And of course glad to hear everyone there is safe.
Dear Persona Grata,
In bold, 400-point font, our annual harvest t-shirt will read “2020 SUCKS.” No matter which side of the fence you sit on, and no matter whether you live on the Gulf Coast, East Coast, or West Coast, I think we can all agree, it has been a trying year.
Following a record dry February, we received a paltry three inches of rainfall over the remaining spring months. It was also abnormally hot, warming and drying the soils quickly. The buds emerged earlier than I have ever seen.
The summer started with a whimper and for a spell, seemed wonderfully normal. The ancient dry-farmed vines handled the drought with their usual aplomb, while some of the younger blocks manifest stress requiring irrigation for the first time in recent memory. Aside from an early harvest, it seemed as though it was going to be a good harvest.
On August 16th, while I was on retreat in advance of the harvest onslaught, I received a midnight text from Lizanne. Lightning had ignited a fire on Old Hill! Firefighters arrived (this time), thank god, quickly extinguishing the fire and our PTSD. What we did not know at the time, was that there had been thousands of lightning strikes throughout the state, igniting dozens of fires.
Two days later, the Lake Hennessey fire, located east of the Napa Valley, erupted and there was a massive pyro cumulus cloud visible from Old Hill Ranch. Additionally, we had the Wallbridge fire to our northwest, but each fire was over 30 miles away.
Bucklin Old Hill Ranch
To my surprise, as I write this newsletter, I realize the fires burned for nearly three weeks before air quality became really concerning. Through the first week of September we had had some uncomfortable smoky and hazy days, but I continued to work outside and brushed off the smoke with my usual bravado.
Then on September 7th we had a record heat wave. It was over 110 degrees here on Old Hill for two days, and the fires, including the new massive Creek Fire exploded and jumped the containment lines. The infamous orange sky occurred on the 9th, which was beyond surreal. It reminded me of 9/11- everyone seemed dazed, going through the motions of work, but not really there.
Shortly before the heat wave, I sampled the grapes and they were almost ripe at 22.4 brix. I spoke with Morgan Twain-Peterson at Bedrock about harvesting before the heat. We hemmed and hawed and decided the grapes could wait. Then I spoke to my Constellation rep and learned our grapes, and in fact everyone’s grapes under Constellation contracts, were to be analyzed for smoke taint, to determine if they would reject the grapes.
Aptly named, “smoke taint” is a series of smoke related chemicals that adhere to the sugars in sweet ripe berries. It is only after the sugars are consumed by the yeast, that these chemicals become unbound and noticeable as off-aromas and flavors. In other words, the taint does not express until after the grapes becomes wine. Analysis of the grapes in the vineyard indicates if the smoke chemicals are present, but it does not predict the outcome of the wine. A positive result only predicts a higher risk for taint.
You may recall that Constellation, a 20-billion-dollar wine, spirits and beer company, owns Ravenswood Winery. We have been selling Old Hill grapes to Ravenswood since 1980. Ravenswood was purchased by Constellation in 2001. Then in April of 2019 an agreement was reached where Gallo would purchase approximately a dozen brands from Constellation, including Ravenswood. However, the transaction has been held up by the Federal Trade Commission as they review the antitrust implications of the deal.
Upon announcing the deal back in 2019, Constellation closed the Ravenswood tasting room, thereby announcing they were not continuing with their single vineyard designate program. Shortly thereafter, we received a termination letter that they would no longer buy our grapes but we still had two years remaining on the contract that they would have to honor.
“Honor” may not be the appropriate word.
There is another factor that plays into this story which is the economy. Sales have slowed because of the pandemic as restaurants have closed and stopped buying wine. Some wineries report an uptick in direct sales but I think it is fair to say many would prefer to make less wine in 2020, irrespective of fires.
About the time we heard that Constellation was sampling our grapes for smoke taint, I started to hear horror stories of large vineyards east in the Russian River near the Wallbridge fire not getting picked, and north near Healdsburg too. These regions were much closer to the fires and I remained (and remain) optimistic because there simply had not been much smoke here in the Sonoma Valley.
During the 2017 fires, after Constellation had refused to purchase a paltry one ton of fruit because of smoke taint, I was pissed. Obviously it was their right to do so, but it felt like it negated our 40-year history. After an article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle stating my displeasure with Constellation, I received an invitation to lunch with Morgan Twain-Peterson and Joel Peterson, founders of Bedrock Wine Company and Ravenswood respectively. They wanted to buy our grapes and being the esteemed winemakers they are, and the good friends they had become, it was an easy decision to make.
However, the powers that be at Constellation did not go quietly, they had exclusive rights to our grapes, and they very much wanted to keep buying them. In the end they would give up exclusivity if we would continue to sell them (fewer) grapes which we begrudgingly did.
The rejection letter from Constellation arrived on September 14th. The grapes had been languishing in the heat as we awaited their analysys, but it was a relief to know. Now I could move forward. I called my friend Mike Officer at Carlisle winery and asked if he was interested in the grapes. Within 40 minutes he was in the vineyard walking the rows with me. He offered to purchase them for the same price as Constellation would have, assuming they were not tainted. We bumped elbows and agreed that we were reasonable people and we would make reasonable accommodations, depending on how the wine turned out. No contract, just words and honor.
We still had 10 tons of Bambino Zinfandel that was under contract with Constellation that remained unpicked. I was faced with the choice of picking it and processing it for Bucklin, or leaving it on the vines. It was an extremely difficult choice, were we throwing good money after bad?
If you know me, you know we picked, but it does not mean there wasn’t plenty of agonizing and anxiety in the meantime. We finished up harvest on September 20th, just about when I would expect to start harvest in a “normal” year.
The Bedrock Wine Company’s website says that it takes a village to make wine. Now, working with Joel, Morgan and Mike, it is starting to feel like a village. We all have each other’s backs. We all wish for, and work towards each other’s mutual success. Despite all the trials and tribulations of this vintage, there is progress, and for that I am thankful.
Today is October 3rd and we appear to have survived the Glass Fire, a much closer, smokier, and scarier fire that started on September 27th. Yesterday I tasted all the wines that are done with their fermentations. They are delicious, with no hint of taint, and so there is much cause for optimism. Farming is, after all, a profession of hope, and with everything going on in the world it is hope that will get us through this sucky year.
Will Bucklin and the Bucklin Sibs.
2019 Old Hill Ranch Mixed Whites
2018 Old Hill Ranch Ancient Field Blend
2018 Old Hill Ranch Bambino Field Blend
2018 Old Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon