January-February 2010

UpFront with Chris Hanna

By: Daedalus Howell
Photos by: Ryan Lely
Until relatively recently, wineries in Sonoma County were often dynastic propositions, passed from one generation to the next by those bonded by more than a shared name on the label. Many family wineries have succumbed to corporate acquisition or have faced extinction for a variety of reasons. Not so for Healdsburg’s Hanna Winery & Vineyards, overseen by President Chris Hanna since the early ‘90s.
Chris Hanna.

“I often feel like we’re a bit of a dinosaur,” laughs Hanna, who attributes her winery’s success to the personal investment that comes with running a family business. “If someone doesn’t like your wine, as thick of a skin as you might have, you take it personally,” admits Hanna, though this seldom occurs as the 90-plus point scores garnered by her flagship Sauvignon Blanc might suggest. “That’s harder to do when you’re not personally invested.”

Founded by her father, a San Francisco–based cardiac surgeon who would bring the Hanna clan to Sonoma County as a weekend retreat, the property that would become Hanna Winery & Vineyards was once the definition of rustic.

According to Hanna, calling the property a “ranch house” would be kind. Her term is “’40s-era ramshackle shack,” which was once festooned with chickens, 12 head of steer roaming the grounds and “a billy goat tied up in yard.”  The Hanna kids, of course, loved it—Chris among them, whose rural reveries include becoming “muddy, dirty and having a ball and making homemade wine.”

Eventually, the premise of creating an enduring family winery matured, and in 1985, the family brought in iconic winemaker Merry Edwards. Ever the maven, Edwards proved instrumental in launching the brand as well as a de facto career counselor to Chris Hanna.

“She put us on the map and taught me so much—not just about winemaking, but how to navigate as a woman in the business,” Hanna reflects. “Even when I started in 1991, there were very few women in the business.”

Though the wine industry wasn’t entirely a boy’s game when Hanna assumed the helm of her family’s business, she observed that women were most often relegated to PR and marketing roles and were seldom seen as winemakers, let alone in general management roles.

“That’s the position I found myself in as a young woman,” she remembers, ruing the days when she had to deal with burly, old-school equipment contractors for whom working with a woman was outside their comfort zone. “That’s certainly changed over the years.”
Likewise, much has changed in Hanna’s life in the intervening years, including raising a family while running the family business, as well as the forthcoming publication of The Winemaker Cooks: Menus, Parties and Pairings, a seasonally-themed collection of recipes with varietally-specific wine-pairing suggestions, appearing from Chronicle Books later this year.  
Hanna Vineyards property in Alexander Valley.

“I’ve set up my life from a convenience standpoint so I can try to juggle both,” explains Hanna, who boasts a four-mile commute and easy access to her young son’s school, which she says she can reach in as little as 22 seconds if need be. Hanna attributes the aplomb with which she manages the various responsibilities in her life to the entrepreneurial culture of the winery. Her dynamic schedule, however, comes with the caveat that she’s also available around the clock.

“That’s the trade-off, but that’s a pretty nice trade-off,” says Hanna, who extends the same understanding to her staff. “Thank goodness we have a male winemaker, otherwise, the bench is pretty full of women,” she laughs. “It’s not deliberate, but there’s a certain simpatico. There are several women on staff who have kids and are working moms, and I think we all understand each other. We have a wonderful team.”

Winemaker Jeff Hinchliffe, of course, is much more than the winery’s token male. Since 1998, Hinchcliffe has created wines that attract both accolades and enthusiasts alike. “When you work with someone for 12 years in a key role like that, you begin to finish each other’s sentences. We have wonderful alignment in that regard,” says Hanna of her winemaker, who produced a trio of Sauvignon Blanc vintages that each took the sweepstakes award at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. Likewise, Hinchcliffe’s 1999 Alexander Valley Cabernet was ranked number 26 among Wine Spectator’s “World’s Top 100 Wines.”

Hanna's signature wine is stainless steel–fermented and is redolent of New Zealand–style Sauvignon Blancs but with a "Californai vibe" that Hanna attributes to a rounder, grapefruit aromatic and soft, vibrant fruit.
Presently, more than half of Hanna Winery & Vineyards’ production is dedicated to Sauvignon Blanc, which has grown from a mere couple hundred cases in the early years to an annual case production of 29,000 under Chris Hanna’s tenure.

The signature wine is stainless steel fermented and is redolent of New Zealand–style Sauvignon Blancs, but with a “California vibe” that Hanna attributes to a rounder, grapefruit aromatic and soft, vibrant fruit.

The majority of the fruit (including a bit of Sauvignon Musqué) is sourced from the winery’s own vineyard at the heart of the Russian River Valley as well as from other Russian River Valley growers. “That cool climate really makes Sauvignon Blanc sing and allows the aromatics to come through,” notes Hanna.

The 2009 vintage promises to maintain the consistent and critically-lauded profile that has earned this wine its 90-plus ratings since 2004. It’s no wonder that every Four Seasons hotel in the country featured Hanna’s Sauvignon Blanc in their by-the-glass program—a placement that afforded the wine greater proximity to the consumer.

“Being able to get close to consumers—that’s really what it’s about. Sometimes in this business, we focus on wholesale sales, and that drives the engine; but given the system, it’s hard to get to the consumer,” Hanna acknowledges. “We’re real believers of that, which is why we have three tasting rooms.” Besides its Alexander Valley location, the winery maintains presences in the Russian River Valley as well as in the popular Press Club tasting room in San Francisco.

“Our focus is to make that connection, especially in a world where there are so many brands and so many corporate brands with that big muscle. What we have going for us is trying to create a more intimate relationship with people,” said Hanna. “What I find, though, is that we have the most loyal band of wine club members. I think that they love, after all these years, the fact that we’re still family-owned—it’s still us.”


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