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Very Old Vines Make Very Good Wines

By: Jeff Cox
A patch of very old grapevines known as the Old Hill Ranch stretches across a sunny landscape in Glen Ellen, a small village in the Valley of the Moon in Sonoma County. It’s one of the oldest vineyards in California, and one of the first planted to Zinfandel.

William  McPherson Hill, a Forty-Niner who made his money not in the gold fields of the Sierra foothills but in selling real estate in San Francisco, first planted Zin on his Glen Ellen ranch in 1856, and by 1870, the Pacific Rural Press noted: “We sampled a bottle of wine from the cellar of Wm. McPherson Hill made from the Zinfandel grape, a new variety that is growing in favor with winemakers. The wine was pronounced by the gentlemen who tasted it to be superior to any they had seen in the state.”

When William McPherson Hill died in 1897, the estate and its vineyard passed to his son, Robert Potter Hill, who sold a 100-acre parcel on the slopes of Sonoma Mountain to Jack London, whose ranch was also in Glen Ellen, and kept 60 acres as the Hill Ranch. Robert died in 1940, and for the next four decades, the ranch and its 14 acres of vines were abandoned. The old vines sank beneath blackberries and poison oak, rusting hulks of cars and discarded bathroom fixtures.

Otto Teller bought the ranch in 1983 and called in a consultant from the University of California at Davis to advise him on how to resuscitate the vineyard. The consultant recommended ripping out the old vines and starting with fresh young stock. Teller wisely decided that would be a desecration. He cleaned out the competing weeds and removed the junk, then pruned up the old vines.

They were beautiful. Some trunks in the better soils were as big around as a man’s thigh, others were spindly with age. None produced much fruit. Old vines never do, and these vines were old—some dating back to the establishment of the vineyard, with all the vines dating to 1885 or before. And what lovely fruit they produced.

Vines are a lot like people in many ways. As they grow into old age, for one example, they put less emphasis on reproduction and produce less fruit. But any winemaker will tell you that smaller yields equal better wine. The vine puts everything it has into the few clusters it can muster, and so the berries are rich in flavor, aroma, and color compounds. Because the vines are old, and especially because the Old Hill Ranch vines are dry farmed (no irrigation), the vines struggle through the annual summer drought, producing small berries with a greater skin to juice ratio than fruit grown in good soil with plenty of water. And almost all the goodies that make tasty wine are in the skins. More skin, less juice means flavor-packed wine.

Joel Peterson of Ravenswood winery in the town of Sonoma started making a vineyard designated wine from the Old Hill Ranch starting in 1994. When Otto’s health began failing in 1998, his grandson, Will Bucklin, an Oregon winemaker, came down to Glen Ellen to take over farming operations. He and his three siblings founded Bucklin winery, using the fruit from the ancient vines on the property. As they began to make wine, they wanted to know what varieties of vines were in the vineyard besides Zinfandel, for they could tell that the 14 acres were a field blend—that is, planted to a number of varieties that are fermented together to make the wine.

Field blends were commonly made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by the original Italian settlers of the Sonoma Valley, as the Valley of the Moon is also known. As a point of information, be aware that “Sonoma Valley” is not synonymous with Sonoma County the way “Napa Valley” is synonymous with Napa County. The Sonoma Valley is a beautiful 10-mile long valley on the east side of Sonoma County, flanked by the Mayacamas Mountains on the east and a jumble of steep and rolling hills around the bulky mass of Sonoma Mountain (elevation 2,463 feet) to the west. Unlike Napa, Sonoma County has many diverse microclimates, from the cool Carneros region and coastal hills near the cold Pacific Ocean, to the warm Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, and Chalk Hill appellations; the hot areas from Healdsburg up to Cloverdale, and the warm with cool, foggy-night areas like the Russian River Valley, Green Valley, and Sonoma Valley itself where the Old Hill Ranch is located.

In determining what varieties were planted at Old Hill Ranch, an ampelographer—a grape scientist who identifies vine varieties—was called in and to everyone’s astonishment, it turned out that the property contains 28 varieties, including one variety that even the ampelographers can’t identify.

According to law, to be called a named variety, like Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay, a wine must contain at least 75 percent of that variety. Since the bulk of the vines at the Old Hill Ranch are Zin, the Bucklins’ new label was allowed to release its first Ancient Vines Zinfandel in 2000 to warm praise. All 28 varieties are in the wine. It truly is the taste from 128-plus years ago, a luscious and lovely drink with flavor facets that go beyond the typical Zinfandel.

28 Varieties Make One Great Wine

Here are the varieties found growing on the 14 acres of the Old Hill Ranch in Glen Ellen. The sheer variety suggests that somewhere back in time, possibly William McPherson Hill’s time in the mid- to late 1800s, cuttings of these vines were sold to local farmers who were just then beginning to plant up the Sonoma Valley with its future cherished crop of wine grapes.

Zinfandel – Planted as early as 1856, it is the predominant variety of the vineyard.
Grenache – About 10 percent of the vines are this variety from the Rhone region of France.
Mourvedre – Another Rhone region variety, often called Mataro in California.
Carignane – A popular grape in the southern Rhone and in early California winemaking.
Syrah – The backbone of Rhone wines.
Petite Sirah – Often called Durif.
Peloursin – A parent, along with Syrah, of Petite Sirah.
Alicante Bouschet – A teinturier, or grape used to boost color in wine.
Petite Bouschet – A parent, along with Grenache, of Alicante Bouschet.
Grand Noir – Another teinturier.
Lenoir – Yet another teinturier. Its resistance to phylloxera and Pierce’s Disease caused it to be used as a rootstock.
Tannat – A sturdy, if tannic grape; or, as Randall Grahm has asked, “Tannat or not Tannat—that is the question.”
Trousseau – A variety from the Douro used in the making of Port.
French Columbard – A white grape used to—counterintuitively—boost color in red wine fermentations.
Six kinds of table grapes – Some are used in winemaking but the bulk sold in local markets as dessert grapes.
Cinsault – A Rhone variety, light in color.
Charbono – Highly prized by aficionados, excellent when wine is well-aged.
Palomino – A Muscat-type grape used in sherry making.
Catawba – Native American vine once widely planted in the Ohio River Valley to make sparkling wine.
Chasselas – A white dessert grape yielding indifferent wine.
Tempranillo – The famous grape of Spain makes good red wine.
Muscat – Highly aromatic grape adds a bit of bouquet to the wine.
Unknown – Where’s Galet the great ampelographer when we need him?

If you’re interested in the wine and live in a state where wine shipments from California are legal, here’s the information you need to procure some:

Website: www.buckzin.com
Email: kin@BuckZin.com
Phone (707) 933-1726

The 2009 Ancient Vine Zin is $34, and a 2010 Zinfandel, called ‘The Bambino’, from vines newly-planted on the ranch, is $24.

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    Jeff Cox

     
    Jeff Cox
    Jeff Cox (B.A. Journalism, Lehigh University) has written three books and hundreds of magazine articles about wine for Decanter, The Wine News (where he was Contributing Editor), Men's Health, Diversion, Fine Wine Folio, and many other publications. Read More About Jeff