Bob Sessions, a pioneering California winemaker best known for the acclaimed Pinot Noir and Chardonnay produced during his tenure at Hanzell Vineyards, died Tuesday in Sonoma. He was 82 and had Alzheimer's disease.
Sessions made his mark at Hanzell Vineyards, the Sonoma estate founded in 1957 by former ambassador to Italy James D. Zellerbach. Sessions oversaw 28 vintages at the winery — a remarkably long run — from 1973, when he was picked to succeed founding winemaker Brad Webb, until his retirement in 2001, when he took on the title winemaker emeritus.
Zellerbach had modeled his winery after Clos Vougeot in Burgundy, France, and planted the estate in the Sonoma hills exclusively with pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. (Since 1975 the winery has been owned by the de Brye family.) The style then and still today was to make subtle, complex wines that could age beautifully. Immune to trends, Sessions stuck to that style through the years.
"Sessions resisted technological innovation like a monk in a cloistered monastery," Wine Spectator senior editor James Laube wrote last week in an online tribute. "He felt bound by Hanzell's traditions and honored them, leaving a library of great wines most winemakers could only dream of."
The biggest challenge came in 2003, when Sessions had transitioned to consultant and his wife, Jean Arnold Sessions, had been president of Hanzell Vineyards for just one year. They discovered that the winery facilities had been tainted with the chemical TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) — and not just the corks, but the entire historic Sonoma winery building. To rectify the wine taint, which causes off odors and flavors, they acted aggressively, removing some wine from the market and building a new winery. They dealt with the crisis openly and correctly, saving the reputation of the winery.
Born Dec. 11, 1931, in Glendale, Session attended UC Berkeley, where he studied English literature and earned a degree in 1957. He picked up the wine bug on a trip through Europe after college. But he didn't take today's usual route and study enology at UC Davis. A self-taught winemaker, he started out at Mayacamas Vineyards in 1964, eventually moving up to the position of manager and winemaker.
Eight years later, he took a job as production manager at Souverain (now Rutherford Hill Winery) and later helped Warren Winiarski open Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.
He met his future wife at Hanzell Vineyards and married Jean Arnold Sessions the year after he retired. Two years ago, she said, her husband "forgot about wine"— he literally no longer knew how to make wine, according to a story January in the Wall Street Journal. Shortly thereafter, Jean Arnold Sessions, president of Hanzell Vineyards since 2002, had to move him into an assisted living facility, but she found one located next to a vineyard and made sure he could see the vines from his room.
Besides his wife, Sessions is survived by two children, Sarah and Benjamin; two grandchildren; and a brother, Tom. His first wife, Molly, died in 2000.