This spring I had the pleasure of interviewing Jean Arnold Sessions, former President and now Board Director of the historic Hanzell Vineyards, Sonoma, California. Jean, and her winemaker husband, Bob Sessions, who just died this past May, were the subject of a feature interview in the Wall Street Journal, “When a Great Winemaker Must Move On”.
Prior to Hanzell, Jean Arnold Sessions held increasingly responsible positions in the wine industry including CEO of Jackson Family Farms and its nine independent wineries. She has been a woman pioneer in a male-dominated industry. With over twenty-five years of prime wine experience, some of her notable work occurred as the head of the Jean Arnold Group. This consulting firm worked with important wineries including: Chateau Montelena, Jordan Vineyards & Winery, Chalk Hill Estate and Williams Selyem. Jean is a frequent guest lecturer and is published in Wine, A Global Business- Chapter 6:the Importance of Brand.
Jean is a thriver. She is a woman at the top of her profession who has met and overcome incredible life and work challenges. She’s a Stage 3 breast cancer survivor and her beloved husband and winemaker-emeritus of Hanzell, Bob Sessions, just passed away after having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In the midst of those personal crises, Hanzell Vineyard had a contamination issue that was investigated, the problem was solved, and Hanzell’s solutions are serving as a beacon for many other wineries in dealing with the cork-taint problem. Although Hanzell’s issue was not a health risk (only an aroma issue), the winery’s cost to launch an intense investigation, “pause” the wine production, and identify and correct this flaw was high, while only 5 cases of wine were actually returned.
Other winery Presidents might have swept such concerns under the rug. Instead, Jean Arnold Session and the Hanzell owners directly addressed their issue and the resultant discovery and solution served to educate and benefit the entire wine industry. Hand-written notes and emails poured in from around the world to thank Hanzell for alerting the industry. The personal integrity, grit, and determination of this remarkable woman are an inspiration for all of us.
Please see the Jean Arnold Sessions 2012 presentation to Napa Valley Vintners in: “Personal Connections: Jean Arnold at TEDxNapa Valley” and to view her story.
Hanzell Vineyards, established in 1956, is an icon of the California Wine Industry. It was the first winery to be specifically devoted to the Burgundian grape varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. One of Hanzell’s vineyards is the oldest existing Pinot Noir producer in North America. These picturesque vineyards are tucked in a unique area of Sonoma County where they receive the cooling influences of both the Petaluma Gap as well as the San Pablo Bay.
The Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs of Hanzell Vineyards have won numerous awards and are known for their ageability and finesse. These highly prized characteristics are detailed in the video interview.
See our YouTube video: “An Interview with Jean Arnold Sessions: Hanzell Winery” for details on Hanzell Chardonnay, Pinot Noir. Also included in the interview is Jean Arnold Session’s perspective on women in the wine industry and the gains they have made in a once male-dominated field.
Below is an excerpt from an interview with Jean Arnold Sessions (JAS) by Tricia Conover (TC), Contributing Wine Editor, PRiME.
Tricia Conover (TC): Considering the demographic of our PRiME subscribers, what do you think they will find important about Hanzell Vineyards?
Jean Arnold Sessions (JAS): Women like education. I think women appreciate the “Ethical Pedigree” of our wine: the core values, that we are ethical, that we the care for our employees, the sustainability of our growing and producing methods, that we are taking care of the land and the people, the sociability of our wines. Our wines pair well with food and enhance the conviviality of social occasions.
TC: Hanzell has been a pioneer in the winemaking process from early in your history in the areas of fermentation, aging, and winemaking in general. What do you think are the lasting contributions that Hanzell has made?
JAS: Thank you, Tricia. Some of these were game-changers for the quality of winemaking…worldwide. We were the first to use temperature controlled stainless steel tanks (made in Fresno) for fermentation, the first use small French oak barrels for aging. These were game-changing techniques in the winemaking world. The ambassadors from Chateau Haut-Brion in Bordeaux came to see what we were doing. We are now working with coopers (barrel makers) on some specific barrel experiments and we are doing tannin research. The legacy has not wavered for this piece of land. Our goal has been to make wines that are the best in the world.
TC: How do you recommend selecting a wine for a special occasion or at a restaurant?
JAS: I recommend you do your homework, educate yourself, ask for advice. Look at the flavor descriptors, ask your friends. Get to know your retailer well. Tell them what you like and have them put a combination together for you. Most of my customers have their 5 categories of wine purchases: their garage/patio wine, everyday wine, once-a-week wine, once-a-month wine, and their collectible wines.
TC: Why has Hanzell thrived over such a long history?
JAS: We have had a continuity of house style, A VERY CLEAR Vision for this piece of land. We have always benchmarked against the best in Burgundy since the beginning. We study and experiment before making any changes. We pick grapes at physiological maturity but at the best flavor profile. We prune vigorously to concentrate flavors in our grapes. Our wine is “made in the vineyard” by the quality of grapes. We use whole cluster fermentation for Pinot’s. We do lots from each sections of our vineyard and have a profile for each barrel. Then we do the final blending. Our Sebella chardonnay, which is lovely, is now offered at $35/bottle, and come from many of our younger vineyards…. But our finest Chardonnay retails at $75/bottle.
TC: How have you seen Pinot Noir and Chardonnay change over the last decade?
JAS: It’s been a hugely interesting decade. I have seen them change in good ways. There are more artisan producers who are making wines with a “sense of place” and fruit profile. They are working in smaller quantities and single vineyards.
TC: What are the major business challenges going forward?
JAS: Just making great wine and not losing money, is always the goal. Understanding what each vineyard can produce as it goes through the maturity cycle. Pricing the wine appropriately. We are 80% direct to consumer/collectors/private client with our Pinot and Hanzell Chardonnay. Our Sebella Chardonnay is 60% retail/restaurant and 40% direct to consumer. I always want wine available for our top restaurants. For instance, in in your city, Dallas, we are at The Mansion on Turtle Creek, Pappas Bros., Four Seasons, or Dean Fearing’s. Hanzell has been a sponsor at TEXSOM every year. That’s a big market for us.
TC: Jean, you are President of Hanzell Winery. Talk to me about Women in the wine industry. How many women of our demographic are wine industry leaders in Napa and Sonoma counties?
JAS: We’ve done well in moving up in the wine industry. But, there is still a glass ceiling. I’ve never counted. There are not a lot of us that are Presidents and CEO’s…. Some ownership is by family and marriage. Some notable women leaders include: Michaela Rodeno: CEO of St. Supéry Winery, Dawnine Dyer: owner: Dyer Straits Wine Company, Judy Jordan: Founder, J Vineyards and Winery, Barbara Banke, (Jess Jackson’s wife) is now sole Proprietor of Kendall Jackson- Jackson Family Wines, and Joy Sterling: CEO of Iron Horse Winery. It’s still closed-ranks a bit.