Bob Sessions, the longtime head of Hanzell Vineyards and one of Sonoma’s most influential winemakers, died Tuesday following a long battle with Alzheimer’s. He was 82.
As Hanzell’s head winemaker from 1973 to 2002, Sessions was highly respected for his quiet, patient and methodical winemaking style. He is survived by his wife, Jean Arnold Sessions; his children, Benjamin and Sarah; his brother and sister-in-law, Tom and Darlene Sessions; his sister-in-law, Lyn Sessions; and his grandchildren, Joshua and Joseph. Sessions was preceded in death by his longtime wife and partner, Molly Cross Sessions.
Originally from Southern California, Sessions attended UC Berkeley where he studied English literature. During a summer abroad, he traveled through France and Brussels, where he gained his first exposure to fine wines and winemaking.
After graduating in 1957 – the same year Hanzell Vineyards was founded – Sessions took a winemaking position at Mayacamas Vineyards in Napa Valley. He later worked for Souverain Cellars (now Rutherford Hill Winery) and then at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars before a friend and colleague, Brad Webb, asked him to interview at Hanzell.
He got the job – and kept it for nearly three decades.
Even after his tenure ended, Sessions kept the title of winemaker emeritus at Hanzell, and his condition – though diagnosed in 2003 – was not widely known until Jean Arnold Sessions began to discuss it publicly in late 2012 and early 2013. In a Facebook post around that time, she wrote, “My dearest husband, Bob, has dementia probably leading to Alzheimer’s disease. So we moved to our new pied-à-terre in assisted living on New Year’s Eve. It is in Sonoma and I say ‘our’ room but I still live at home.”
That was the point at which Sessions “forgot about wine” due to his dementia, according to his wife in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. He was succeeded at the winery by Michael McNeill, who said in the same article that Hanzell had “a heritage that needed to be safeguarded.”
Founded by Ambassador James Zellerbach, the storied winery at the end of Lomita Avenue today produces about 8,000 cases a year of some of Sonoma Valley’s most sought-after chardonnays and pinot noirs. Hanzell is noted for its consistency and quality, and according to Wine Spectator, Session’s “pinots were well structured, firmly tannic and built to age. The chardonnays likewise were bold, deeply nuanced and rewarded time in the cellar.”
According to the winery’s website, “Sessions’ wines live on in the Hanzell library as a marvel of tradition, rigor and artful taste. Very few winemakers in the world have achieved such singular vision and left as astonishing a legacy of quality and longevity.” Jean Arnold Sessions is currently the winery’s president.
In a statement released Thursday, the winery gave examples of Sessions’ methods and the benefits they have brought to Hanzell: “His steadfast commitment to St. George rootstock has kept the estate safe from phylloxera, and his deep belief in rigorous pruning, vine by vine, has kept the quality of fruit at the highest level on the estate.”
A public celebration of Sessions’ life will take place sometime in June, with details to be announced. Donations in his name may be made to Pets Lifeline, 19686 Eighth St. E., Sonoma, CA 95476, or to the Sebastiani Theatre Foundation, P.O. Box 874, Sonoma, CA 95476.