Milla Handley – July 10th, 2009

101_0002I met with Milla Handley at her winery (Handley Cellars) on Hwy 128 between Philo and Navarro and we sat down to chat in a conference room. I first asked her about the name ‘Milla’. “It was my grandmother’s name and then my mother’s (Milla Louise Hart), then I as the second daughter, and finally I then named my second child Milla too, but she uses Lulu after her middle name – Louisa. At one point I was going to be ‘Millicent’ so I’m glad they changed their mind!”
Grandfather Handley had left Baltimore during the Depression and gone to Dutch Guyana in South America to work on exporting hardwood back to the States. “It was a failure so he ran a General Store there instead before moving to British Guyana, but not before he had met my Grandmother and my father had been born. They returned to the States in 1940 when my father was sixteen. Following World War 2, father came out to California where he had a friend from his Navy days. He settled in the South Bay, which at the time was full of orchards. In 1952 he began buying fixer-uppers in the City, renovating them, and selling them on. In 1954 he started the first industrial real estate firm in Silicon Valley.”
“My parents met in San Francisco after the War. My mother’s father was an engineer on the Golden Gate Bridge, later dying in a plane crash off the coast of Pt. Reyes, and her family had been in the brewing industry in Portland at the Henry Weinhard Brewery which her great grandfather had founded.”
Milla was born in 1950 in San Francisco and the family lived in the Peninsular in rural Hillsdale. She has a sister a year older – Julie. They moved to Los Altos Hills in 1953. “I attended multiple schools in the area – public, private, parochial private, and public again. I graduated from Gunn High School in Palo Alto in 1969. I was an O.K. student but didn’t like school. My classmates were all very bright – this was Palo Alto and their parents were all exceptionally well educated. If I had been at a ‘normal’ high school I would have been one of the better students but at this one in Palo Alto I was never more than just O.K. Anyway, I survived it and can’t imagine liking it. I was shy and certainly ‘different’ at a young age. I kept to myself, unlike my father who was very outgoing. Because I kept myself to myself I was not popular. I was concerned about this at one point but once I realized I didn’t want to change then I was fine with it and my concerns stopped. My friends were horses and the people I knew from being around horses. From an early age, perhaps six or seven, I have never not had a horse. They have helped me survive life.”
Milla began her college career in the fall of 1969 at U.C. Davis where she wanted to study art. However, having stayed briefly at the Art Professor’s house while he was on sabbatical she decided against it. “He was crazy, although very talented. Besides, I’d already figured out that I might not be very good at art anyway. The professor was extreme in his designs, very controversial, a shock artist, certainly not ‘warm and fuzzy’. After staying at his house for a time I felt I needed to be more grounded and doing an art major can leave you emotionally vulnerable. It is not an easy major as some people think.”
Milla had realized at a young age that she wanted a rural lifestyle. She did not like cities. So with U.C. Davis a leader in both brewing and winemaking studies, and with very few rural breweries, Milla chose to study the winemaking business, breaking with the family beer connection. “I was not wine savvy but certainly knew a little about wines – my parents had always had a glass of wine with dinner so I was familiar with the culture to some degree. I like the idea of being tied to the environmental cycles, the idea of every vintage being different and having to adapt to the environment…Of course, most premium wine grapes are grown in nice climates and that is always a good thing too,” she added with a smile.
In those days of the late sixties, most college campuses were politically active and Davis was no exception even though it was an agricultural college and the ‘hippy protesters’ were not as prevalent there as at other U.C. campuses. Milla was involved in some of this and once sat on the rail tracks in town to stop a train that was carrying missiles. “That was very dangerous and we could have been killed as the train did not stop. I had previously been at a huge rally in San Francisco with my father who was not that liberal but was certainly against the war in Vietnam. Our high school organized a bus to the rally and my sister and I marched with the S.D.S. (Students for a Democratic Society) who were more radical than we realized. The march was peaceful, mainly just regular folks protesting calmly, although an uncle of mine who worked in the State Department was convinced that radicals and extreme leftists organized the protests. As fate would have it, over thirty years later my own daughter attended the San Francisco anti-war protests against the Iraq war.”
She met Rex McClellan in her first week at college and had been in the same circle of friends for some time before they began dating following his transfer into her  “hippy dorm.” Upon graduation from college in 1974 with a degree in Fermentation Science, Milla began an apprenticeship at the Chateau St. Jean Winery in Sonoma County and she and Rex moved together to the Santa Rosa area. They were married in 1975 – “I kept my name – my mother said it was because I couldn’t spell his.” Initially her job was in the labs but she stayed on beyond the temporary position and had become the Quality Control Manager by the time she left three years later. “My time at St. Jean taught me a lot about all aspects of the winemaking process and I often worked sixteen hour days. It also taught me how important it is to work well alongside others.”
In the fall of 1977 Rex had secured a job as Ranch Manager at Navarro Vineyards and they sold their house in Santa Rosa and bought property in Anderson Valley where daughter Megan was born in 1978. “I had been up this way just once before, not long after we started dating. Some friends had been in a motorcycle crash in the Valley and, whilst they were o.k., they could not come and get their bike so Rex and I rode up here to pick it up. As we rode along I remember saying to Rex, ‘How far away is this place?’ and every time we came into another small valley on our journey, ‘Is this it?’ ‘Is this it?’ It is far away I suppose but now that I live here I am fine with that.”
They bought the property that eventually would become the Claudia Springs Winery on Holmes Ranch/Guntley Road and Milla made wine in the basement. She got a winery permit and planted vines in 1982, producing her first vintage in 1986. Meanwhile she worked in the cellar and labs at Edmeades Winery under the mentorship of famed winemaker Jed Steele. Nevertheless, with her love of horses of paramount importance, some of the land on their property was set aside for horse pasture even though it was perfect for vines. “It was never going to be for vines why I was there!”
In 1985 they bought the nearby fifty-nine acre property that was to become Handley Cellars and the following year they planted vines. The property consisted of the historic Holmes Ranch house, the old barn, and iconic water tower. The winery was finished in 1987, in time for that year’s harvest. They finally moved in to live permanently in 1989 when they sold their property to two partners who each had a wife called Claudia – hence the name of the other winery. “Because of all the time I had spent in the basement the winery could well have been called ‘Handley Basement’ but, although we do allow for some quirkiness in the wine business in these parts, that would not have worked and so it became Handley Cellars.”
A second daughter, Milla Louisa McClellan, was born in 1986 and Milla believes she may ultimately be the one who comes home to stay one day. “She is a free spirit, definitely a ‘Lulu’, and has firm opinions about agriculture. She is currently in Berkeley staying with friends, cooking, working farmers’ markets, and she came up for harvest last year – she absolutely loved it. Meanwhile, Megan is now an attorney in Hawaii.”
Milla still loves being involved in the every day running of the winery and takes may be just a couple of days off a month, balancing the roles of proprietor and winemaker as she continues to be a part of every aspect of the operation from the vineyards and wines to the unique tasting room. With P.J. Nielson as her Controller at the winery and co-winemaker Kristen Barnhisel around most of the time, she feels they have great team leadership and the rest of the staff are all doing a great job. “I was captivated by the Valley’s possibilities from the moment I arrived. The people here in the Valley possess an independent spirit and I felt I could follow my own path, somewhat removed from the entrenched winemaking culture. I want the wines to capture the essence of this extraordinary place.”
The Handley Cellars Estate Vineyard was organically certified in 2005 by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) which is accredited by the USDA. “I think we are the only organic winery in the Valley.” The winery label reflects Milla’s love of tribal art and the tasting room décor emphasizes her love and respect for the natural world – a passion she received from her parents. She does not socialize in the Valley very often and since the death of husband Rex she believes she’s perhaps become even a little more reclusive in recent years. However, when not at work, she continues to spend special times with her horses and fellow riders.
“I love this Valley. Superficially, I love the weather but more important than that I think we have a wonderful and diverse community, always willing to step up and help each other when in need. This is good and bad as it also means that everyone knows all about you and your business. Some of the petty gossip is irritating and can be harmful. I have often called people on it – I think this is a good way to deal with it, having checked your facts first of course. The only other concern I have is that, being in a rural setting, medical care for the elderly who are without transport is an issue. Our volunteers are amazingly fast when 911 is called, spread out as they are throughout the Valley, but it is something I think about more and more as I get older.”
As I do with most guest interviewees, I now asked her opinions on various Valley issues and what better topic to start with for Milla than the Wineries? – “Overall I believe we have been a relatively good thing for the Valley. We at Handley firmly believe in sustainable and organic farming. Our goal is to preserve the land for future generations. If the wineries were not here there would be a significant effect on all the other businesses in the Valley. I hear the ‘monoculture’ argument against the wineries but whichever other agricultures people may suggest as a better alternative it has to be commercially viable. You had better be a damn good marketer to succeed in anything else here.”
“Wineries may be the only answer. Apples use more water and chemicals than vines and the timber industry has been in decline for years. Sheep and apples are all very well but are they viable financially and will they provide enough employment? I am part of the winery business obviously but I honestly think an alternative is difficult to come up with. We had a meeting of the wineries and local people some years ago and came up with some fine ideas. Organic farming is one. Fish-friendly is another. We do not do close-spacing of our vines; we want vines that do not need to be watered after they are mature. We try to support the community and have an event every year to support art in the schools. It has been important to me and my family to do this.”
“We have made wildlife corridors between our vines, more than some, not as many as others. We are very aware of this problem. Obviously water is a huge issue and the Navarro River Project will have a big effect on us all. We in the winery business have to be aware of not being arrogant. We must not set schedules about how many vines we must have and sustain; we should be flexible. We must make reasonable choices; we must be sustainable obviously. These are all issues of any rural/agricultural community but in this Valley we are often a little more vocal about things so it is always being discussed – which is fine of course.”
I asked Milla about the loud, frost-preventing fans that upset many people at certain times of the year for several hours, night after night. “That is a problem. It is no worse than the helicopters that used to carry out logs in the past or spray herbicides on the tanoak. I have to say that when you live here that is part of the way of life and it’s something you have to deal with when living here. However perhaps those residents who are affected by this should approach the wineries. I would think the wineries concerned would be accommodating. Using more water is an alternative frost-prevention but who wants to do that? Planting where there are no frosts would be a way for the future but not everyone can do this. Not having the fans on for such a long time by having someone paid to wait until it is absolutely necessary to turn them on is another possible answer. This is a problem, I agree, but to some degree it is part of life here.”
Now it was on to other issues…The School System? – “Not many schools have the diversity of backgrounds, ethnic and economic, that we have at our school and that is a good thing. I sometimes think our school is like life. If you do not like a teacher but are stuck with them then you have to ‘suck it up’ and try to treat it as an opportunity to develop character for the future – it is like the real world in that way. Our school is doing a good job with many kids going on to good colleges every year. The educational opportunities are provided by our school for the children and if the parents take responsibility too then the results will be positive”… The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I used to subscribe but not now, although I do read it if I see one around sometimes. I did enjoy the article about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple tragedy on its 30th anniversary last year – an excellent piece. I have often not agreed with Bruce. Being somewhat isolationist by nature, more so these days, I just don’t get to read it very often”… KZYX & Z local public radio? – “A good idea but I rarely listen.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing every week, I posed a few questions to Milla, many of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – ‘I love harvest – it is always something different every year.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Dishonesty; duplicity.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “The birds singing – except the squawking blue jays.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Any really loud noise.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “Shit!”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “There would probably several books…Err, there is ‘My Name is Red’ by the Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. I have given it to my sister twice and I imagine I will listen to it on tape again sometime soon.”

What is your favorite hobby? – “Horseback riding, without a doubt, although I also like gardening and like to work on my garden at home.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “At one point I wanted to be an artist but realized I would not have been very good. Something to do with horses would have been perfect. I used to enter the National Three-Day Eventing competitions – dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. As you may have guessed, I am very passionate about my horses.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “A mechanic working on cars. I do not like vehicles although over the years I have repaired plenty of other things around here and can fix things if I absolutely have to.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The birth of my first child”

What was the saddest? – “The death of my husband.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “I am a good person. I listen well. I am mentally different from many people I come across. This is good and bad. I look at the world with a different perspective than most and overall I think that it has been a positive thing for me.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “I think it would be good enough if he just said, ‘Welcome’…”

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Published in: on July 22, 2009 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

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