Young Will on Old Hill
Very, very old grapes, very, very good wine
CAP: Bucklin.feet.jpg The soil and the wine it produces: More than 24 grape varieties end up in Bucklin's very old vine zin.
Once upon a time, before grape growing became viticulture and dirt became terroir, before winemaking was called "enology" and the whole shebang morphed into big business, there was a thirsty man with a shovel and some seeds on an expanse of land in Sonoma. In the silty soil off the wide, slow-moving waters of Sonoma Creek, the man planted all manner of grapes, a virtual crazy quilt of "mixed blacks": zinfandel, petite syrah, carignane, trousseau. He planted table grapes near the homestead (for summer snacking) and grand noir vines in the shallow soil of the southeast corner, where they would catch the very last of the day's sun. He planted late-ripening grenache, phylloxera-resistant lenoir and the deeply red-fruited alicante bouschet. By 1870, William McPherson Hill-eventual state senator and head of California's department of agriculture-blended the fruits of his hodgepodge into what was declared California's best wine.
Over the next hundred-plus years, the property changed hands many times, its eclectic original plantings undisturbed. Sometime in the 1970s, the last owners of Old Hill simply walked away, leaving behind a junkyard of abandoned cars and other detritus losing ground slowly to acres of creeping blackberries and poison oak.
Enter Otto Teller. The weathered "For Sale" sign dug in at the side of Highway 12, listing a bit perhaps after so many years ignored, finally caught the eye of Otto and his second wife, Anne. They'd been farming flowers and vegetables across the highway for years at Oak Hill Farm, foregoing chemical enhancements on their seven hundred acres long before the concept of organic farming planted itself in the American lexicon. Teller was a crusty straight talker, a "country slicker," an eccentric soul unabashedly delighted by the tremendous wealth left to him at the passing of his first wife, heiress to a coffee dynasty. When the Realtor marched him past the primordial, dry-farmed vines of Old Hill, Otto swooned. It was love at first sight, and the Tellers bought the vineyard on the spot. But beyond clearing the brush and dragging the moldering leftovers to the dump, the couple refused even to install a barrier fence to keep deer away. "Deer have to eat, too," Otto Teller was fond of saying.
When he died in 1988, his stepchildren took over management of Old Hill. Will Bucklin, whose exhaustive study of winemaking made him the natural point man, led the charge on the vineyard's rehabilitation. In financial partnership with his siblings Ted, Arden, and Kate, Will began farming Old Hill in earnest. More than a hundred years separated him from the genealogy of his grapes, though, and Will-a kind-eyed, slow-talking Everyman-figured the best place to start was at the beginning. To make the kind of wine he suspected these old vines were capable of, he needed to know exactly what kind of vines they were.
With his dog, Tanner, at his heels and a pad of notepaper in hand, Bucklin began walking the blocks. Twice a day he observed the grapes, tasted the fruit and analyzed the seeds. He made note of color differentiations, registered the shape of leaves, watched the way the chutes grew off the old wood. Bucklin's already visceral connection to the farm grew deeper as he charted its complicated ampelography; the vines seemed to him in possession of individual character. Finally, two years after he set out to draw one, Will Bucklin had a finished map.
Raised in San Francisco's Pacific Heights, a tony neighborhood crowded with upscale Georgians and Victorians on the city's northwest edge, Will grew up nonetheless with a whole lot of country in his blood. He and his siblings spent long weekends and a good chunk of summer at their grandmother's spread off Pythian Road. There were horseback rides and county fairs, barefoot days and starry nights. When they reluctantly returned to civilization each September, the Bucklin brood discovered that city life was steadily losing ground to the call of the country. "We raised chickens in the backyard," Bucklin says wryly of his boyhood in San Francisco. "The neighbors did not hold us in especially high regard."
Bucklin is the antithetical Sonoma vintner, as different in temperament and type from his jet-setting peers as Old Hill is from its palatial neighbors. I track him down knee-deep in a compost pile wearing a Ben Davis work shirt and faded dungarees, his calloused hands layered with dirt. His vineyard doesn't even have signage heralding its location off Highway 12, save a small, stenciled plank hammered into the faded split-rail fence. There's no tasting room, no gift shop, no publicist, no la-di-da. Just a dedicated farmer and thirty acres of ancient, dry-farmed grapes. He speaks of his farm with quiet reverence, well aware of the richness of the story he's been charged with carrying through. "I'm so blessed and lucky and fortunate," he says, gazing at a swath of gnarled vines. "Farming equals liberty."
When you're only producing 2,000 cases a year, economy and intimacy are natural partners. Each bunch of grapes matters. The character of one stand of vines is recognized for the unique qualities that differentiate it from the next. Bucklin's approach to the craft is deeply personal, his hands-on style of both vineyard management and winemaking nuanced by his deep familiarity with the farm. There seems to be an almost spiritual connection between the man and his land, something that reaches beyond temporal ambitions into the realm of the permanent, the profound. When asked why the family hasn't built a tasting room, some kind of grand tribute to the modern-day business that is wine, Bucklin shudders, then explains. "It's not that we don't like people. We do. My mother has a beautiful piece of property across the highway with the same access as Imagery and Arrowood. It would cost us millions to build some kind of tasting room, and then we'd make millions off of it. But we'd never do it. The land is," he pauses, closes his eyes, searches for the proper word, "precious."
Bucklin considers himself a steward of this precious land, just one in a long line of travelers passing through. The water beneath, the air above, the soil itself is to be cherished, Bucklin believes, explaining his steadfast refusal to manipulate the farm with chemicals. A different approach would translate into higher fruit yields, but it would also result in different wine. Here, integrity is not for sale.
The geriatric grapevines of Bucklin's mélange seem nearly indestructible. Resistant to diseases that have decimated other vineyards, with massive root systems tunneling 30 feet and more into the valley's ever shrinking aquifer, they fend more or less for themselves. On a different part of the property a new swath of grapes is planted, these equipped with the modern contrivances that make grape growing easier, like irrigation. Bucklin points to his "bambino" grapes and explains. "Look at a drawing of these vineyards and you'd see a biomass of wood and green. But if you had X-ray vision and could somehow see into the soil, under this young irrigated crop you'd see a puny root ball directly below the emitters." He pulls a face that's an imitation of a baby sucking its binky, a comic genetic cross between Farmer John and Maggie Simpson. "But under the old vines you'd find massive rootstock branching and tunneling deep into the earth. The old vines seem to have it all dialed in themselves. Which one of them is going to really gather up the character of the vineyard? That is the essence of terroir. The earth itself gives complexity and character to the wine."
The wine that comes from these grapes bears Bucklin out. The richness and depth of flavor in each glass is liquid proof of his theory: Adversity informs character. It seems to follow for more than just wine.
Bucklin's decision to dry-farm his old vines isn't expeditious when talking production quantity, but there seems to be more on the line for him than just money. "What we've done over the last hundred years is essentially speed water up. We've channelized Sonoma Creek, built roads on what are, by rights, wetlands. So we ask ourselves here 'What can we do to slow water down, allow it to percolate back into the ground?'" With Bucklin's own well down by 20 feet in just the last 10 years, dry-farming is one solution to what may soon become-for all of us-an urgent problem of the first order.
When the family first took ownership of Old Hill, a parade of experts counseled them to tear out the ancient vines. The prevailing wisdom advocated a scorched-earth approach to vineyard management then: Plow under the old, fumigate the lot of it and plant anew. Old Otto Teller held firm, a naturalist with a visionary's soul; and now young Tim Bucklin stands fast. The old vines, their witness to history, their amazing tenacity, their depth of character, their remarkable story-they stay.
From the winter 2008 issue of SONOMA