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Tax Day

April 17, 2012

Tax Day is about when I usually expect to see buds swell-up, looking like pop-corn, with an occasional leaf showing too. Cabernet is our earliest variety to start the growing season, with Zinfandel being one of the latest. This year we appear to be right on time, or what we would call “normal.” If you had asked me two Months ago when I thought bud-break would occur, I would have told you it was going to be much much earlier than now because we had such a dry and warm December – February. I don’t think we had much more than an inch of rain over those months. Back then I was checking the National Weather Service web site several times a day, hoping for a sign. Then on March 3rd they reported:

“We are keeping an eye on the long range portion of the forecast … We usually do not put a lot of weight in forecasts this far out…however in this case the models … show a small spread stretching from the coast across the  Pacific … There are signs that the storms could just slowly progress over California and be followed by another one later that week. Again…this is very far out…however it is one of the most encouraging signs we have seen for rainfall in a long time.”

On March 15th, temps began to cool and the rain started. Over the next month it rained about 12 inches on Old Hill Ranch, filling the streams, saturating the soils and watering the very peaked cover-crop. Today everything looks lush and gorgeous. What a difference a month makes!

City Girl

October 19, 2011

As mother-in-law of Will Bucklin and mother of Lizanne (author of the July 12, 2011 blog entry, “Newest Residents at Old Hill Ranch,”) it’s been my delight the past few years to stay at Old Hill Ranch for a couple of weeks each summer while Lizanne and Will take a much-needed vacation.

I observe the bees, take care of the house, veggie garden, and the chickens (ever vigilant about the very aggressive Mr. Rooster: the one day I did not wear the rubber boots, Mr. Rooster gave me several bruises!) But mostly I hang out with Tanner, Little Boy & Little Girl, the latter being the Old Hill Ranch resident dog and two cats. There’s not much to say about the kitties. Cats are cats, and as sweet and affectionate as these are, they pretty much take care of themselves and provide warmth in bed for me – whether I need it or not!

Tanner, on the other hand, becomes my constant companion for the two weeks – never straying far from my side, as we take frequent walks around the vineyard, or water the garden or flop on the couch for a marathon reading session. He especially enjoys the food I cook for him – based, I might add, on what Will used to “cook up” for Tanner when he had more free time. So, yes, some of Tanner’s seeming devotion to me might be based on cupboard love, but I also know that he just loves having a human companion, and as someone who grew up without a dog, this friendship he has bestowed on me has become almost as precious as my relationship with my grandchildren.

It is thanks to Tanner that I see Old Hill Ranch not just as the spectacular vineyard it is, but also as one of the most beautiful, pristine places I’ve ever been. On our walks Tanner has shown me not only the beauty to be found in a gnarled old vine – its branches heavy with those luxuriant bunches of grapes – but also the beauty in the seemingly endless variety of cover crops that Will plants, so many of which flower at various times. (The stands of flowering buckwheat were beyond gorgeous! Will planted the buckwheat to help provide Lizanne’s bees with additional food.) Tanner also has opened my eyes to the wonders to be found in the brush and woodpiles that populate the perimeter of the vineyard. Needless to say, he is looking for “critters” in those woodpiles, so now whenever I see a woodpile I see it as a home or shelter for some form of wildlife and not just a pile of wood. As Tanner races ahead and barks suddenly, I now know to stop and look: maybe he has seen a jackrabbit or a coyote, and if I’m lucky, I will too.

During the two weeks I’m at Old Hill, Tanner and I watch the grapes mature – slowly, ever so slowly this summer due to the cool temps, but mature they did enough for me to see them ripen a bit as I have each of the past few years. It is a never-ending source of wonder to think in time those grapes will be transformed by Will into marvelous wine

For many years I lived in rural southeastern Connecticut and for some of those years our closest neighbors were a family of dairy farmers. Upon meeting them for the first time, I remarked on how much I enjoyed looking at their cows in the field, to which Farmer Steve replied as he looked at me amusedly: “City Girl, eh?” And even now, after so many years, and despite the fact that I never did live in a city (just the suburbs!) my visits to Old Hill Ranch over the past few years have made me realize that indeed, I am a City Girl in a way, but thanks to my sojourns at Old Hill, each summer I feel less like one.

Ellen Gill Pastore
Monterey, CA

Story Hour with Will

August 22, 2011

What brings Will off the ranch and to the big city? Family Winemakers of California! Yesterday we poured the Buckin portfolio among hundreds of wineries of all sizes at the 21st Annual Tasting at Fort Mason. Yet in a veritable sea of wine, it was great to see people were still captivated by the story of Old Hill Ranch. Will can spin a yarn, too. He got going on the topics of dry farming, wildlife management, bottle thickness, cork finishings, and the masculine vs. feminine qualities of the Grenache and the Petite Sirah. Here he is getting real with a lovely customer. Lovely customers, I hope you’re reading. Thank you for coming to see us!

Book Report: Field Days

August 5, 2011

Some weeks back Will lent me Jonah Raskin’s Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating, and Drinking Wine in California, and told me to read it to get some background on the vineyard and his family.

Now I can see why.

Though he can go on for days on anything to do with farming, Will’s usually laconic when talking about himself. The book, written after Raskin spent a year getting to know the family and the farm, as well as other family farms in California, is a thoughtful memoir/history of the organic farming movement including the great story of Otto and Anne Teller. By interviewing the family, researching local history, and living and working on Oak Hill Farm he learns to “eat with your heart” in the birthplace of slow food in California. Inspired by the book, check out the delicious corn patch I spotted at Old Hill recently. Is this not the picture of summer and mindful eating? I would not mind eating a fresh cob with my heart. Not at all.

Historic Vineyards on Fermentation

July 30, 2011

Tom Wark’s got an excellent wine blog called Fermentation. I was happy to open it today and see a story about old vineyards and their importance to California wine, with a special nod to Old Hill.

Why I HATE herbicide

July 30, 2011

Reason #1

Groundhog Day

July 29, 2011

One year ago today I made the following post…

“Late July is the slowest season for me. The vineyard is on its own and there is just not as much to do.

With all the late rains this spring and the cool summer everyone is a little worried about the vintage. One grower reported that he heard that it was the coolest summer in 40 years. Another said the average summer temperature was 5 degrees cooler than normal. It is pretty much what we talk about.

With all this anxiety about the cool summer I sometimes imagine that the vineyard won’t ripen and we won’t harvest any grapes. Yesterday I became really excited when I was in the vineyard and I saw for the first time some berries turning color. Just a very few berries but enough that I was encouraged and for a moment I felt the excitement of harvest looming.

So veraison is just starting and we are about two weeks behind “normal.” The peach trees are heavy with large firm beautiful fruit that is moments away from perfection but I am leaving for vacation and I won’t here for the fruit orgy!”

Exactly one year later and nothing has changed.

Real Science on Old Hill

July 26, 2011

by Kate Howard

A very very early morning spent counting birds on Old Hill

One of the leading causes of declines in wildlife populations is habitat loss, and land conversion to agriculture is a large source of such loss. If it can be shown that wildlife species provide benefits to farmers, a concept known as ecosystem services, conservation can potentially be a boon for agricultural practices. For my senior thesis as an undergraduate at Humboldt State University, I’m currently looking into the potential of songbirds to offer California wine-grape growers ecosystem services in the form of pest removal. I have been running experiments this summer in Sonoma (on Old Hill Ranch) and Mendocino counties to assess whether songbird predation of larvae (caterpillars) in vineyards is highest closer to the edge of vineyards where they are bordered by natural oak habitat. To do this, I’m placing mealworms pinned to cardboard squares staked to the ground along straight lines through vine rows perpendicular to natural habitat. This essentially simulates a “pest outbreak” of larvae, allowing me to measure predation rates as removal of the mealworms. I came up with the idea based on a study by Julie Jedlicka from UC Santa Cruz, where they deployed bluebird nest boxes and measured the birds’ predation rates. The new spin here is the connection to habitat instead of nest boxes. It turns out, where there are bluebirds, there’s larvae predation! I’m still in the data collection phase of my work, so there is analysis yet to be done, but we have successfully captured video footage of western bluebirds munching on our deployed mealworms in at least one vineyard. All vineyards so far have shown at least some level of predation. As most farmers intuitively know, the more biodiversity the land supports, the better!

Le Roi

July 17, 2011

I was out moving an old pile of wood chips yesterday and came across this beauty. This is the second King Snake I have seen on Old Hill and the first one I saw was dead from tractor blight. So I was very pleased to see this specimen alive and healthy.

Vineyards and snakes do not coexist easily. Without going into too much detail, think long and narrow vs. vineyard equipment. Snakes are going to have to be very lucky to survive this competition.

Over the years I have been creating habitat for snakes that usually consist of small piles of rocks or logs, strategically placed around the vineyard. When I come across a snake I move them to these locations for protection. A healthy population of gopher snakes can not be a bad thing, and they are such beautiful creatures.

Newest Residents at Old Hill Ranch

July 12, 2011

Welcome honeybees!

While I do not dare suggest that I am a true “beekeeper” yet, I have undertaken caring for a colony of honeybees here at Old Hill Ranch. They—“they” being a new Queen and some brood, otherwise known as a “nuc” or nucleus colony—arrived Memorial Day weekend, Will’s and my 4th year wedding anniversary. But it was an inauspicious weekend for the bees, as the weather was terrible their first 2 weeks. And I hadn’t set up my hive appropriately for such a young colony!
The first thing people say to me when I tell them about my newest venture is “Cool! I love honey, when will you get some?” Let me tell you, honey is the LAST thing on my mind right now! My goal this year is simple. To not kill the bees! Sadly, I’ve come close already. All those books and beekeepers out there that might tell you, “Keep bees! It’s easy! Even a child could do it!” HA! There is actually a lot to know. In retrospect, I wish I had mentored with a keeper for a year or two prior to taking this on. But, here I am, watching our worker girls buzzing about the vineyard! Right now, they are feasting on mustard, lavender, calendula, bind-weed-aka-morning glory, wild radish, and squash blossoms from our zucchini plants.
I’ve been logging hours sitting beside the hive, trying to stay out of the line of the bee flights while observing their “bee-havior.” I love it when the girls enter the hive with colorful sacs of pollen on their legs—white, yellow, orange, red. Some are so loaded down it looks like they have trouble landing! They sort of zig-zag in and plop or roll in with a teeny tiny, bee-sized ‘thud!’ My darling Will planted buckwheat, which blooms in the Fall—more bee-food for when there is usually a dearth of nectar. What a sweetheart! Will jokes that he’ll never buy me flowers (he doesn’t,) but he’s planted an acre of buckwheat for our bees. You decide which spouse you’d rather have!
My beautiful colony is behind in numbers, but growing steadily and seemingly healthy despite the early setback. We’ll see how they do over the Summer and Fall months as they begin to feed and store up for Winter. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hope my Queen hangs on. Since they won’t have enough honey for the cold weather, I’m going to have to feed them, which is something we hope not to resort to in “natural beekeeping” practice.
Four years ago, when Will and I got hitched, we had to relocate some established hives from our idyllic wedding spot under the Oaks and a big blooming Buckeye tree. Our local beekeeper, Serge, probably the most well respected beekeeper in Sonoma, graciously relocated his hives for us—for some reason, we thought 140 wedding guests sitting amidst the beehives might make for too adventurous a nuptials. I’ve felt guilty about that ever since. Imagine coming home from work one day and finding a big empty spot where your home had been, and no note or clue as to where it up and went to. Yup, an awful thought. Hives have to be moved at night when, hopefully, all the girls have made it in. Anyway, I’ve wanted to get into beekeeping ever since.
The more I learn about honeybees, the more enchanted by them I am. Basic facts everyone should know: One half to two-thirds of our food benefits from the honeybee. If honeybees weren’t around, we’d starve. Worker honeybees are all female, of course! Honeybee gals ONLY sting if they feel threatened, and will die after stinging. (So don’t “bug” them!) If stung, scrape the stinger out with your fingernail quickly so less venom gets in. An average colony of bees consists of 20,000 to 60,000 bees, plus 1 Queen. Wow! Cool, right?
Colony Collapse Disorder is still not 100% understood. But according to Serge, and let’s face it, common sense, it has a whole lot to do with us humans and our intrusive intervention: the homogenizing of Queens and colonies (as opposed to diversification of bees), overly intrusive beekeeping tendencies, especially by commercial beekeepers, pesticide/antibiotic usage, and on and on. These habits weaken colonies so they are less able to fight off diseases naturally, plus it makes the bees dependent on the beekeepers.
“Natural” beekeeping may mean different things to different folks, but in Sonoma, Serge promotes a few basic, simple things: Keep the bee population local by not importing Queens from afar, NEVER use pesticides or any medications in the hive (this allows for ‘survival of the fittest’ or, the survival of the strongest colony), and manage the colony without over-intervention. So, here I am, “newbie beekeeper” trying to “think like a bee.” Wish me luck.
You can support the world’s honeybees by buying honey only from your local beekeepers and by joining a local beekeeping organization. Your minimal yearly dues will help these organizations do good work at the local level through education, swarm management, and stewardship of the local bee populations.

I’ll ‘bee’ seeing you around! And if you ever visit Old Hill be on the lookout for our newest residents.