old hill ranch

Monday, February 01, 2010

There is a unique magic to old vines, and at Old Hill Ranch, just outside of Glen Ellen in the Sonoma valley, the oldest vines in the county are still producing. The property is named for William McPherson Hill, who reached San Francisco in the summer of 1849, the height of the gold rush. Seeing a money-making opportunity, he purchased 2000 acres and set about planting orchard fruits and grapevines – reportedly the first non-Mission grapes in the state.

Zinfandel arrived in 1856 and found immediate success. The onset of phylloxera led to replanting in 1885, and some of those 125-year-old vines – a field blend of more than 16 different grapes – are still bearing. Only two wineries bottle the old vine Old Hill fruit – Ravenswood, for whom it is the centerpiece of their single vineyard zin program – and Bucklin, the winery project of the current owners of the property.

I learned all this and more from Will Bucklin, as we stood amidst the gnarly old vines on a chilly January afternoon. By his account, the Hill family farmed the property until the 1940s. In the late ‘60s and ‘70s it was a hippie commune, though grapes were still being grown, and Old Hill vineyard designates were starting to be made by Mount Eden, Davis Bynum, Joseph Swan and a few others. Then the original Victorian farmhouse burned down, the property fell into further neglect, and it was purchased in 1984 by Will Bucklin’s step-father.

Since then new plantings (mostly cabernet, some zin, and smaller amounts of petite sirah, grenache and alicante bouschet) have been added. The 12 acres of old vines have been painstakingly catalogued (see the map here). The vineyard is farmed organically and without irrigation, and the Bucklin wines I tasted were all very well made and priced very reasonably. There is a Bucklin cabernet sauvignon, 100 percent varietal, from a 25-year-old block ($30); a peppery and velvety Bucklin ‘Bambino’ zinfandel ($24) again from relatively young vines; and of course the star of the show – Bucklin’s Old Vine Ranch zinfandel ($34).

This is essentially the same juice as the Ravenswood bottling, which sells for almost twice as much. All the old vine fruit must be harvested at the same time and divided equally, Bucklin explained, because the field blend is so diverse. The estate bottling is a delight, wonderfully fresh and intense, bursting with wild berry flavors, lightly dotted with black pepper.

There is also a very limited Bucklin grenache, produced from the old vineyard, by picking that fruit (those vines are somewhat clustered in a particular block) separately.

Set in the vineyards is a comfortable rental cottage (with a separate studio, also rentable). Completely equipped with a full kitchen, cable tv, wood-burning stove and deck for grilling, this is a marvelous retreat for anyone visiting Sonoma valley wine country. Click here for rental information.

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