A Tale of Two Vineyards

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(Above: Old-ass vines at Old Hill Ranch in Sonoma Valley)

Apologies for not posting regularly but these have been busy weeks. Thought I’d get a few posts up while in New York last week but all I could manage was the 140 characters on Twitter. So there’s that if you’re curious.

This post comes to mind after spending a weekend in Sonoma Valley in early April for the wedding of two dear friends. (If you’re looking for a wedding or conference retreat location in Sonoma Valley, with on-site accommodations, hot tub, pool and great food, definitely check out Westerbeke Ranch.)

Vitcultura Promiscua
The weekend started with a small reception at the historic Old Hill Ranch vineyard (Did I mention this was a wino wedding? It was). I say historic because sections of the vineyard — which is a field blend of over 15 different grape varieties — date from the 1880s. Will Bucklin, whose family has looked after the site since 1981, led a group of us around Old Hill, which he farms organically and claims that the site’s been farmed that way in practice, if not name, since it was first planted in the 19th century.¬† There he is below pointing out the healthy soils at the dry-farmed vineyard.

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Vitcultura Sterilis

(Pardon the Latin, and my usuage is probably incorrect – a little help, Dr J? Tried to make a play off the ‘promiscua’ above.)

A ghastly vision from the next day stands in contrast to the living soils at Old Hill. Hiking with a friend in in the high foothills of Sonoma Mountain, we came across a massive vineyard. Not an unfamiliar sight in Sonoma Valley, and at first glance this made perfect sense: Good elevation, a gentle slope and southern exposure. Then we noticed the dirt.

The vines were naked still, not yet covered in the thick canopy that would render the open area lush with green vineyard romance in the coming months. Of course in April, the heart of spring, vineyards – if not vines – are green, filled with all manner of cover crops and life — at least those sites farmed with respect. Here, all looked dead, a desert, with dried dust ready to blow with the afternoon wind.

We considered that the rows had been recently tilled (which had happened at Old Hill, as shown in the photo above) but the ground looked too hard, and anyway we discovered a section later that had been tilled only there was hardly any green to speak of mixed in with the dirt. Also, it had been raining steadily at this point in the year, and vigorous cover crops marked the vine rows elsewhere in the valley. But not here. I’d be surprised if anything could grow here, but apparently it does — with plenty of chemical help.

Sorry there’s no photo; we were hiking at a fast clip, and I didn’t have my camera.