Anderson Valley pioneer Milla Handley dies aged 68

California winemaker Milla Handley, founder of Handley Cellars and a pioneer of wines from Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, has died of Covid-19 aged 68.

As reported by Wine Spectator, Handley, a trailblazer for women in wine, died on 25 July from complications due to the coronavirus.

In 1975, Handley was one of the first female graduates in fermentation science from UC Davis. Seven years later she was the first female winemaker in the US to launch an eponymous winery in the country.

Born in San Francisco on 17 August 1951, after graduating from UC Davis Handley worked alongside Richard Arrowood at Château St. Jean before becoming assistant winemaker at Edmeades in Mendocino County in 1978.

In 1982 she founded Handley Cellars in the Anderson Valley with her husband Rex Scott McClellan. Four years later she planted her first Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer vines at her now 11-hectare estate.

At the time there were just six other producers in the Mendocino sub-region, which was largely uncharted viticultural territory.

“I was captivated by the valley’s possibilities. The people here possess an independent spirit, and I felt I could follow my own path, removed from the entrenched winemaking culture. I wanted my wines to capture the essence of this extraordinary place,” Handley said of her move to the Anderson Valley.

Handley’s wine labels are inspired by the ancient textiles of the African Kuba tribes and the décor of her tasting room reflects her love of tribal art.

As reported by Wine Spectator, in 2005, Handley’s estate vineyard became the first California Certified Organic vineyard in the Anderson Valley.

She hung up her secateurs in 2017, with co-vintner Randy Schock taking over winemaking duties and her daughter, Lulu McClellan, taking over as president.

“My mother was someone who fearlessly walked her own path. She was passionate about making wine and working for herself, and never thought of herself as unusual or brave for pursuing these things at a time when it was rare to see women in these roles,” McClellan said in a statement.

“I can only hope to honour her legacy by continuing Handley Cellars’ ethos to make wines of place, and to support the community of Anderson Valley,” she added. Handley is survived by her two daughters, Lulu and Megan.

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