Learning Winegrowing in Ecuador, Dick Handal Now Hones his Reds in DCV

When Dick Handal pours his Venturi Family Blend of Syrah and Petite Sirah and explains, with a slight Brooklyn accent, that he started making wine during his thirty eight years in South America but bought his first vineyard in Northern California in the Asti area of Alexander Valley and then commuted between Sonoma County and Ecuador, you know there is a story here.

He and his family didn’t move here permanently until they found the perfect house and vineyard in Dry Creek Valley and have since sold the Asti ranch. Back in Ecuador, the Handals still own the Chaupi Estancia Winery, which remains largely an experimental vineyard where they attempt to grow approximately 32 varieties and rootstocks to find those that will prosper in their equatorial climate of eternal springtime with no dormant season.

Chaupi Estancia lies 40 kilometers outside of the capital city of Quito, and the name combines the Quichoan word for “small” and the Spanish word for “farm” and the winery remains a small family farm managed by the daughter of the former family cook. Because it lies at an altitude of 8200 feet and in a latitudinal region close to the Equator and not known for growing grapes, Handal brought a cutting of a successful planting, found a bit farther south, on one of his many visits to UC Davis to study winemaking.

Renowned geneticist Professor Carole Meredith at UC Davis analyzed the vines which turned out to be Palomino, a light, fresh easy-drinking white, which Chaupi Estancia now successfully produces and sells to restaurants, supermarkets and plenty of tourists visiting the area.

In addition to his consultation with Professor Meredith, Dick had an extended interview with Professor Harold Olmo of UC Davis, one of the most famous US ampelographers, one who identifies and classifies grapevines. During his lifetime, Olmo not only taught at UCD and created new highly productive clones and varieties, but also studied Third World vineyards in areas like Colombia, Kenya and Ethiopia. He shared papers he had written on his work in these African nations which share similar climates to that in Ecuador.

Here in Sonoma County, Handal had been selling grapes from the Alexander Valley estate to some of the top wineries in Napa and Sonoma, Dick Handal is fairly new to winemaking but approaches it as he does grapegrowing, with education and passion. He only makes the red wines he likes under the label that bears his wife’s name, Denier, and his own. The aforementioned Family Blend from Venturi Family Vineyard is 2/3 Syrah and 1/3 Petite Sirah and is a lovely, jammy fruit-forward wine nuanced with aromas of plums and blackberry, flavors of currant and smoke with a beautiful finish of leather that lingers long after tasting.

Handal likes the fruit in the vineyard to remain in the glass. He is not a fan of too much oak and notes “if I want oak, I’ll drink whiskey.” His wines are made at Meeker Winery in Sonoma Valley and Dick is the head winemaker with assistance from other well-known professionals. Initially, winemaker Peter Wellington consulted and now David Noyes is consulting winemaker and understands his style. Lucas Meeker oversees day-to-day operations. In 2013, the Zinfandel he harvested from his own Dry Creek Valley vineyard did not meet his standards after fermentation so he sourced some Sonoma Valley fruit which reflected the fruity, elegant style Dick sought. The Zinfandel vines were grafted over to the Italian varietal Fallanghina, much of which is sold to Arnot-Roberts and some of which is blended into the Denier-Handal Sagrantino.

The current 2012 Denier-Handal Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is a beautiful, aromatic wine with currant and plum on the nose and flavors of dried berry and spice with a long, satisfying finish. At $35, this elegant wine is easily considered a very good deal. The family’s Petite Sirah is another favorite.

Handal fell in love with the Italian Sagrantino wines from the town of Montefalco in the region of Umbria and now grows it on his property in Dry Creek Valley. This lush, fruity wine is easy drinking and, with its plummy flavors, pairs beautifully with just about any meat or Italian cuisine. For an added surprise in the Sagrantino family, Denier-Handal makes a 2014 Sagrantino Passito, which was late-harvested at 28 brix then fermented, stopping the process at 18 brix for a luscious dessert wine that is still fruity and balanced. Highly recommended with any sweet, especially chocolate, this is a special wine that your guests will long remember for its uniqueness without being overly sweet.

Dick continues to grow and sell fruit and his attention to detail, both in farming and winemaking, are in high demand, although he produces less than 1000 cases. Try the well-priced Denier-Handal line and relish the wines’ fruit forward styles and how these wines complete a meal, whether a picnic or a feast.

by Barbara Barrielle

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