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Mr. Natural

Will Bucklin makes gnarly wines from ancient vines.

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I'm pretty sure winemaker Will Bucklin would shudder at being called a hippie. I could be wrong, but I'm of the opinion that the proprietor of Sonoma's Old Hill Ranch winery (founded with siblings Arden, Kate and Ted) is probably uncomfortable with any label, except perhaps winemaker and/or farmer. He's a down-to-Earth (literally) guy who spends most of his time tending to soil and vineyards.

I've known him for quite a few years, and recently got reacquainted during his visit to SLC and a lunch at Fireside on Regent. Bucklin is one of the most interesting characters I've ever met—someone with a great sense of humor (which can't be said of everyone in the wine biz) who is fascinating to engage with on topics far beyond wine, including 1970s music. He tends to call me the "Zappa guy," since one of our earliest conversations revolved around the music he listens to while on his tractor in the vineyards. We found common terroir in The Allman Brothers and Frank Zappa.

Although he has a lot of beliefs and principles concerning winemaking, Bucklin ultimately believes in nature. Hundreds of approved wine additives are common in winemaking, but there are only three things he will add to his wines, and only if necessary—the goal being to add nothing. Those three things are water (in cases of dehydration due to a hot harvest), tartaric acid (which is already naturally found in grapes) for stabilization if required, and minimal sulfites. The yeast in his wine is natural; yeast culture builds up in the vineyard and the winery, and these are native yeasts. "If we can deliver perfect grapes to the winery, they are all prepped to become wine and all the winemaker has to do is punch down [the wine cap], press and bottle," Bucklin says.

He is also an adherent of dry farming. With hearty, gnarly wines—established in 1885 and thought to be Sonoma's oldest vineyard—the Bucklin vineyards aren't irrigated. Bucklin believes that watering vines dilutes their fruit intensity. Happily, his Old Hill Ranch vines were planted on St. George root stock, with deep roots that utilize and mine water efficiently.

At the winery (buckzin.com), farming techniques are probably similar to those used in the 1800s: No herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers are used, and even pest maintenance is natural. "We don't scare away or kill animals," Bucklin says. "We try to redirect them," with the use of fencing and other techniques to manage gophers, bobcats, deer and such.

Although I tend to think of him as Mr. Natural—given his naturalistic, organic winemaking ways—he's also a science advocate. He doesn't believe in biodynamics (where's the scientific evidence?), and is not averse to busting out a microscope. Having said that, his wines aren't "laboratory" wines. He would be the first to tell you that great wine is made in the vineyard. And, I think it would be accurate to say that Bucklin thinks of himself as merely a custodian of the Old Hill Ranch vineyard. It was there long before he and his family came along to care for it, and will hopefully be there long after they're gone. In the interim, his job.

Bucklin wines are field blends. The 24-acre Old Hill vineyard is about three-quarters zinfandel, the rest being grenache, Alicante Bouschet and a dozen or so other varieties. I've written previously about Bucklin wines such as his rosé, Ancient Field Blend Zinfandel, Bambino Zinfandel, grenache, cabernet sauvignon and others. They are all spectacular, affordable and as natural as wine comes. Go get some, put Zappa on the stereo and enjoy the taste of ancient vines.

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