Posted by: acooksca | 09/04/2009

Stewards of the Vineyard

Bucklin Winery

Bucklin Winery

Restoring something historic and preserving it as it was meant to be is a task of great dedication and patience. Such is the story of one family and the oldest vineyard in Sonoma Valley, Old Hill Ranch
In 1981 Otto and Anne Teller purchased a parcel of land in the gentle valley south of Glen Ellen. Beneath a chokingly thick cover of wild berries and poison oak lay the remnants of a vineyard that was founded in 1852.
California has no native wine grapes. The Franciscans brought the Mission grape to California in the late 1700s for making sacramental wines. Fine wine grapes were introduced to the state beginning in the 1850s by Easterners such as William McPherson Hill. By 1855 Hill had developed one of the most extensive vineyards in Sonoma. He planted his vineyard with a mix of Spanish grape varietals that he imported through Peru and Zinfandel cuttings from the East Coast (see the article below: The Origin of Zinfandel). 
Hill’s Zinfandel “would take the first at a National Exposition” claimed the Alta California newspaper on May 20, 1870. A year later the Pacific Rural Press reported “We sampled a bottle of wine from the cellar of William McPherson Hill made from the Zinfandel grape, a new variety that is growing in favor with winemakers. The wine was pronounced by the gentlemen who tasted it to be superior to any they had seen in the state.”
It was common for most of the past 150 years in California to plant a vineyard with a mix of varietals, picking and crushing all grapes together into a blend. This produced a wine that expressed the many characteristics of its unique grapes and land. Not until the early 1960s did the wine industry make a strong shift to planting single varietal vineyards.
In its overgrown fields, Old Hill Ranch retained this heritage of mixed vines. When the Tellers acquired the property in 1981 they consulted various experts about the prospect of restoring the vineyard. Joel Peterson at nearby Ravenswood Winery encouraged them and agreed to purchase the grapes. In 1983 Ravenswood released Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel.
Four Bucklin siblings, the children of Anne and stepfather Otto Teller, founded a winery in 2000 to produce a field blend wine from the vineyard. Will Bucklin, with 20 years experience as a vintner around the world, is the family winemaker. Recently he showed us around the 12 beautifully wild looking acres that remain from the original vineyard.
“That thick, gnarly stalk over there is Grenache…” Will was pointing to a profusion of dark foliage jutting from a heavy, ancient vine. “See the paler, fluffier leaf top next to that? That’s Syrah”. This was a vineyard spectacular in its unmanicured naturalness. No trellises or watering systems here, just a riot of 26 different varietals, some precocious with large grape clusters and others with elegant, small bunches on this mid-summer morning. Varietals seldom grown in California such as Tannat and Lenoir are here. Only 14 French Colombard vines remain, yet they have a specific purpose in the blend. 

Bucklin Old Vines

Bucklin Old Vines

These vines, in vibrant, free ranging rows, are more then 100 years old. The vineyard was situated to take advantage of the valley breezes which keep vines healthy and free of leaf mold. As they succumb to natural old age, Will replaces them with like kind or Zinfandel. The fruit yield of these ancient vines is ridiculously low by modern standards. Bucklin produces only about 2,000 cases of wine a year, less than half of that is Old Hill Ranch Zinfandel.
In other plots Will propagates cuttings of selected vines from the Old Hill Vineyard…Carignane, Mouvedre and dry Muscat as a table grape. His plan is to make some 100% varietal wines from these new plantings. In 2007 Will held back 3 barrels of Grenache from the field blend and bottled it separately. This wine is minimally processed to let the natural black berry aromas and deeply rich flavors express themselves. Unctuous fruit and balancing tannins will allow it to age for years. It is fabulous.
Bucklin is a small producer, a family property were you taste in the barn. But Will enjoys showing off this truly unique vineyard. If you email or call Bucklin they will, time allowing, show you around. Bucklin wines can be ordered off their website (see below).
Another part of the property, Oak Hill Farm, is dedicated to organic flowers and produce. These products are available year round at their Ferry Building store in San Francisco, and seasonally at The Farmer’s Market on the Sonoma Plaza and The Red Barn Store. See the website for days and hours.


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