I don’t remember the name of the restaurant, nor does my wife. But it was in the Anderson Valley in mid-September 2006. We’d been married for ten years at that point and were looking to celebrate our anniversary. I’d also been working at Paul Marcus Wines, in Oakland, California, since 1996, happily drinking and selling Milla Handley’s wines, so in a conversation with Paul, while doing just that, he suggested we stay up at Handley Cellars for a few nights.
I called the winery that afternoon and Milla answered the phone, immediately suggesting we meet her on our first night. She greeted us as old friends might, with a bottle of her 1996 sparkling rosé. It was fresh and bright and filled the room with the scent of strawberries and dirt. She modestly told us how she loved making sparkling wine, but the profit could never be measured in dollars. Do all winemakers seek labors of love?
So began a years-long friendship. I have long said that the quality of a wine may be measured by the intensity of the conversation that it begets, that better wine allows more language. So it is with so many of Handley’s wines: They allowed so many people to discuss so many things openly and with passion. “Only Connect” said E. M. Forster, and so it is with wine, and with Milla Handley.
It may seem that each event or relationship in our lives follows its own orbit, but those paths inevitably intersect with others over time. For me, Milla was a point of constant intersection. As in January 1997 when I began dialysis treatments—every other day, for five years.
During those five years, it was mostly the same people getting treatment each time; death was the only variation. While we all sat there, we talked about sports, or pop music, until one day I met George, who, apropos of nothing, said he liked Château Rayas, a legendary Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer. He added, rather offhandedly, but in no way boastfully, that he especially liked the 1978. “Yeah,” I said, “duh. I prefer it in magnum.”
“What I really love,” he said, “is just being among the vines…” and he went on to describe this great winery up in the Anderson Valley called Handley Cellars. He went on about how much he liked Milla. Our conversation made all the subsequent dialysis treatments easier. Hell, it made us healthier.
Two weeks later, he and his wife, Lauren, and Sue and I were sitting on the wrap-around deck at the Handley Cellars guest house, sipping dusty bottles of Rayas–the 1990 and the 1978–with a bottle of Rayas’ 1990 Pignon on the table, unopened. The pond was humming with life—or was that me?—late mist scarving the vines, birds riding the valley winds. Milla had brought us to the Deep End.
George passed 10 years ago, and I think of him every time we wind up Highway 128.
And now, I think of Milla and all she did for the wine industry, for female empowerment, but mostly I find myself thinking about how she connected people and places with her wonderful wines.
Milla’s daughter Lulu (Milla Louisa McClellan), now runs the winery and is due to give birth in a few weeks. Of course I see her mom in her, and every time we go up to Handley with our daughter, Aya, we make a point to share a meal with Lulu and Scott. One day, soon, I know our kids will play together in the vineyards Milla planted.
Chad Arnold is a wine-seller, a poet and a professor of Poetry and Classics at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California. He lives in Berkeley with his wife, Sue, and daughter, Aya.
This is a W&S web exclusive. Get access to all of our feature stories by signing up today.