Meet Lulu and Randy, the duo working together to craft premium Pinot Noir and carry on Milla Handley’s legacy in Anderson Valley.
The women of Handley Cellars have been mothering vines, babies, and business since 1982. Let me walk you through the matriarchy. Founding winemaker Milla Handley made wine and history with the award-winning Chardonnay she crafted in her basement in ‘82, becoming the first female winemaker in the US to establish a label with her own name. And the place she chose for Handley Cellars was Anderson Valley, a narrow stretch of land with unique terroir then largely undiscovered in the world of wine.
“I was captivated by the valley’s possibilities,” Milla says. “The people here possess an independent spirit, and I felt I could follow my own path, somewhat removed from the entrenched winemaking culture. I wanted my wines to capture the essence of this extraordinary place.”
That independent spirit did things her own way. She was all about low alcohol, high-acid, and restrained oak before it was cool. She’s known for consistency and not following the trends, even when she caught flack for it. And it’s paid off — Handley has racked up Golds and Double Golds up and down the coast.
But after 40 years of tending vines and award-winning wines, it was time to pass the torch to the two that knew Handley best — her daughter Lulu, who would run the winery, and her co-winemaker Randy, who she’d crafted wines with side-by-side for 11 years.
While she became president of Handley Cellars just a few years ago, Lulu’s influence has been felt on Handley for decades.
Handley became the first Anderson Valley winery to obtain organic certification in 2005, in large part due to the influence of Lulu, who is passionate about responsible and organic farming.
Lulu is an old soul and environmentalist, who grew up “fantasizing about being from another time.” She fell in love with ancient farming practices living in the Peruvian Altiplano, taken by both the romance of these cultural practices as well as the benefit to the earth.
She spent the next several years apprenticing on farms in Maine, before returning to Handley Cellars to be a steward of the land she grew up on.
Like her mother, Lulu balances passion with staunch pragmatism. She wants to someday pass the land on to her own children, and to continue to push Handley to be a leader in fine wine and become a triple bottom line business valuing profit, people, and the planet.
You might be thinking that the son of two attorneys from L.A. might not fit so neatly into this matriarchy. You’d be wrong.
The first words out of Randy’s mouth in our interview were, “I’ve always been around strong women and had strong women bosses.”
In addition to having strong women in his life, he also had a love for the environment and an insatiable wanderlust. After majoring in environmental studies at Cal Poly he ended up in the Bay Area on a coin flip. From there he caught the Napa bug, and after finding himself in wine country every weekend, he decided to move to wild, remote Anderson Valley with his wife-to-be.
That meant switching careers from engineering to well, wine. While Randy may not have had formal training or the Davis degree, he had hustle. “I knew if I knocked on enough doors, I would find my opportunity.”
He worked his way from winery to winery and immersed himself in the study of wine, until after six years he finally had his big shot when a role opened up at Handley.
“She was the Chef and I was the Sous Chef. She was the creative force and I executed her vision; it was a wonderful learning opportunity. While other winemakers may emphasize the chemistry over nature, Milla prized nature over chemistry.”
He saw Milla push back against the “homogenization of Pinot Noir”, rejecting the super-ripe, over-oaked style du jour. He has continued to push Handley Cellars toward nature over chemistry; Randy believes that how you treat the grapes on the vine is just as important as the winemaking. It’s all about “pursuit of balance” — building strong relationships with growers and making restrained wines with high acid, low alcohol, and minimal manipulation.
So why put their coveted, award-winning, old school California Pinots in a can?
“We immediately gravitated to the concept,” Lulu said. “We love the idea of sharing old-style and traditional winemaking in a new way, reaching wine drinkers we wouldn’t otherwise be reaching.”
Randy made this Pinot Noir as an homage to Milla with the can in mind; bright acidity and limited oak; bursting with fruit but not heavy or overwhelming. It’s a playful yet premium pinot that works well at room temperature or with a little chill; in a glass or straight outta the can.
It’s a light, cherry red in color. As Randy puts it, “You should be able to see through the damn glass.”
On canning day, we get to pick a short message to be printed on the bottom of the can. This time, we left it up to Randy. He answered immediately, “Mom would like it.”
Or in other words, viva la matriarchy.
Red fruit, bright acidity, wet stones — a fresh, expressive wine you can drink anytime. The red rolling hills on the can reflect the unique topography of Anderson Valley and the bright berry flavors of this wine.