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Vineyard blog '06


buckZiner
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Greetings;

I have been asked to do a wine blog about our vineyard and winery here in Sonoma Valley. Let me start by introducing myself;

My name is Will and I have been making wine, or at least learning how to make wine, since 1983. My first job was as an intern was at Kenwood winery, I was very green and they called me “Won’t”

My second internship was at Chateau Lafite Rothschild; there they called me Regan.

Then I was off to Australia, Mendocino, the Russian River and finally Oregon, where I was winemaker at King Estate for eight years. Slowly, the inexorable force of family ties pulled me back home to our ranch near Glen Ellen. Here we have two ranches, Old Hill and Oak Hill.

Oak Hill is a ninety acre flower and vegetable farm that my mother manages. She has a retail store on the farm, she sells at local farmers markets and she has a retail space at the ferry building in San Francisco.

Old Hill is a 40 acre vineyard located across the highway from Oak Hill. Old Hill is not on a hill, it is in the Sonoma Valley on rolling terrain. Hill is the name of the founder of the vineyard, William Mcpherson Hill and he settled here in 1852. Old Hill is one of the oldest vineyards in California and the history is rich. I will save it for later.

In 2000, my three siblings and I pooled our resources so we could make wine off of this vineyard. We decided to call the winery Bucklin which is our sir name. We make almost 2000 cases of wine.

After 20 years working in wineries, pulling hoses, wearing rubber boots and wearing the enamel off my teeth tasting wine (I know, I know, cry me a river!) I am now driving tractors and pruning grapevines and I truly love it.

Today I am off to the winery, it is too wet to do much in the vineyard. More to come.

Will Bucklin

www.buckZin.com

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So many questions are on the tip of my tongue, but I'll wait a bit and let you continue to spin your story. Thanks also, for joining us; this should be both fun and informative.

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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I happened to be in Seattle in October for a meeting and sampled a taste of the King Estate Pinot Gris. Double wow's there! Looking forward to the ups and downs, ins and outs of your current venture.

"I drink to make other people interesting".

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Today I introduce the vineyard.

Old Hill Ranch, the vineyard we are going to be following over the next year, is the oldest vineyard in Sonoma. Founded in the 1850’s by William McPherson Hill. He was the first vineyardist in Glen Ellen and the first to plant non-mission grapes in Sonoma. He was also the first to plant peaches. They must have been really good peaches because he sold them in SF for $2 a piece back in the 1850’s.

Hill was also one of the first to plant Zinfandel in Sonoma perhaps second to General Vallejo. Keep in mind that Zinfandel was a complete unknown at the time. Hill then made a Zinfandel wine in the early 1860’s that captured the media’s attention (it was not Parker or the Spectator). Wine historian Charles Sullivian says that this was the wine that garnered so much attention it was responsible for propelling Zin to the head of the class. Almost all the wines made then came from the mission grapes and quality was suspect.

The vineyard as it stands today is 30 acres, with half of that being the ancient vines. The ancient part of the vineyard is a Zinfandel field blend. This means that it is not one grape variety growing in one block. It is literally dozens of grape varieties growing along side each other. Italians call it “viticultura promiscua” I have a map of the field blend that I will post.

We are getting ready to prune now. The timing of pruning is very important and it is the first decision one makes during this 2006 growing season that will affect the quality of wine this vintage. Yet the primary consideration in determining when to prune is usually logistics. For example when is the crew available? We are fortunate because we get to make the decision based on when timing is correct.

We just finished pruning the Cabernet Sauvignon yesterday but we won’t prune the Zin until the first of March. I will talk a lot about pruning and how we make decisions. Below is a photo of some old vines before pruning and an after photo from last year.

gallery_42614_2497_58371.jpg

Will Bucklin

www.buckZin.com

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Soil types? I think I once read that Sonoma has over 100 distinct soil types. Here at Old Hill, on our 40 acres, we have at least three. Generally speaking they are clay loam. The old portion of the vineyard, that’s the portion that has the awesome history, is all dry farmed. Translated; the vines do not have irrigation. This means that the soils here have to be deep and be able to absorb plenty of moisture during the short rainy season..

One of the most important decisions one makes when establishing a vineyard is what type of root stock to use. This is where the interplay between the soil and the vine occur. One of the first root stocks that was used widely after the phyloxera infestation that blackened all of Europe and California in the 1880’s was St. George. The particular characteristic of this root stock is its ability to mine for water. I have heard that the tap root can be as long as 40 feet! This is one reason that these old vines are able to stay alive for over 100 years.

Geologic history puts into perspective the age of these old vines. Sonoma Valley was very active with volcanoes. The Mayacamas, the range that separates Sonoma Valley from Napa Valley was a string of volcanoes. Both valleys were inundated with mineral ash deposits which is great news for grapes. This opens up a whole can of worms that will come up when we do our soil testing in March.

Will Bucklin

www.buckZin.com

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From your pictures, it looks like you are using sustainable farming practices. Are you organic or biodynamic? If so, what sort of requirements do you need to meet for certification? I went to Oregon Pinot Camp and a lot of the growers there were talking about their frustrations with the financial obligations of becoming certified. Is certification in California different than in Oregon?

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While we're waiting for Will to return, here's an interesting blurb I found on the Ravenswood Winery website, The Ornery Oligarch of Sonoma Valley:

In 1981 he expanded his domain to include Old Hill Ranch, an abandoned vineyard across Highway 12, where century-old Zinfandel vines were covered by blackberries and poison oak and discarded bathroom fixtures. Consultants advised Otto to fumigate the property with methyl bromide and replant the vineyard, but instead he cleared the brush with a dragline, left a natural cover of grass and stimulated vine growth with foliar kelp, relying on ladybugs and praying mantises to control pests. Far ahead of his time, Teller rejected the use of chemical herbicides and fertilizers; since quality was his top priority, he saw no need to "improve" a vineyard that produced a ton of unsullied and unbelievably intense fruit per acre.

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Mary Baker

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Yes the Vineyard is certified organic. We have always farmed organically - since the 1960s. However we only recently certified, primarily because I liked the “certified organic” sign. It seemed cool.

It is not much work to maintain the certification and most of the work is record keeping which is a benefit. It costs money and because we don’t advertise it, besides the nice sign, I often wonder if the certification is worth it. But it makes me feel good.

One can be certified organic and farm poorly. Some corporate farms have discovered that going organic provides better prices. They are not motivated because they want to be good stewards of the land. For example organic does not mandate rotating crops or planting cover crops. This year I saw organic vineyards eroded away after heavy rains because they did not plant cover crops and then conventional vineyards on hillsides that do use cover crops that did not sustain damage. In this case the fish in the local creeks preferred the conventional farmers.

Biodynamic is complicated. We use several biodynamic techniques. The most important is low input or the “get more bang for your buck” technique. In other words how to get the same efficacy from your pesticide while using less of the pesticide. That is really smart. The part I have issue with is the slightly religious overtones the practice has. Somethings you have to take on faith but I am a scientist.

As a shopping food consumer I three priorities, I will list them in order:

1) Quality.

2) Location.

3) Organic.

All things being equal, I will choose local produce over organic. Support you local farmers and less time in transit and less fuel consumed.

I wonder if I actually answered your question??? Farmers are like school teachers. They are always complaining yet they both have the best jobs in the world.

Will Bucklin

www.buckZin.com

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The vineyard as it stands today is 30 acres, with half of that being the ancient vines.  The ancient part of the vineyard is a Zinfandel field blend.  This means that it is not one grape variety growing in one block.  It is literally dozens of grape varieties growing along side each other.  Italians call it “viticultura promiscua”  I have a map of the field blend that I will post.

Nice blog so far, Will.

Was this concept of 'field blend' deliberate? Was it originally planted that way? And if so, why?

Stephen Bunge

St Paul, MN

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“Was this concept of 'field blend' deliberate? Was it originally planted that way? And if so, why?”

This exact question is what lead me to map the vineyard. The map, which is posted above but I couldn’t get enough resolution to make it legible (see: http://www.buckzin.com/sonoma-vineyard.html), shows each vine, its variety and its relative position in the vineyard. It took about two years to complete, as I had to learn how to identify the varieties, learn photoshop, not to mention walk each row up and down identifying each fricking vine.

The funny thing is that I am no closer to understanding what the founders intended when they planted this crazy vineyard. But I sure look at vines differently now and I think I am a much better farmer as a result.

Field Blends are still planted in Europe. The concept is to plant the blend instead of blending in the winery. There are advantages, for example, if you pick them together and ferment them together the wines are more harmonized. It would require that the person planting the vines be very familiar with the varieties and how the grapes mature on the vines.

The answer is yes, it was deliberate for sure. The reason is unknowable. Now, in a world of homogenized wine production, this vineyard is quite special. Maybe the success of the wine is proof that the founders knew what they were doing.

Will Bucklin

www.buckZin.com

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  • 2 weeks later...

PRUNING - THE WHEN

In a perfect world one chooses when to prune so as to have the maximum benefit on grape quality. In reality you prune when you have the time, inclination, work force and money available. Pruning is the most important and most expensive vineyard operation of the year. Generally speaking the type of pruning is decided when one plants the vineyard. Some of the considerations that help determine which type of pruning to employ are most importantly, what variety of grape are you planting and the site where the grapes are being planted. The latter determines, spacing, rootstock, irrigation regime, and trellis. And the trellis determines which type of pruning you are going to use.

We use two types of pruning on two different blocks of vines; cane and cordon. At this point we have pruned the Cabernet Sauvignon, which is cane pruned but we have not pruned the Zinfandel which is head trained / cordon. We are fortunate because we have a crew that is available to prune when we need it done. We used to prune using one person keeping him busy during the entire winter. He would start in December and finish about now.

Late pruning delays bud break. This is what we are trying to do with the Zinfandel. It serves two purposes. 1) The later the bud break the less likely there will be any frost damage. 2) Delaying bud break postpones harvest and prolongs ripening so that the grapes are ripening, say in October, when it is generally cooler. Thus the ripening is slower and the fruit develops better flavor. Late pruning is a win for Zin for this site because we are prone to frost and it is a hot site in the summer so any way to delay ripening towards the cooler Fall is a positive.

Then why then did we already prune the Cabernet? This part of the vineyard in on a Hill and is thus less prone to frost (cold air is heavy and tends to from pockets in low lying areas). Also Cabernet generally breaks bud later in the season than and it has a much longer ripening season than Zin. So we want it to break early.

Now that we employ a crew that comes in and prunes in two days as opposed to doing it over three months, we are seeing more consistency in the quality and ripeness of the fruit. And we have less frost damage.

That’s the when, next is the how.

Will Bucklin

www.buckZin.com

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Last year at this time exactly we had our first signs of bud break. Not this year. Thankfully!

Wow did we have a frost last night. My thermometer looked to be in the high twenties. We have had plenty of frosty mornings but it was freezing already when I got home last night. Pipes froze but no breaks, thankfully. The vines are dormant and as yet not even pruned (we may be the last to prune in the valley) so they don’t mind the chill now. They just stay dormant.

As far as I am concerned this freezing it is a good thing. Many pests especially invasive species succumb when it gets this cold. And more importantly, if we don’t have bud break, work life is much easier and much more relaxed. I might even take a nap today.

The How of pruning; I mentioned that we employ two types of pruning, cane and cordon. We have already pruned the Cab which is cordon so that is what I will show. The following photo is before pruning:

gallery_42614_2633_225292.jpgPhoto

OK there are three types of wood on the vine, 1) The trunk and head of the vine which happen to be 25 years old. 2) Last years cane which is two years old (black arrow) and 3) the laterals off of the two year old cane (white arrow). This wood is only one year old and is where last years fruit came from.

The idea is to take one of the one year old shoots (we call it a cane) and lay it down on the wire. The buds on this shoot are where the growth and grapes will come from. The gray arrow is showing a one year old shoot that will be left on the vine and “laid down” on the wire.

This is what it looks like after:

gallery_42614_2633_177460.jpg

Will Bucklin

www.buckZin.com

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  • 3 weeks later...

March is coming to a close and it is still raining. Last year we had bud break on March 15th. This year it appears that it will happen a month later. What are the vines telling us?

“Go on vacation” ?

The forecast is for a rain deluge tomorrow and more next week. I have become quite obsessive about forecasting the weather. Normally in CA we don’t expect this type of wet weather this late.

As long as the vines stay dormant and even during the initial phase of bud break, rain is not a big deal at all. It is just that us growers start to chomp at the bit, we want to start up our tractors and get busy earning our keep.

There are some complications, if the ground is wet, you can’t drive in the vineyard, it compacts the soil and the tractor sinks in the mud. At this point the ground is saturated and even with dry weather we would not be able to get into the vineyard for several weeks.

Hurry up and wait….

Will Bucklin

www.buckZin.com

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I heard on the news this morning that with rain in the forecast for the next few days, this is shaping up to be a March with record total rainfall in the Bay area. (Yesterday felt like the first warm, sunny spring day.) Happy to hear that the extra rain should be ok for the vineyards even while there will be some extra complications with respect to accessing the vineyards with farm equipment.

Thank you for the explicated pruning example. To this layperson and non-gardener, the pruning looks quite dramatic in scope.

Edited by ludja (log)

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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  • 4 weeks later...
  • 1 month later...

i wonder if there'll be an update coming soon. ive been follwing this topic closely and cant wait to hear back. btw, i saw bucklin wines has just been added to Binny's. congrats on that.

Edited by djsexyb (log)

Grand Cru Productions

Private High End Dinners and Personal Chef Service

in Chicago, Illinois

For more information email me at:

grandcruproductions@hotmail.com

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