the challenges and pleasures of being working Moms. Milla’s daughter Meghan and my son Aaron were both born in 1978. Anderson Valley was and is a small knit community so from the beginning there were shared play dates, preschool, learning to swim in the Navarro River, the first day of kindergarten with Milla and I looking on in awe. As the children grew there was the sixth grade Shakespeare performance, birthday parties and of course, the excitement surrounding the Boonville Fair. One of my last times seeing Milla before she retired was at the Philo Post Office. I had a newly installed car seat in the back of my car for a new grandchild. Milla said, “Wow, it is amazing to see a car seat in your car.” I am so sorry that Milla will never have the pleasure of seeing her own grandchild safely buckled in.
The last time I saw Milla Handley was three years ago, on the eve of the Mendocino County Fair Wine Competition, when with her twinkling graciousness she opened her Handley Cellars for a reception for judges. The gathering was an apt reminder of her individuality, intelligence, and good humor. She had the grounding and the gumption to do things her way, all of which went far to establish Anderson Valley’s standing for wines of character and value. As a measure of her experience and world view, the setting was as much art gallery as tasting room, given over to her extensive collection of Latin American, Balinese, and African folk art. The pieces were pleasantly distracting and provocative, which in their range, detail and history nicely paralleled the wines that were being poured, a collection of folk art on their own. When Milla Handley founded Handley Cellars in 1982, no one knew what grapes would thrive in Anderson Valley and what wines would establish its stature, but by her daring she subsequently showed that the area could produce many of the finer examples of Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Pinot Noir to come out of California. May her legacy continue.
Julia Kendrick Conway
I first met Milla and her late husband Rex when I returned to the Mendocino Coast in 2002. They were customers of mine at Harvest Market. As I was involved in the Promotional Alliance, and later the Wine and Winegrape Commission, we had frequent interactions around the Pinot Fest and other events. We catered both at the winery and at the Ranch House.
One event was a press welcome dinner for the Pinot Fest at the Ranch House. It was an intimate and low-key event, and once everyone had eaten, we were all lounging on the veranda. Milla decided to open a flight of library sparkling wines from her collection, and we were enjoying some beautiful wines, including my favorite, her brut rose’, which is only produced in years where the grapes are perfect. It was a warm evening, and we were all enjoying the wine and conversation. We realized it was getting late, and I went to grab my bag and my keys to head back to the coast. Milla intercepted me at the door, and with her best motherly tone of voice, demanded my car keys. I was standing with Ziggy Eschliman, and we both started giggling. Milla wagged her finger, and told me she was absolutely serious, and that I was not going to drive back to the coast. Ziggy was staying in the upstairs suite over the winery, and Milla told her to make me up a bed on the floor. We headed upstairs laughing like a couple of teenagers, with a half-finished bottle of brut rose’ in hand. It was like a slumber party, and we sat up talking late into the night.
I do not think I have ever had a client take away my car keys, before or after. Milla had a huge heart, and in some ways, we were all her kids.
I have that memory of a Pinot Noir Festival dinner that happened at Handley Cellars.
I was always doing one dinner at Roederer Estate but that year we had teamed up to do the usual coop dinner at Handley with Milla. The winemakers take turn to talk about their wines and answer questions that guests may have.
Milla as the host started to introduce the event and her first wine, and then had so many things to say and was jumping from one topic to the next, that it became clear I was going to have a hard time to be able to say something.
Needless to say, Milla’s energy and passion kept her talking for a while. She was not trying to keep me from talking … it was just that she had so many stories and things to say! I finally could get my turn, but much later that evening!
Milla was a very good and smart person. She had a determination that drove her to do what she needed to do to succeed. She did it beautifully. We had many good times together, at events, dinners, wine tastings or just visiting. I miss her and am so glad that her legacy will be carried on by her family. My thoughts are with them at this time.
Right from the start, Milla was a tour de force. When I first met her in 1987, there was no doubt she had an outsized influence on winemaking in the Anderson Valley and that she would, by sheer determination and willpower, make Pinot Noir the signature grape of the region. Oh, she loved the Alsatian varietals, and Chardonnay, too, but Pinot was always the thing she chased. In one of the first stories I wrote about her, I called her “The Maypole of Anderson Valley,” because she understood three important things critical to the wine business: hospitality, humor and humility. Her parties were epic, her stories were mostly unrepeatable, and her jokes were again, unrepeatable. Her generosity was as natural as her childlike love and appreciation for everything in nature. My favorite memories of Milla are walking with her in the vineyards, admiring the light on the far hills, the way the fog played over the pond, appreciating every flower, every bird, every drop of dew. Because while the devil is in the details, the angel is in the heart of things.
Milla was a pioneering lady- among the first wave of women winemakers and winery owners in CA- and had the vision to choose the Anderson Valley for her dream long before it was a widely known wine growing region. She faced naysayers and persevered, embracing organic practices in the vineyard long before that became a major selling point to consumers.
To me, she was a major source of inspiration- super encouraging, good humored and kind. When I first arrived in Mendocino County, she and I walked both of her vineyards- Handley and RSM. I’ll always be grateful for the encouragement and advice she offered as I discussed my vision for Wentworth Vineyard. To hear the words of affirmation from someone who had accomplished so much and who I admired greatly touched me deeply and helped reinforce my own courage to pursue another dream along the outer limits of California’s viticultural regions in the Mendocino Ridge AVA.
I worked for Milla for 5 years, over that time I experienced many things but, the times I remember the fondest were the days when stress and anxiety levels were crazy high – we’d have a deadline to meet or something of the sort. She’d say, “Let’s go for a ride!” We’d jump in her 50’s Mercedes convertible and drive to the coast. At first, I was always anxiety ridden the entire trip, thinking about all we had to do. She always said I’d never get my work done in the state of stress I was in. She was right! We’d take off for a couple of hours, let the stresses and anxiety go and comeback refreshed and ready to finish with a fresh state of mind. I learned many of lessons on those sunny afternoon rides to Mendocino. I tribute lots of my professional theories and behaviors to Milla’s wisdom.
I first knew Milla Handley when we both in our twenties. I was at Milano Winery; she was working at Edmeades in the Anderson Valley. A couple of years later, after I had left Milano, we were both working at Edmeades, and as we were working a crush together one night, I remember there being a full moon and as we pulled hoses, hot, sticky and disgusting I told her that I was done with working crush, and would much prefer to be selling, rather than making wine. She, on the other hand loved the work. I was so impressed with her work ethic, so smart, and totally unafraid to throw herself into it.
Milla moved forward to start her winery, and I started my Distributing Company. We would often taste wine together and she would share her interest in French wines with me, tasting was in her House/Winery with 4 or 5 year old Megan running around our feet as we tasted. She had a wonderful pallet, and was a great teacher as well. I learned so much from her.
My memories of Milla Handley are less of a specific incident, than a 30-year relationship that was initially Business Based, as we were privileged to represent her wines to the wholesale market, but much more importantly it was based on respect, and a level of affection as well.
Milla was certainly a superb Winemaker, her wines always balanced, and so expressive of the fruit from which she made them. Her unbridled demand for quality could lead her to forgo quick “fixes”, and even in the case of one chardonnay vintage that so offended her, she refused to release it. We all had to work with very limited product through a year of short supply. It was very inconvenient, but boy, did it increase my respect for her. It also allowed those of us representing her work in the marketplace to point to this abundance of respect for quality as a guaranty of the product in the bottle. Milla had an uncanny ability to pick quality people to work for her, and of course it was a workplace that early on valued, supported and empowered women, in the early days, not so common. Personally, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t look forward to a meeting, or just a “stop by” on my way from the Coast back to Ukiah, with Milla. She had that very rare and such valuable trait called Common Sense. I remember telling her once, that should I ever return to the producer side of the business, she would be the only person I would want to work for.
She was a singularly wonderful person and trade partner and is much missed by us all.
Michael and Joan Pinette
Milla was a kind, intelligent, driven and powerful woman that single-handedly changed an industry forever — showing other women a new career and path forward. We were first introduced to Milla via dear friends Laura Ness and Greg Richtarek. In fact, we have had many a wine tour with Laura and Greg and the trip to Anderson Valley remains memorable to this day as we were first introduced to Milla and her enchanting tasting room with gifts from her travels. The wine was always, always superb. Whenever I see it on a shelf, I take a few bottles home with me. We’ve also been very fortunate to have stayed at the Handley Cellars surrounded by the lovely vines pruned to perfection. When I saw the news, my heart sank. Such a tragedy to lose a titan of the wine industry to such a senseless disease. I too lost my Mom to Covid in May — still feeling the loss. May you be at peace knowing Milla had a giving heart, a legacy of strength and vision, and a warmth that venerated all to whom she met. We will miss her!