As Dick Handal pours his Venturi Family Blend of Syrah and Petite Sirah he explains, with a slight Brooklyn accent, that he started making wine during his 38 years in South America. Handel bought his first Northern California vineyard in the Asti area of Alexander Valley but commuted between Sonoma County and Ecuador. Although he learned winegrowing in Ecuador, today Dick Handal hones the red wine for Denier-Handal wines in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley. Now that sounds like a great winemaker story.

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Dick Handal owns a winery near the Equator in Ecuador and makes wines in Sonoma County from his vineyards in Dry Creek Valley. Photo by Barbara Barrielle

Handal’s Ecuadorian Roots

Back in Ecuador, the Handals still own the Chaupi Estancia Winery, which remains largely an experimental vineyard. There, 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 the capital city of Quito, and the name combines the Quichoan word for “small” and the Spanish word for “farm.” 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 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. They turned out to be Palomino—a light, fresh easy-drinking white. Chaupi Estancia now successfully produces Palomino and sells it to area restaurants, supermarkets and tourists.

In addition to his consultation with Professor Meredith, Handal had an extended interview with Professor Harold Olmo of UC Davis. Olmo was one of the most famous US ampelographers who identified and classified 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.  His work in these African nations was beneficial to Handal because they shared similar climates to that of Ecuador.

Denier-Handal Moves to California

Handal and his family didn’t move to California permanently until they found the perfect house and vineyard in Dry Creek Valley. After that, they sold the Asti ranch.  In Sonoma County,  Handal had been selling grapes from the Alexander Valley estate to some of the top wineries in Napa and Sonoma.

Although fairly new to winemaking, Handal approaches it as he does grapegrowing—with education and passion.  He only makes the red wines he likes under the label that bears both his wife’s name (Denier) and his own—Denier-Handal.

The Denier-Handal Family Blend from Venturi Family Vineyard is 2/3 Syrah and 1/3 Petite Sirah. It is a lovely, jammy fruit-forward wine nuanced with aromas of plums and blackberry. The flavors are of currant and smoke with a beautiful finish of leather that lingers long after tasting.

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The Venturi Family Blend of 2/3 Syrah and 1/3 Petite Sirah from Mendocino County and is jammy and powerfullt fruit forward. Photo by Barbara Barrielle

The Wines of Denier-Handal

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 Handal is the head winemaker with assistance from other well-known professionals.

Initially, winemaker Peter Wellington consulted and now David Noyes is consulting winemaker who understands Handal’s style.

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.

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Dick Handal loves Sagrantino from Umbria so decided to plant it in Dry Creek Valley and make it under the Denier-Handal label. Photo by Barbara Barrielle

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.

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Denier-Handal makes a 2014 Sagrantino Passito late harvest dessert wine. Photo by Barbara Barrielle

Handal 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. You can find Denier-Handal wines at Locals Tasting Room in Geyserville, CA.

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