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First female winemaker to graduate UC Davis, Milla Handley, passes away aged 68

The founder of Handley Cellars and inspirational role model for female winemakers in California has died following a career spanning almost 40 years.

Leading Californian winemaker, and pioneer of Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, Milla Handley has passed away from COVID-19 aged 68.

She was one of UC Davis’ first female graduates in fermentation science, and a trailblazer of the Anderson Valley wine scene where she was celebrated for her passion for Pinot Noir, aromatic white wines and organic farming.

‘My mother was someone who fearlessly walked her own path,’ says Handley’s daughter Lulu McClellan, now owner and president of Handley Cellars. ‘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.’

Handley graduated from US Davis in 1982 at a time when winemaking was a particularly male-dominated industry. She would go on to become the first woman owner and winemaker in the United States to establish a winery in her own name. 

Following UC Davis, Handley worked with Richard Arrowood at Château St. Jean, and later Jed Steele at Edmeades, before starting her own eponymous winery in the then largely undiscovered winemaking region of Anderson Valley in Mendocino County.

Independent spirit

She was attracted to the little-known Anderson Valley – considered by many as too cold for growing wine grapes – because she enjoyed the area’s ‘independent spirit’ and soon began to realise its untapped potential for making exceptional wines from Pinot Noir and aromatic white varieties.

From the outset, Handley Cellars’ approach to viticulture and winemaking always reflected a love and respect for nature and in 2005 the Handley Estate Vineyard was the first California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) vineyard in Anderson Valley.

Handley Cellars cultivates 11.7ha of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer with original plantings dating back to 1986 and 1987. It also farms 2.8ha of certified-organic Pinot Noir at the RSM Estate Vineyard, which is named after Handley’s late husband of 30 years, Rex Scott McClellan.

Handley retired in June 2017 but her long-time co-winemaker Randy Schock continues to make Handley Cellars’ wines in keeping with her style of fruit-driven, carefully crafted expressions of Anderson Valley.

‘Her shoes are impossibly big to fill, and I can only hope to honour her legacy by continuing Handley Cellars’ ethos to make wines of place, to take care of our employees, to encourage diversity and well-being, and to support the community of Anderson Valley,’ says Lulu McClellan.

She is survived by two daughters, Megan Handley Warren and Milla Louisa ‘Lulu’ McClellan, her sister Julie Handley, and son-in-law Scott Peterson. 

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