There are few more respected producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California than Hanzell. The scene that those lucky enough to visit receive makes it worth the effort. An appointment only visit winds you out of Sonoma through a few residential properties before you are ushered between iron gates, climbing higher and higher up through the estates vines to the beautiful 1/3 replica of Clos Vougeot that served as the original winery. The wealth and history of the property is apparent anywhere you look. Originally founded by J.D. Zellerbach, famous for his business acumen (Crown Zellerbach) as well as his contributions to the Marshall Plan, Hanzell was intended to be nothing but the highest quality possible. In the more than six decades since its founding, all involved with the winery have contributed to maintaining its product and image in the absolute highest regard. Most notable of those involved over the years is Bob Sessions, one of the most respected and influential winemakers in California history.
It is never easy to be critical of brands that have so thoroughly inculcated their quality into your perceptions. Just think of a time when you heard a song on the radio you thought was terrible, only to discover that it was one of your favorite bands (looking at you Weezer...). You quickly make excuses for them or tell yourself that you weren't paying enough attention and that you'll have to listen to it again in a better environment. In wine, this is the beauty of blind tasting. Many times in my career I have tasted a wine that I enjoyed, only to find out it was something I would have dismissed had I seen the label first. This goes the other way as well. I experienced many times wines that were out of whack, due to quality reasons or simply due to the ever evolving nature of a bottle of wine, only to discover that I was drinking something with an incredible reputation and/or incredibly high price point. During these moments, it is very easy to lose trust in your own palate. Why wouldn't I like something that costs $100 a bottle? It has to be me....it couldn't possibly be the wine. Over time you begin to trust your palate more, as I have tried to encouraged guests and staff over the years. Your perception is your reality. The more you learn what you like the more confident you can be in ordering when it comes time to spend your hard earned money. The influence of marketing and advertising permeates much more than our wine selection to be sure.
Pardon my long winded explanation. I may even now be trying to preemptively explain my obligation to speak to my recent experience with Hanzell wines that have fell quite flat. The history, integrity, and class that run through every bit of the work that is done at this winery is unquestionable. My own opinions have been built by the incredible tasting experiences of their wines that have had the absolutely necessary time to age at least a decade. It is never easy to be exposed to the newly released wines that are being sold at prices as high as some Grand Cru Burgundy that should not be opened for so long. You have to taste for the potential of the wines rather than their current state.
Its also tough to justify the $100 price tag of newest release Pinot at the vineyard when a bottle 15 years old can be found retail for half that.
I would encourage you to find old Hanzell and taste its potential, as it is simply some of the most age-worthy wine to be found in California. To that end, opening it too early will only disappoint with the alcohol and oak being too present for balance. Given some time however, and you will be rewarded with all the complexity and nuance of the Burgundies after whom Hanzell has modeled its winemaking.