Will Bucklin of Old Hill Ranch, Pt. 2

Ξ April 16th, 2009 | → 1 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine News, Winemakers, Wineries |

There are some conversations I wish could go on longer, that I hope readers here would want to go on as well. Such was my conversation with Will Bucklin. He speaks very deliberately, very quietly. You have to pay close attention. In this second and final part of my interview with him, he makes the effort of listening worthwhile. His farming practice is a fundamental part of winemaking and ought to afford valuable insight for the consumer into how the contents of the bottle ends up on their table. Winemaking is work ! A wine critic may describe a wine or a consumer may love a wine, but without a proper understanding of the labor also in the glass, the experience is necessarily incomplete. Will Bucklin is a farmer. No greater compliment may be paid to him.
 
Part 1 may be read here
 
Admin Could you explain the concept of ‘viticultura promiscua’?
 
Will Bucklin There is an interesting philosophy about vine diversity and everything else, biodiversity…, it’s an Italian philosophy called viticultura promiscua, it means promiscuous grape vines, and it translates roughly into ‘field blend’. But it means more than just ‘field blend’. It means everything that happens when you have a lot of interaction in the vineyard as opposed to a homogenous vineyard. I wish that I had more information on this; I’ve googled it to find out more. I’d like to find somebody who speaks Italian who could give me a better representation, but I think the underlying theory is that, yes, there is profound interaction and it is a good thing to have as much diversity as possible.
 
Indeed. A conversation I had with Jason Lett not too long ago he also speaks about this, though not specifically viticultura promiscua. It is a small miracle when there is balance in an organic vineyard. In time it finds its balance.
 
WB Definitely. It appears to me that it does. Now, we also farm flowers and vegetables. We farm them organically as well, although not certified. There are certain pests that are very difficult to manage for a particular crop. Grapes are more resilient than many, especially annual crops, for example, corn which has lots of insects that eat on them. So what that means is that you have to work harder. But in the vineyard… I’ve never farmed using any other paradigm. I don’t have a comparison point, which is kind of interesting. I’ve never farmed with conventional chemicals. I don’t know what that means. I have neighbors that do because I can see them do it. It’s always interesting to me why they have to spray and I don’t. Why would that be? Right next door….
 
As a gardener here I can vouch for that same odd experience. Next door they are always blasting away. Here we never need it. I know the diversity has something to do with it, that you don’t plant all your tomatoes in one spot, all your spinach in one spot…
 
WB I would also suggest two other things. One is being there, whether in the vineyard or the garden, making sure nothing is going wrong. I often say the best viticultural tool I got was a dog because I’m in the vineyard twice a day, I live on the vineyard so I’m in the vineyard with the dog, walking the dog twice a day. And of course, the other thing is that it may just be they don’t need it [conventional chemicals] but they do it because they’ve been told they need to. It may be that they do all this stuff they don’t really need to do. And organic farmer is in the vineyard or the farm much more than a conventional farmer is. That’s one of the big arguments for conventional farming. On a grand scale farmers used to work 20 hours a day. With the advent of herbicides and pesticides they were able to work less, and make more money. There was a lot of motivation to do that. But things have changed in the last 30 years.
 
What is your take on the rise of the modern wine critic establishment?
 
WB Well, I don’t know… should I be diplomatic? Nah! When I first started making wine on Old Hill I looked back at the ratings that the vineyard had gotten under the tutelage of Ravenswood when they started in 1983. The wine press, the notable wine press, which would be Parker and the Wine Spectator, were incredibly kind, maybe not kind, they were objective. They loved the wines over a decade. I don’t think there was a year in the 80s and 90s that it didn’t get above a 90 on the Parker scale. But that changed. I go back and taste those wines periodically, they still exist.
 
When I started making the wine off of the vineyard and I went back and did that research. Then I started buying wines that were rating really highly, the 93s and the 94s, I saw them as not being at all like the wines that were being rated highly back in the 1980s and 1990s. The new wines were much higher in alcohol and much sweeter. In fact, they were sweet whereas before they were dry. The reviewers changed. I’m sure of it. And I didn’t like those [new, highly rated] wines at all. In fact, I thought they were flawed. So I feel really strongly that has hurt the industry in many ways. I think there is a huge homogenization. I mean, people are all crazy about Greek wines right now because Greek wines don’t fit into the paradigm. They haven’t gone all berserk with barrels, sweetness and taking the terroir out of the wine and selling it as terroir-driven wine.
 
I would include many Portuguese wines as well.
 
WB Exactly! And it’s ridiculous, sorry I’m kind of passionate about this. When I started the business I wanted that 90 point wine because I knew that’s what was going to give us the legs in terms of the brand. I have submitted the wines and I didn’t get reviewed. And I realized that, at the time, the paradigm has really shifted in the last ten years. I think the current paradigm is, and I’m pleased about it, is the wine seller in the bottle shop. They are the person that has the biggest impact on your wine sales, although there’s still a huge influence by the wine press. But people that have neighborhood wine shops, who go in and talk to their wine seller, tell them what they want, and they start to communicate about wine, and they start to understand each other’s language, that’s your reviewer instead of going to look at the Wine Spectator for a 90 point score. So if I go into a wine store and I meet the wine seller and they understand the wine, they like it, that’s where we sell our wines.
 
I don’t do the tasting room thing. I don’t have the time or the inclination. It’s not how I want to spend my time. If there was somebody who wanted to do that, that would be fine. But not for me. I’d rather farm, grow grapes and make wine. That’s what I enjoy doing. I enjoy selling wing but not 24/7.
 
Yeah, I think the wine press has kind of screwed things up.
 
Do you have a solid subscriber base?
 
WB No, I don’t. I wouldn’t say it’s not solid but I don’t sell a huge amount of wine direct. Most of my wine is through the three-tier system. That’s what I’ve come to utilize. And that has it’s issues, of course, because your at the whim of your distributors. But using the mail-order thing is a fair amount of work. If somebody called me up and said “Hi. We’d like to come by for a tasting. How much does it cost?” I usually say ‘no’. If they call up and say they’ve heard about my vineyard, it sounds really intriguing. Could they come see it? I say ‘yes’.
 
If people are interested in what we do then I’m interested in sharing it with them. But I don’t want to try and sell them something. Does that make sense? It’s just not my forte. It doesn’t interest me to do that.
 
One of the reasons for this interview is that Dan Berger rhapsodized over your vineyard…
 
WB I like Dan a lot. I really appreciate him doing that. It is am amazing vineyard, that is the truth! If you ever get a chance, Ken, you should come and visit it. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen in California, it’s something very rare to find in California. There are a lot of things about it, its age, its health, dry farming, the organic, and the field blend, all play a role in its uniqueness. Unique doesn’t mean ‘good’. But it certainly means interesting on this level.
 
So when you do pick, how large is the crew, is it mechanical? How is the harvesting done?
 
WB Everything on a vineyard this old is done by hand. You can’t mechanize because it’s not the perfect, straight rows. One of the reasons people use trellises is to mechanize things. So, no, we don’t have trellises unless you count a stake as a trellis.
 
So it’s like the old California sprawl style?
 
WB Yeah, exactly; head-trained vines. Well, a sprawl vineyard technically, in my view, is a single wire. There is no wire in this vineyard. But I don’t know if that’s just me or a difference. Anyway, Zinfandel is very well-suited to head-training. When we develop vineyards we still do head-training on everything. The Cabernet vineyard is on what I would call a sprawl, it has a wire. But it has phylloxera in it, and as it gets replanted it’ll go on to head-training. As I learn how to do it, I enjoy it. Part of what I like about head-training is that you lose the uniformity, it’s very hard to have a uniform vineyard with head-training. Each vine has its own little propensity to grow its own direction. You’re not forcing it to grow up a trellis. You’re certainly forcing the vine to do things, but it give the vine a little bit more wabi-sabi, a little more character.
 
We’re doing a little Grenache block. We took out two acres of Cabernet. And I’m going to put it on the head-trained system, which is a little hard with Grenache because it’s very, very vigorous. But we’ve done it on a couple of rows by my house and it’s working. I’ve learned you learn how to do it. Hopefully I’ve learned how to do it. That’s the thing I like about my job: I’m still learning. Alot.
 
Well, thank you very much, Mr. Bucklin. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Besides everything…?
 
WB (laughs) I guess not.
 
How’s the bud-break look?
 
WB You know, it’s quite late, [4/12] very, very late. The Zin hasn’t pushed yet. It’s bizarre because it was such a warm Winter. But then it was a cool Spring. The vines always seem to know. When you start to think you have a sense of what they’re going to do, you’re wrong. I wonder if you could develop a computer model that would project when vines would push. I’d bet you that would be pretty hard to do. Maybe it’s Daylight Savings! They’re just adjusting for Daylight Savings.
 
Anyway, we had a little frost, and it’s nice we’ve had some rain, that usually moderates the night temperatures upwards so we lose the propensity for frost. Hopefully this active weather pattern will continue. I don’t think it’s going to rain, but we keep having a little cloud cover here and there and that lowers the possibility of frost. A good thing. I was really, really, really happy about the rain we had. Oh my god, that was so nice! I wish we would get a little bit more. It’s makes a big difference to dry farming.
 
You finally got some rain then?
 
WB We got about a half-inch, maybe three quarters of an inch. Last Spring, 2008, it was dry from March 1st on. It was the driest Spring on record. Remarkably, the old vines are amazing, they just weather it. They really did better last year than many irrigated vineyards. It was amazing. Every year I worry about the whole concept of dry farming and how it’s going to impact the vines. And then every year they weather the storm or lack of one. Every year I’ve become more convinced that [dry farming] is the way to go.
 
Is there an aquifer?
 
WB Well, no. There’s water but its probably 40 or 50 feet down. And definitely the aquifer has dropped in the last 20, 30 years as farmers started irrigating. It definitely changed. I think it is the soil itself, everything that we do farming-wise really is to help to help the soil retain moisture, like I said, slowing water down. We increase the organic matter, we’re doing everything we can to help the vines. They probably don’t need as much as I think they do. It’s my human condition to think that because they aren’t irrigated they will wither and die, when, in fact, they’re incredibly resilient. They have huge roots, tons of biomass underground compared to an irrigated vine.
 
We had a heat spell here in 2005. We had two days in a row where the temperatures maxed out at around 115 degrees, which is what I like to call ‘Iraqi’ hot, I mean, that’s just an unprecedented temperature in California. The old vines, their leaves lost their turgor, they basically looked like tissue paper hanging on the vines. Young vines that were being irrigated, it was that hot, stayed turgid. But at the end of the heat spell the leaves of the young vines had burned and the old vines came back and looked less scathed, less damaged than the young vines were.
 
I like to go on about how dry farming works. You get lower yields but I think it’s a pretty damn good way to go.
 
And it helps to enhance the soil structure and, in the absence of irrigation and mechanical harvesting, compaction is minimized.
 
WB Absolutely. There is nothing like a 120 years of farming to compact soil. That’s one of its challenges. It’s quite remarkable the way old vines and dry farming, and the field blend and the organic all work together and grow a pretty good grape.
 
And with irrigation you have mineral build up of one kind or another.
 
WB The mineral thing is a big deal. I’m just starting to think about it. With irrigation you’re adding some kind of minerals. We do quite a bit of mineralization of the soil. Whether or not it changes anything, I don’t know, or what it changes. It’s such a complex system that goes on underground.
 
So I added a bunch there!
 
Delightful, much to be preferred! I thank you again. You’ve been very generous with your time.
 
WB If you’re ever in the neighborhood stop by.
 
Yes, yes. Berger’s rhapsodizing makes it a ‘must see’!
 
WB I’d better call him! (laughs) He’s been around the block a few times. And with Appellation America, he’s trying to get consumers to move.
 
And his role as an educator, a teacher has made him very focussed, very economical in how he approaches a subject.
 
WB There are not too many people, I think, who have as clear a sense of history of California over the last 30 years than he does.
 
Well, thank you, again.
 
WB Take care.
 
Admin

 

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  1. Hank said,

    on April 16th, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    Very nice interview! And his comments on chemical farming, that these folks just feel the “need” to spray something is quite right-on. It shows how out of touch many farmers are. Also, I’d agree that head trained vines are the way to go. Its so much more interesting to prune these vines, as each becomes an individual.

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