IMBIBE: Mr. Natural
Will Bucklin makes gnarly wines from ancient vines.
JACKSON HOLE, WY – I’m pretty sure winemaker Will Bucklin would shudder at being called a hippie. I’m of the opinion that the proprietor of Sonoma’s Bucklin 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.
Bucklin is one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever met—someone with a great sense of humor who is fascinating to engage with on topics far beyond just winemaking, 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 working the vineyards.
Although he has a lot of beliefs and principles concerning winemaking, Bucklin ultimately believes in nature. 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 found in grapes naturally) 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 indigenous 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 said.
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 watering vines dilutes their fruit intensity.
At the winery, 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 said. “We try to redirect them,” with the use of fencing and other techniques to try to manage gophers, bobcats, deer and such.
Although I tend to think of him as “Mr. Natural,” he’s also a science advocate. He doesn’t believe in biodynamics (where’s the scientific evidence for biodynamic winemaking claims?), and is not averse to busting out a microscope. Having said that, Bucklin wines aren’t “laboratory” wines. He would be the first to tell you that great wine is made in the vineyard. And, 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, and will be there (hopefully) long after they’re gone. In the interim, his job—not to put too fine a point on it—is to not fuck it up.
Bucklin wines are field blends. The 24-acre Old Hill vineyard is about three-quarters Zinfandel, the rest being Grenache, Alicante Bouchet 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. PJH