Lula Cellars: Living the Dream

In 2002 Jeff Hansen discovered a vineyard that produces extraordinary Pinot Noir grapes a dozen miles from the Mendocino coast. He decided it was time to realize a long-held dream.

“I was looking for a place to make wine I wanted to drink and sell it directly through a tasting room,” says Hansen, winemaker-proprietor of Lula Cellars. His tasting room is located in the Mediterranean villa on Highway 128 six miles northwest of Boonville in Anderson Valley. Affable with a ready smile, he stands at the tasting hand-hewn redwood bar in front of a chalk board listing the day’s tastings and describes coalescing winemaking skills he honed in Napa Valley where the wines he made got “great reviews.”

Hansen got into the winemaking world after working 14 years as a commercial product photographer for advertising agencies in southern California. In 1985 Hansen decided, “life is only so long.” He’d lived well and enjoyed every minute but was ready to do something different. A long time wine aficionado, he moved to Northern California for a slower pace.

He soon landed a job working at a vineyard and winery in Napa Valley. “We made high end Cabernet Sauvignon,” says Hansen. For the next seven years he immersed himself into learning every part of the industry from grape growing to winemaking to sales.  “I used to travel six months a year, going between a dozen states dealing with a multitude of distributors,” he says.                 

During those years he visited vineyards around northern California, including Mendocino County where he especially loved to spend time on the coast.  In 2002 Hansen came upon Joe Harris’s Costa Vineyard in Comptche. He knew this was special. Wanting to do something on a smaller scale Hansen started making Pinot Noir from Harris’s vineyard and also from another Comptche vineyard owned by John Peterson. “His vines grow 200 feet from the Comptche Store,” says Hansen.

“Making wine from Pinot Noir grapes is not the easiest way to go into winemaking,” he says. He was aware that Pinot Noir grapes present persnickety challenges. But he loves Pinot Noir even though “it is the hardest grape to grow and make into wine.” Pinot Noir grapes are affected more than most other grapes by weather, their ability to ripen and by temperature fluctuations both on and off the vine. Their luscious potential can also be thwarted during the winemaking process.

Hansen decides when to pick grapes by tasting them rather than with a special instrument that measures sugar or acidity. He has a favorite type of French oak barrel and is specific about the yeast he adds and the fermentation temperatures. “Winemaking is like babysitting,” he philosophizes, and acknowledges that the best time the grapes spend is in the vineyard.

Hansen knew enough about winemaking and Pinot Noir in particular that there was something special about the Comptche vineyards. “You can make an OK wine from average grapes, but great grapes have a chance to make great wine! From the first wine I made from those Comptche grapes I was realizing my dream.”

He named his winery Lula, his maternal grandmother’s first name. She was born in 1879, in the Oklahoma Territory (Oklahoma didn't become a state until 1907). In 1899 she married Frank Brock, Hansen’s grandfather.

 Hansen wanted to honor Lula because “she taught me about never losing faith when all seems lost.” Hansen describes her as a woman who only had a seventh grade education. She picked cotton, did laundry for other people and was a seamstress. Two of her children died and she was widowed young but never felt sorry for herself. She used to say, "no matter how bad things seem, tomorrow will be a better day.” She lived to be 99 years old.  “I know that whatever inner strength I have mostly comes from what she taught me about life,” he says.

Hansen opened Lula Cellars last May in the front rooms of the villa that was built as a home and business complex. The feeling that you are entering Tuscany or Provence is complemented and enhanced by colors, arches and the courtyard.      

“Although the exterior is very Mediterranean, I wanted inside to reflect Mendocino style,” says Hansen. Local carpenter Gary Poehlman built the tasting bar from redwood that grew in Anderson Valley. Lula’s parttime employee Dan Reed contributed the “Mendocino” sign burned onto an old piece of barnwood that hangs on the tasting room’s mottled golden hued walls.  Hansen carries pottery from a friend on the coast. He sells beautiful woodwork including a 16-inch lazy Susan and wine racks made from old barrel staves crafted by Dan Sitts in Albion

In the warm weather Hansen sets tables and chairs up in the courtyard. Lula wines are available for sale by the glass or the bottle for those who want to picnic. Across the courtyard is another winery tasting room owned by Napa Valley winemaker Richard Barridge. A third tasting room belonging to the family-owned Drew winery located on Greenwood Ridge is located through an adjacent arched entryway. Upstairs are two beautifully appointed vacation rental suites called The Madrones. Also on the property, the Sun and Cricket Cottage and surrounding gardens are available for small weddings and events. “We want this to be a destination,” says Hansen.

In addition to Lula’s full bodied critically acclaimed Pinot Noir Hansen makes dry Gewurztraminer from grapes grown in Boonville, old vine Zinfandel and a dry rose that is half Zinfandel and half Pinot Noir he calls Rosato. Hansen sources grapes for the old vine Zinfandel from Mendocino vineyards including Paul Conrado’s 50-year-old vines on Old River Road in Ukiah.

He makes his wine at local custom crush facilities such as McNab Ridge Vineyards and at neighboring Jim Ball winery.  He has also made wine at a Milla Handley’s Handley Cellars. “There is so much support from the other wineries in Anderson Valley,” he says. “All the tasting rooms are receptive and have made me feel welcome and give advice and support.”

When he opened in May, Hansen had 600 cases of wine. By the end of December he had sold out of everything except Pinot Noir, of which he had less than 50 cases. He is so proud of his Pinot, Hansen says he would put it up against anyone’s Pinot Noir. “That’s how good it is.” The tasting room is open Friday through Monday but until March when he bottles the new vintages it’s best to call ahead to make sure the tasting room is open.

Hansen drives from his home in Mendocino to the tasting room four days a week. He is in his element meeting people and sharing his wines. “Then I go home and see the sunset over the ocean,” he smiles. As the advertising photographer turned winemaker puts it, “where you start and where you end up is sometimes a surprise.”

 

Tasting Notes: The bright fruity aroma and complex depth of Lulu’s 2007 Pinot Noir complemented lamb sausages made by Magruder in Potter Valley and campanelle pasta with wild morel and porcini mushroom sauce. Hansen recommends the Pinot with St. George cheese made in Point Reyes and Castelleno’s green olives from Spain.

 

For more information on Lula Cellars contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission at mendowine.com or lulacellars.com. For information on the vacation and event rentals contact www.themadrones.net.

 

Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes for the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission.

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