Hanzell Vineyards Winemaker Emeritus Bob Sessions Dies at Age 82
May 14, 2014
Bob Sessions, the pioneering vintner best known for his work for more than 41 years at Hanzell Vineyards, died peacefully surrounded by family in Sonoma on Tuesday, May 13, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 82 years old. Sessions is survived by his wife, Jean Arnold Sessions (current President of Hanzell) and his children Benjamin and Sarah, his brother and sister in-law Tom and Darlene Sessions, his sister in-law Lyn Sessions and his grandchildren Joshua and Joseph. Sessions was preceded in death by his long-time wife and partner, Molly Cross Sessions.
A public celebration of his life will take place on June 8th; details to be announced at a later time. Donations in Sessions’s name may be made to Pet’s Lifeline, 19686 8th Street East, Sonoma, CA 95476 or the Sebastiani Theater Foundation, PO Box 874, Sonoma, CA 95476.
Sessions, a native of Southern California, was first introduced to the world of fine wine while a student studying English Literature at University of California, Berkeley. A summer motor scooter trip with a close friend through France and a side trip excursion to the home of his Brussels-born college roommate’s father opened his eyes to the culture and profession of winemaking, fine wine collecting and fine dining.
Sessions graduated from the University of California Berkley in 1957 and a few years later, in 1964, his career in winemaking began when he took a position as manager and winemaker at Mayacamas Vineyards located at the top of Mount Veeder. It was during this time that he first met R. Bradford (Brad) Webb, founding winemaker at Hanzell Vineyards.
In early 1972, Sessions left Mayacamas Vineyards to become the production manager at a new winery in Rutherford called Souverain Cellars (now the site of Rutherford Hill Winery). It was at Souverain Cellars that he realized his preference for small, family run operations.
While assisting his good friend Warren Winiarski with the opening of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Sessions was approached by Brad Webb to interview for the position of winemaker and general manager at Hanzell Vineyards, an opportunity he was quoted as calling “a once in a lifetime.”
He first assumed the role of Winemaker & General Manager of Hanzell Vineyards in 1973, and always took to heart the dreams and visions of its founder, Ambassador James D. Zellerbach, in producing wines that equal the best in the world. “Such long continuity is one of the things that make us different from other wineries,” Sessions had said. “We inherited a standard of ingrained quality and commitment to maintain not just the special taste and smell of the wines, but the breadth, depth and length of the overall quality.”
This continuity has been carried on by the de Brye family, who purchased Hanzell Vineyards in 1975. Proprietor Alexander de Brye worked closely with Sessions and the team to maintain the standards that were established decades ago. “The de Brye family are forever grateful to have worked with Bob through his years at our estate,” said Proprietor Alexander de Brye. “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.”
Sessions produced Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that are equal to the greatest wines in the world during his tenure as President and Winemaker of Hanzell Vineyards. His steadfast belief in never taking shortcuts or what he called the “Hanzell Way” is best explained through his actions over the years. For example, his steadfast commitment to St. George Rootstock has kept the estate safe from phylloxera and his deep belief in rigorous pruning vine by vine has kept the quality of fruit at the highest level on the estate.
In 2002, Sessions retired and assumed the role of Winemaker Emeritus, passing on his knowledge and experience to the winemakers that followed, including current Winemaker Michael McNeill, only the fifth winemaker in the estate’s history. “Bob was so very integral to Hanzell. He was a great winemaker and a real gentleman. His memory will continue to inspire me both as a winemaker and as a person,” said McNeill.
With legendary attention to detail, Sessions created wines that could be cellared for decades on a path parallel with Grand Cru Burgundy. Very few winemakers in the world have achieved such singular vision and left as astonishing a legacy of quality and longevity.
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