I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and I have spent most of my adult life living in or near major metropolitan areas., and the last sixteen years have been right smack dab in the middle of the fifth largest city in the country. Nonetheless, I have always seen myself as a bit of a “country” kid at heart.
I would often spend my summers as a child in rural Ohio where I would travel the state with my grandfather. He had sold his farm years before I was born, but his “retirement” consisted of driving from farm to farm to buy and sell milk tanks and install silo unloaders and belt feeders. I did not know it at the time, but I was what many would call “unpaid child labor” and I loved every minute of it (except the time I broke the axe handle and good ole grandpa was fairly upset, to say the least).
I loved it so much that throughout high school I imagined that I would end up at an agricultural college and eventually become a farmer myself.
Well, for a host of reasons, that never happened, but those thoughts of some day owning a farm (albeit today the crop would be Pinot Noir not field corn or soybeans) has never left the recesses of my brain, so when I was invited last October to a lunch with Hanna Winery at the famed Blue Hill at Stone Barns, I jumped at the chance.
For many, Blue Hill at Stone Barns is perhaps the restaurant destination on the East Coast (including, apparently, the current residents of the White House). For me, though, it was a chance to get out of the city and onto a farm once again.
It was a rather dreary Thursday afternoon as I hopped in the Prius and sped up I-95 to Westchester County. (Yes, I realize that “sped” and “Prius” do not really go together, but I was running a tad late, so I did come close to reaching the speed limit on this occasion.)
I arrived at the farm just as the tour was leaving to walk around the property. Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture occupies land that was previously a part of Pocantico, an estate owned by the Rockefellers. Today, the farm promotes sustainable agriculture and is at the forefront of the farm to table movement with education programs for school children all the way up to professional farmers. Originally commissioned by John D. Rockefeller to be a dairy farm, Stone Barns is now largely a four season vegetable farm, but also raises chickens, turkeys, sheep, and pigs, which are supplied to local restaurants (including Blue Hill located on the property).
After about an hour of visiting the farm under threatening skies, we headed back to the warmth of the restaurant. There, Christine Hanna gave us a bit of her personal story, which revealed why sustainable agriculture and the farm to table movement is central to her life.
Christine’s father, Dr. Elias Hanna, grew up in Syria on a farm, but his parents sent him to the U.S. at 17 to go to college and, eventually, medical school. Dr. Hanna, after a stint in Vietnam, became a world-renowned heart surgeon, opening a practice in San Francisco.
Somewhere along the line, Dr. Hanna became a bit startled that his children had no connection with the country, so he bought a 20 acres farm in Sonoma County, relocating the family so that they could appreciate his farming heritage. Soon, the wine bug apparently bit rather hard, as a home winemaking hobby evolved into a viable winery with none other than Merry Edwards as the consulting winemaker.
Christine, the oldest of Dr. Hanna’a children, eventually took over the reins of the winery, and has run it for over 20 years, overseeing an expansion to over 600 acres and a production of 60,000 cases.
It is hard to say at what point the meal started as we were snacking on hors d’œuvres from the time we entered the restaurant. It is even harder to describe the food, but luckily I took a slew of photos….
2014 Hanna Winery Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc: Retail $18. 30,000 cases produced (about half of Hanna’s overall production). Grassy lemon and a bit of cream. Angular and bright, grapefruit. Very nice. For years Hanna treated the Sauvignon Blanc like a Chardonnay with barrel fermentations. Now, it is all fermented in stainless steel tanks: No oak. A bit of malolactic fermentation occurs in tank that adds a bit of creaminess. Very Good. 88-90 Points.
2013 Hanna Winery Russian River Valley Chardonnay: Retail $29. 6,000 cases produced. Stelvin closure. Clones: Davis Clone 4 and Robert Young (which originally came from Wente). The latter clone Christine described as “very tropical” which really comes through on the nose. Both fermentations (primary and malolactic) occur naturally in the barrel, which gives a gentler, creamy aspect to the wine without being over the top buttery. I found the wine a bit oaky on the nose but that is tempered nicely on the palate. Nice acidity on the finish. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points.
2013 Hanna Winery Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: Retail $39. 6,000 cases produced. Alexander Valley Cab can be more herbaceous so Christine wanted to blend it with something that was not Cab or Merlot, thus 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Malbec, 5% Merlot. Small red berry nose, with black pepper and plum. Whoa rich. Really rich. Luscious fruit but somehow not big. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2013 Hanna Winery Moon Mountain District Bismark Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon: Retail $52. 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Malbec, 4% Petit Verdot, 1% Cabernet Franc. 225 cases. At 2,600 feet, this comes from the highest vineyard in Sonoma County. 55 acres planted to all five Bordeaux varieties and a bit of Zinfandel. More subtle nose than the Alexander Valley, but with darker fruit. Not nearly as luscious but much more complex. Deeper favors and a lot more intrigue. This is an Outstanding Cab. 92-94 Points.
2014 Hanna Winery Sonoma Valley Bismarck Ranch Zinfandel: Retail $64. Only available at the vineyard. My kind of Zin: Bold but reserved. By the time I got to this wine, the lunch was breaking up, but I had to stop and savor this one. Whoa. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
At the end of lunch, I was tempted to wander around the grounds a bit more and contemplate what my life might have been like had I taken the path to a career in farming, but as I glanced at my phone, it was already late and I had a two-hour drive back to Philly. So I decided to get into the car and skeddadle—I would not want to have to speed and ruin my gas mileage.