Bob Sessions, one of California's great winemakers, has died at 82 after a 10-year decline due to Alzheimer's disease.
Sessions was the longtime and greatly respected winemaker at Hanzell Vineyards, the Sonoma estate founded in 1957 by Ambassador James D. Zellerbach. A big fan of Burgundies, Zellerbach planted his estate in the Sonoma hills exclusively with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
In 1973, Sessions took on the job at Hanzell and directed the winemaking there for 28 vintages before he retired in 2001. That's a remarkable run.
By all accounts, Sessions was modest and uncommonly competent. Writing in Wine Spectator today, James Laube quotes vintner Richard Arrowood as saying, "With the winemaker's mind that he had, he was one of the best."
Laube, who has covered California wine for Wine Spectator for decades, comments, "Sessions resisted technological innovation like a monk in a cloistered monastery. He felt bound by Hanzell's traditions and honored them, leaving a library of great wines most winemakers could only dream of." Hanzell's Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, particularly those from the 1960s and '70s, have aged incredibly well.
Sessions didn't come by his skills by studying enology at UC Davis, though. In fact, Laube reports, he had no formal education in winemaking. With a degree in English from UC Berkeley, he started out as a cellar rat at Mayacamas Vineyards in 1964, moving up to manager and winemaker. In 1972, he moved onto Souverain (now Rutherford Hill Winery) and later helped Warren Winiarski open Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.
Winiarski, now owner of Arcadia Vineyard, characterizes Sessions' contributions at the winery as "a model to judge whether we were accomplishing our goals for excellence. Personally, to me, his friendship, warm-hearted support and marvelous, ever-generous sense of humor were great comforts in those sometimes difficult pioneering days. His life will be remembered with fondness and gratitude."
When Sessions retired from Hanzell Vineyards in 2001 and became winemaker emeritus, Laube wrote, "In 38 years of winemaking, including 28 at Hanzell, Sessions savored the reclusive environment Hanzell provided, set in the hills above the city of Sonoma. Never long on words, Sessions was content to toil in the vineyard and tinker in the cellar and let the wines do the talking."
In a moving January article in the Wall Street Journal, Lettie Teague spoke with Sessions' wife, Jean Arnold Sessions, president of Hanzell Vineyards. Two years ago, she said, her husband "forgot about wine," and by that she meant that he literally no longer knew how to make wine. Shortly after, she had to move him into an assisted living facility — one located next to a vineyard that he could see from his room.
In a statement, Hanzell Vineyards proprietor Alexander de Brye, said "Bob was a close friend and confidant to my family. He was loved very much and will be remembered for his kindness, gentle warm spirit, and of course for his passion for wine and Hanzell."