Bob Sessions, regarded as one of California's pioneer winemakers for his work at Hanzell Vineyards and his role in setting Stag's Leap Cellars on the track to Judgement of Paris fame, has died aged 82.
Sessions died at his home surrounded by family on Tuesday 13 May, following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
He will be best remembered in the wine world for producing and overseeing close to 30 years of vintages at Hanzell Vineyards from 1973 to his retirement in 2002. He also helped good friend Warren Winiarski to found Stag’s Leap Cellars.
Stag’s Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 triumphed against top Bordeaux in the so-called 1976 Judgement of Paris blind tasting that is seen as having laid down an international marker for California’s potential.
‘I was a long-time admirer of Bob’s wines and asked him many years ago during a job transition for him to join us at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars,’ said Winiarski, who now owns Arcadia Vineyard after selling Stag’s Leap in 2007.
‘Personally, to me, his friendship, warm-hearted support and marvelous, ever-generous sense of humour were great comforts in those sometimes difficult pioneering days.’
Although a California native, Sessions did not come from a wine background. He studied English literature at the University of California, Berkeley, but became fascinated by wine after a road trip through France on a scooter.
In 1964, he became winemaker at Mayacamas Vineyards, where he stayed until 1972. He left to be production manager at the newly-opened Souverain Cellars in Rutherford, now the site of the Rutherford Hill Winery, but it didn’t work out.
After helping out Winiarski, he moved to Hanzell as winemaker and general manager, and would eventually become its president under owner Alexander de Brye. During the next few decades, Hanzell’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines rose to critical acclaim.
After retiring in 2002, Sessions became winemaker emeritus at the estate, offering advice to the present winemaker, Michael McNeill. ‘His memory will continue to inspire me both as a winemaker and as a person,’ said McNeill.
Jean Arnold Sessions, Bob’s second wife and current president at Hanzell, described him as loving and down-to-earth. ‘Bob Sessions showed me greatness in wine,’ she said. Bob was preceded in death by his long-time first wife, Molly Cross Sessions.
Written by Chris Mercer