Old Hill Ranch in the Sonoma valley, about an hour north of San Francisco, claims to be the oldest vineyard in the region. It’s small and unassuming – an anomaly among the giant vineyards that carpet the surrounding hills. And Will Bucklin likes it that way.
His ranch adheres to a method known as dry farming, something I’d never heard of until I moved back to San Francisco. Dry farming means to farm without watering your plants, letting natural groundwater and rainfall do all the work. It’s counterintuitive, I know. But people like Will love the opportunity to meet that skepticism head on. I originally wrote about Will in an article for the Guardian and was impressed by how clearly and emphatically he explained his method. But most of all I was impressed by the curiosity, almost a reverence, that he has for his vines – the ranch primarily produces zinfandel – and his obsession with understanding how they grow, how they interact with the surrounding plants and insects, and how to help them just do their thing. Oh, and the wine he makes? It’s a pretty special thing.
"Irrigation give you good grapes, but they don’t have any soul"
The name Old Hill Ranch refers to the vineyard’s original founder, Willie McPherson Hill. He came to California during the gold rush. My stepfather Otto Teller purchased the vineyard in 1980.
I idolized Otto. He had a storied life, this debonair way about him, and he was prescient about so many things. He actually did not like the wine industry in Sonoma because he thought it was ruining the diversity of agriculture here. Such an old school guy, he used to look around the valley and lament “they’re taking out the goddamn walnut trees and the apple trees. Now it’s just these damn vineyards left, and they’re sucking up all the groundwater.”
This land appealed to Otto because the vines were dry farmed, which means they were farmed without irrigation. He was sort of a Francophile, and he understood dry farming from the European perspective. In places like Spain, France and Italy, pretty much everybody dry farms because it makes better wine. And it was the same here before the 1950s or 60s. It wasn’t really until the black plastic tube – PVC – that irrigation became the norm in the new world.
The hardest part about dry farming is actually convincing people it works. But I wouldn’t dry farm unless it was worth it. If you want your wine to reflect the place it comes from, it has to have the characteristics of the soil it was grown in.
Irrigated vines have roots that live in the top 20 or 30 inches of soil. Dry-farm vines can have root systems as deep as 20 to 30 feet. The problem if you irrigate the vines is they don’t put their roots down deep, because they don’t need to. Irrigation give you good grapes, but they don’t have any soul.
I don’t know how many vineyards in California are irrigated, but it would very generous of us to suggest something like 80%. I bet you it’s a lot more. It’s probably like 95%. Why do farmers irrigate crops that they can grow well, or better, without it? There are a lot of answers to that question and I can just give you my opinion.
"The hardest part about dry farming is actually convincing people it works. But I wouldn’t unless it was worth it."
One is that it’s easier to manage a vineyard with irrigation. Let’s back it up a bit – there are a couple of important principals with dry farming. One we call “slowing water down”. We want rainfall to stay on our vineyard as long as possible so that it gets into the soil. That is anathema to modern farming; they want the water off their land as soon as possible, because wet soil is hard to farm. Another reason to irrigate is yield. A downside to dry farming is that you get a lower yield – potentially, not always. It also takes longer to establish the vines.
One of the stories that Otto loved to tell was that when he bought the vineyard he hired consultants from UC David to come out and look at it. They said “rip it out and start over”. They thought the vines were too old, and weren’t very productive. Which at the time was true. But this is arguably one of the most historical and beloved vineyards in California. Surely that’s worth something. When I took on the mantel of managing the vineyard in 2000, I got a consultant in too. And they said “start irrigating”. But I didn’t consider it.
My hallelujah moment happened one July when we had a heat spell. I came out to look at the old vines, and they just looked horrible. I thought “oh boy, this is it”. I left for two days; went down to Marin and drank beer with a buddy. I didn’t want to look at the vines. But when I came back they had fully recovered. They hadn’t lost any fruit, they just handled the heat. I actually have a small patch of vines that we water to get them established, so I could observe these as a comparison. About 20% of the fruit on the watered vines was shriveled up. Just dead. What that said to me was “wow – here are two completely different responses to the same event”. It made me ask a lot more questions.
My stock answer for why we dry farm used to be that it produced better-quality grapes. Now I also believe that dry-farmed vines are longer-lived vines.
Human memory is very short. We lived under this dry farming idea for centuries, and it’s only during the last 50 or so years that we’ve changed. People look at our vines and say “how do you survive?” They think we’re crazy. But it’s really not that complicated. We make plenty of money and plenty of wine, and I think our wine is pretty damn good. I think we’re doing the right thing.
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All photos taken by Feeder, except for photo of wine bottles, which is courtesy of Old Hill Ranch.