Old Hill Ranch & Will Bucklin: Good, Clean & Fair
When I think of a vineyard steward and winemaker who embodies the Slow Food philosophy of “good, clean, and fair” I think first and foremost of Will Bucklin at Old Hill Ranch in Glen Ellen. Named after its founder, William McPherson Hill, the vineyard and winery is a near-perfect eco-system that supports wild life, bees, birds and much more. It’s also the expression of Will Bucklin’s own philosophy of living in harmony with the land. No one I know cares about the environment more than he does, which means that he also cares about the men who harvest his grapes and aren’t exposed to dangerous chemicals.
Many of those men are recent arrivals from Mexico where they barely survived. In Sonoma they have the opportunity to better their lives and the lives of their families. They send money back to relatives in Mexico, marry their sweethearts, have families, send their kids to college, and sometimes return to their villages to live out the end of their days.
Most of them aren’t wealthy, but they appear to be happy when they’re working on the land and not in an office at a desk. I have worked alongside them. Theirs is a hard life, but they appreciate beauty and culture and beer and good food.
Will speaks Spanish which helps him communicate with Ruben Hernandez who lives at Old Hill in a cozy house with his wife and their children and who does a little bit of everything at the ranch, including gardening. Yes, Will and Lizanne eat a lot of the fruits and vegetables that are grown on the property.
All that stuff about stewardship is important, but it’s also important to say that no one makes wine as good as Will Bucklin and still manages to keep it affordable. The Old Hill web site provides a wealth of information, including prices, and a color map of the vineyard that’s unlike any other in northern California.
I’ve been drinking Will Bucklin’s wines ever since 2007, when I first visited his ranch in Glen Ellen. I have returned no matter what time of year: in droughts and floods and in frost and blazing heat. I’ve enjoyed Bucklin wines at parties at his house and in my own home, too. Every time I’ve gone out to eat with his mother, Anne Teller, say, at The Fig Café, we’ve shared a bottle of his Grenache, his Bambino or his Ancient, all of which are very tasty field blends. I have known some wine makers longer than I have known Will, but there is no wine maker I know better than he, which means, I think, that there’s no wine I enjoy drinking more than his wines. The human connection matters to me and to him, too.
On my first visit to Old Hill Ranch, Will shared a few pages from family history, going all the way back to his great-great-great-great grandmother, Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, who has been called “The Paul Revere of the Mexican Revolution.” I’ve also heard tales about Will’s siblings, Ted, Kate and Arden, and about their childhood attachments to Sonoma, to its trees, woods, fields and wild animals. On my first visit, I also listened to Will complain about absentee wine makers who don’t know where their grapes come from, or what their vineyards look like and smell like from one season to the next.
Perhaps most of all, I’ve listened to him talk about his legendary stepfather, Otto Teller, and his mother, Anne, who bought Old Hill Ranch in 1981. It had then, and still has today, some of the oldest vines in the county. Indeed, they go back to the 1880s and they look positively gnarly and ancient. Will took over the property 120 years after Mr. Hill planted his first vines and he’s looked after it, nurtured it and improved it for nearly two decades now.
“I’m a snob,” he told me one afternoon when he were surrounded by vines, though he didn’t look like a snob. He looked like a farmer. He added, “The French are snobs, too, of course. Even French workers are snobs who are proud of working in the same vineyard generation after generation just as their parents and grandparents.”
There’s something Old World in a charming way about Will Bucklin. Like many European grape growers, he doesn’t like to irrigate and prefers to dry farm, because he thinks that the wine tastes better, richer and more complex, if it isn’t on drip. It’s probably also better for the environment.
“I am out here in the vineyard almost every day,” Will said. “I walk a different row each time. In the evening, I drink very locally.” As for his humor, it’s very dry, indeed.
The second time I visited him at Old Hill we were in the midst of a ferocious drought and he was both mad and sad about grape growers and wine makers who were using water as though it was an infinite resource and would never run out.
“If they aren’t worried about water and drought because they think that the problem is going to go away, then I have no problem telling them they are idiots,” he said. Will Bucklin has never minced his words or diluted his message.
A year ago, I visited Old Hill once again and listened to Will talk about the importance of cover crops and climate change, too, which he argued was the issue for our age. Our on-going conversations—which seem to have no real beginning and no clear ending—connect me to him, to his land and to his wines. I have grown to adore his Bambino, a blend made of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouchet, Syrah, plus Grenache and Carignane. I buy it by the case and enjoy it slowly, bottle-by-bottle for months at a time. Drinking wine slowly is part of the Slow Food philosophy, too.
This past spring, after huge rains and some flooding, I followed Will and his wife, Lizanne Pastore, to Healdsburg where they talked about Old Hill Ranch and Bucklin Wines. They might have felt a tad homesick, but they brought with them a case of Bucklin reds and whites, along with colorful tales to tell about Glen Ellen, and they entertained the people who had come out to meet them.
The powers-that-be at SHED, that all-purpose food emporium, had invited them to be the stars at one of their “Taste of Place” wine and food pairings that are held nearly once a month. Foodies, gourmets and connoisseurs of fine wines arrive at SHED from near and far to drink, eat, converse and to learn about things like terroir, that elusive and yet precise French term that sums up a place: its soils, its culture, its topography and its history.
As usual, Bucklin and Pastore seemed to be perfectly at home and very much at ease. Pastore called the 2014 Bucklin Grenache “slutty,” though someone at a large table that seated a dozen people comfortably suggested that “promiscuous” might be a more apt term.
Bucklin told the guests at SHED that he’s sometimes called a “curmudgeon,” though he seemed to be on his best behavior and to enjoy himself, especially when he talked about his progenitor, William McPherson Hill, who founded Old Hill in 1851, planted grapes from Peru in 1854 and made his first wine in 1856. The erstwhile Mr. Hill also planted peaches and sold them for $2 each. Will carries on the tradition; he grows peaches, makes peach ice cream and gives the fruit away to friends when they’re ripe and juicy and taste the essence of peach.
Will, who has been a vintner for 25-years, acquired his green thumb from his mother, Anne, a gardener, reader, thinker and the owner of Oak Hill Farm just across Valley of the Moon Highway from Old Hill. Will also learned heaps about environmentalism and ecology from his mother as well as from his aforementioned stepfather, Otto Teller, who helped start the Sonoma Land Trust and the Tuesday night famers market in the town of Sonoma. Will learned volumes about making wine by working in vineyards and wineries in France, Australia, and also in Oregon, Mendocino and Sonoma.
In 2000, he and his siblings—Ted, who’s the oldest, Arden who’s in the middle and Kate who’s the youngest—pooled their resources and founded Old Hill Ranch Winery. Will soon made a mark in the wine world by producing some of the best reds around. Annual production is about 2,000 cases, which makes it a very small winery indeed. But isn’t small beautiful? At Slow Food Russian River we think so.
“I’d like to produce more wine than we do,” Will explained. “But I’m not sure if and when that might happen.”
On fourteen acres he has thirty different varietals. That’s a lot of varietals to keep track of. Fortunately his map, which his brother, Ted, titled “Anatomy of a Field Blend” helps him navigate, especially at harvest, which I have observed up-close on two occasions. I look forward to attending this year’s harvest once again. It’s a ritual I don’t want to miss. Will is up at the crack of dawn and in the vineyard with the field workers; no absentee harvest for him. His dogs are also up early; they’re his near-constant companions.
The Healdsburg dinner that I attended at SHED began with Mozzarella, followed by a rabbit roulade. For the entrée, chef Perry Hoffman prepared a smoked pork loin with cherries and shallots. For dessert: roasted morel mushrooms with cheddar cheese and Old Hill Ranch honey, from the beehives that Lizanne keeps.
Lizanne and Will ventured into controversial territory and explained that they’re not behind the “Sustainable Sonoma” campaign. “I think it’s green washing,” Will said. “I think it’s fake.” Lizanne added that the campaign doesn’t address vital issues such as water conservation and the use of herbicides and pesticides.
The SHED servers poured several Old Hill wines: a 2016 blend of mixed whites; a 2014 Grenache; a 2014 Bambino, and an Ancient field blend that was delicious and that, to my pallet, tastes Old Worldly. There was more wine than anyone could reasonably drink and more food than anyone could sensibly eat. Guests took home boxes with leftovers at the end of the evening.
Old Hill doesn’t have a real tasting room, but Will invites wine lovers and ecologists to visit. He has a makeshift place where he pours his wines and talks about them and the land that he loves.
“We love to show off our vineyard and wines when time allows,” he said.
Situated in the heart of the Valley of the Moon, between Sonoma Mountain and the Mayacamas, Old Hill Ranch offers views of rolling hills, creeks, woodlands and wild flowers, especially in the spring when the land seems as new as a newborn child. Bucklin knows it as well as he knows the proverbial back of his hand, and in the rainy season and in the summer when it’s bone dry.
“I’ve been taking down fences and letting wild life come into the vineyard,” he told me on a recent visit when we zipped around on a farm vehicle and admired the scenery. “I love this land and I love the creeks that cut through here. I farm as best I can in concert with nature.”
You might visit Old Hill Ranch and see for yourself how vineyard and nature co-exist. Then, taste Bucklin’s wines and enjoy the valley that the Indians knew not long ago and where William McPherson Hill built a home, planted grapes and peaches and started the good life that Will and Lizanne carry on in their own way. Old Hill is good, clean and fair at its Sonoma best.
Jonah Raskin is a member of Slow Food Russian River and its Media Team, and the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.