Will Bucklin of Old Hill Ranch, Pt. 1

Ξ April 13th, 2009 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |

Will Bucklin is a young man with an old soul. Farming is in his blood. It is the California wine industry’s good fortune to have someone so well matched to a property, Old Hill Ranch. Among the oldest vineyards in Sonoma, the first in the area to have planted something other than the historically significant Mission grape, Old Hill Ranch is a rare survivor of a more interesting era of viticulture that has nearly passed, that of the field blend. Almost all have been grubbed up in favor of single varieties. A few glorious acres remain. But could new efforts survive commercially? Financial realities are such that few vineyard owners would be willing to surrender significant acreage of a single variety for a vineyard designation alone. It may be that a given Cali cult Cab contains 25% Syrah and so has virtually no varietal character, but complaints are few. It might be miracle enough if just more Cabernet Franc, Petite Syrah and Petit Verdot were grown!
And so it is we owe a debt of gratitude to winegrowers like Will Bucklin and his family. They have a very fragile bit of California’s viticultural history in the palm of their hand. And that history remains vibrant and alive with every vintage they produce.
I thank Dan Berger for pointing me in the right direction.
Part 2 will appear later this week.
Admin Could you say something of your personal wine history?
Will Bucklin I graduated from UC Davis in the mid-eighties. My interest was not necessarily in wine. I wanted to be an engineer but I had a professor at my community college who was an oenophile. He steered my toward Davis. Upon my graduation I did an internship at Lafite and Bordeaux. I then went off to Australia and did two more internships. I came back to California and worked at Navarro Winery as an assistant winemaker, in ‘87 I think. Then I went to Russian River and worked at a winery. I eventually ended up in Oregon for ten years as the winemaker at King Estate.
And in 1999 my step-father, Otto Teller, who had owned Old Hill Ranch since the 1980s, had passed away. My brother was living on the ranch (we also are a family farm, we raise flowers and vegetables, I use the word ‘weeds’ loosely), he was managing the farm at the time. He was feeling a little overwhelmed. He had the idea of me moving back to California and taking over the Old Hill Ranch, which presented some interesting challenges. My experience was in the winemaking arena, not so much the viticultural arena, but, you know, my family had been in agriculture. I certainly had been exposed to it. It was something I was sure I wanted to do. So it really provided a great opportunity. If there was any one thing I was concerned about it would be the family dynamic which in retrospect has turned out to be not an issue at all. So it’s been a win win situation.
Was it at all difficult giving up engineering? Or did you find some way to apply it?
WB I hadn’t really done much work towards engineering in terms of a degree anyway. I was doing my prerequisites, math and science, all those things which translate easily into winemaking. But I had no problem with that.
How long did it take, how much work was put in before the Old Hill Ranch vineyard was productive enough for harvest?
WB Well, its been making wines for a hundred and twenty years.
Oh! I’d read the notes on the web site that it had become overgrown and that some work was required to clear it.
WB There was a fair amount of work that I guess you could say was required. But it was always, has always been productive. It has not missed a vintage as far as I know. Of course, there’s a lot of history I don’t know but I do know pretty much back the the 1960s. And then, of course, during Prohibition vineyards were, contrary to popular belief, quite lucrative, growing grapes that is, because you could sell them to home winemakers.
And Zinfandel holds pride of place…
WB Definitely, it does. I would say that when my step-father farmed it from 1983 to 1998 we called his style of management ‘benign neglect’. There was and is, I think, a pretty strong argument in favor of that particular style of farming grapes. And you’ll hear winemakers talk all the time about ‘well-placed stress’ to give vineyards and grapes… it helps them with their quality; produce less fruit and focus on ripeness. However, back in those days the average yield from a vineyard was about a quarter of a ton to the acre, which just isn’t sustainable.
A quarter of a ton? So how often were the vines replaced? How many had to be replaced?
WB Yes. There’s been a lot that have died over the years and have been replaced. The vineyard is the oldest in Sonoma according to some historians. And if we think it was planted in the 1880s, that would make it 120 to 130 years old. However, I would say the average age of the vines is somewhere around 70 to 80 years old. As they die they get replaced, of course.
Was the 18th century founder, William McPherson Hill a particularly good record keeper?
WB Not that I am aware of. I would love it that somebody could show me that he was. I do know that he was on some of the local boards, and there are supposedly some records floating around but I don’t have much access. I’ve done quite a bit of research on him at the local library but I’ve taken it as far as it can go. I know that in Berkeley the library has more information, Bancroft. I’ve meant to go down there and do that research.
You know the root stock to primarily St. George. How did you arrive at that understanding?
WB Oh, it’s easy to tell just by looking at it.
Do you still use that root stock for your new replantings?
WB Everything I do is on St. George. There’s a lot of people who were redeveloping a small block of Cabernet that was planted on AXR and it has phylloxera. Everybody wants me to try new root stock and I’m like, ‘Well, hey (laughs) St. George seem to be working well! Why change when things are going well?’ So I think I’m going to stick with St. George.
In my interview with Dan Berger he spent some time discussing the catastrophe AXR turned out to be.
WB Well, the interesting thing is that yes, it was a catastrophe and what I would say…I was at Davis when they discovered the first vineyard that had succumbed or was succumbing to phylloxera. That was ‘85 I think, maybe ‘86. But anyway, the reaction of the farming community was anger and denial, I’d underline anger, especially towards the university. Thirty years later we’re selling some of the most expensive wines in the world out of the Napa Valley and out of Sonoma. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we replanted, we came in with new spacing, new clones; we redeveloped an industry that otherwise wouldn’t have been redeveloped, and I don’t know whether we would have ended up where we are. Maybe that’s just being an optimist, which I’m not usually accused of, but it is pretty hard to imagine that people would have voluntarily started replanting when they did and come up with where our industry is now, one of the most expensive regions in the world.
As far as your field blend in concerned, does the vineyard manager, I would imagine that would be you, does it require a very special expertise because of the many different varieties, an understanding of different trellising techniques, pruning methods specific to a given variety? Do you have to expert in a variety of grapes to properly work the field?
WB Well, I don’t know whether I can answer that simply. Have you seen the vineyard map?
Yes, I have.
WB Ok. So you understand that each one of those pixels is one vine and different varieties. Before I made that map I would say the vineyard was managed adequately well, without any real knowledge of the variables, the variations in the varieties. And I also would think, actually I know this from my heart that the vineyard was not planted as a field blend that could be managed as a bunch of different varieties. A field blend is planted to be managed as a single entity. The wine is supposed to be a single entity, and it’s supposed to be just that vineyard. I’m going to back up and come back and answer your question.
We’re not supposed to take it too seriously and go out and manage the Grenache differently than the Zinfandel. That really undermines the concept of one vineyard with many different varieties all harvested together and fermented together, that’s important, co-fermented, and then bottled with the name of the vineyard. This was, of course, planted at a time when varietal wines were not heard of. That didn’t happen until the 1970s that people started calling wines by varietal. So, most wines back at the turn of the century were clarets or whatever they wanted to call them, but they were blends. I try to look at the vineyard as a unit, not as a blend of a bunch of different varietals because that’s not what I’m supposed to do.
Having said that, when I made the map of course I had to learn what all the varieties are which took me several years to identify. Now that I know there are things that I do consciously and subconsciously that do differentiate between the varieties but if I have a goal my goal is to make wine as closely as possible to how the founders intended it to be made, at least what I believe the founders intended, again, to be one wine, one vineyard.
One thing I would like to do that I don’t currently do is to call the wine ‘Old Hill Ranch’, and not call it ‘Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel’ because it really is not a Zinfandel in the sense that, ok maybe it’s 75% Zinfandel, but it is really not Zinfandel, it’s a cousin more than a brother. You know, if you come to the vineyard and walk through it there’s all the different varieties. Again, I try to blend everything and co-ferment.
We do one thing which is somewhat mandated by our contractual agreement with Ravenswood which is that we harvest on two separate dates. The first harvest is of the early ripeners, the second, the later ripeners. It’s not what I want to do. I don’t agree with that. I think what makes sense is to do it the way the founder did it which is to harvest it all at once and make a wine out of it. I mean, we get so caught up in how wine is supposed to be made these days that there is a big homogenization of wine, with very little of what I would call individuality. My really good fortune is that we have a very compelling story and a very compelling vineyard. I try to focus on that.
The first pass would harvest what varieties? And the second…?
WB The first pass is primarily Zinfandel. The second pass is pretty much everything else.
And when one vine dies or radically underperforms do you replace it with the same variety?
WB Generally, no. I don’t necessarily have it monitored down to that level of accuracy. It’s has to do with how I feel.
I see. So the blend is constantly shifting in however small a way…
WB Over the lifetime of the vineyard it has probably changed a lot. I don’t think it changes much on a decade basis, I’m sure it doesn’t. But maybe every twenty-five years you might find some variation.
Do you think the grape diversity has any effect on the pest load or the kinds of ailments you see in the vineyard?
WB I do. We’re organic, certified organic. We’ve been farming the vineyard organically since ‘84 or ‘83, since we purchased it, whenever that was, ‘83. We’ve never had the need for trapping or killing or anything. I got rodents, and rabbits, and deer, and coyotes, and raccoons… everything kinda’ seems in balance. You know, or leafhoppers and mites, we have all the pests but no major outbreaks. Never had one, knock on wood. I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a lot of diversity in the vineyard, there’s a lot of wildlife, we have a lot of owls. We have alot of prey and predators. It feels like it’s in balance.
And it’s not an ecosystem, it’s too small, but it’s probably part of an ecosystem. I was out there working last week and we use a cover crop for the soil fertility. It’s pretty tall. When you’re driving a tractor through it the top of the cover crop is almost encompassing you. You don’t have a lot of visibility around you except down. I see lots of gophers. They’re all scurrying because I’m coming through. I’m thinking to myself, “Boy, that’s a lot of gophers.” But, you know, I’ve never trapped them. Everybody says I should. They just seem to stay relatively balanced. There’s never too many. There’s never none. And they do inflict damage. I don’t know… It’s pretty cool!
We do have a deer fence. That was one thing we did, but we don’t have it on all sides. We did put up one barrier. We’re right next to the park and there was just a lot of deer coming in. So we put in one stretch of deer fence, that helps reduce the number of deer in the vineyard. But they’ll get in, and we deal…
And yes, there is a lot of other diversity in the vineyard besides the vineyard. There are a lot of plants that grow, a very well-populated riparian zone, throughout the vineyard we try to keep the native plants flourishing, we plant a lot of flowers and keep the insect populations healthy.
We do everything we can to slow water down. We dry farm which means we don’t irrigate, at least in the old block. The young blocks get irrigation. But our farming style is to keep water in the vineyard as long as possible, slow it down, not speed it up.
End of Part 1


2 Responses to ' Will Bucklin of Old Hill Ranch, Pt. 1 '

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  1. on June 3rd, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Late to the party on this one. Might have posted while I was out of town? But this is a sensational interview. I’m glad I found it later (than never).

    I just picked up a couple bottles of the current release and found this with google.

    Not how it should be done. But glad to find it anyway.

    Nice one.

    J David

  2. Administrator said,

    on June 3rd, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    David, thanks for the comment. I hold Mr. Bucklin in the highest regard. He embodies the finest values not only of viticulture but of farming. A terroiriste of the first order. I’ll be heading up there in a week or so for a follow-up.

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