Few who knew him would disagree: Otto Teller was larger than life—he was a commanding, confounding character in the grand old style of eccentric outdoorsmen whose like has now largely passed from the earth. A self-proclaimed “country slicker” who wore ascots to dinner, made weekly drives in his Jaguar from Sonoma to San Francisco for “luncheon,” founded the Sonoma Land Trust, and established a 1,300-acre wildlife refuge in western Montana, Teller was an environmentalist and organic farmer decades before those pursuits became fashionable. That says nothing of his personal benevolence, which was frequently accompanied by verbal barbs about the recipient’s imperfections. According to his widow Anne, “Mose” (as Otto was known to his friends) worked out a special recipe for life and he stuck to it. He couldn’t stand excesses or the distractions of modern life; he knew what was good, elegant, and classic, and he eschewed anything that didn’t meet his standards. He wouldn’t tolerate mediocrity, and he didn’t waste his own time.
Teller’s pride and joy was Oak Hill Farm in Sonoma Valley, where he raised flowers, produce, and decorative shrubs—and which, at Anne’s urging, he expanded in 1981 to include Oak Hill ranch, whose century-old grapevines mingled with junk cars, abandoned appliances, blackberries and poison oak. Ignoring consultants who advised him to fumigate and replant, Teller cleared the brush with a dragline, cultivated a natural cover of grass, and stimulated growth with foliar kelp, relying on ladybugs and praying mantises to control pests. (He didn’t bother to build a fence, insisting that “deer have to eat, too.”) Planted in the “field blend” tradition of early California grape growing, with several compatible varieties intermixed, these were some of the oldest vines in the Valley of the Moon —and, since quality was Teller’s top priority, he saw no need to “improve” a vineyard that produced a half a ton of unsullied and unbelievably intense fruit per acre.
When Otto died in 1998 at the age of 90, Anne’s son Will Bucklin left his winemaking job in Oregon to take over Old Hill. With him, he brought a great deal of experience as he, with his stepfather’s encouragement, had worked in Bordeaux and Australia after studying enology and viticulture at the University of California. Working with Ravenswood and U.C. Davis, Bucklin found 26 different grape varieties growing on the property, and by building a deer barrier around the vineyard, he and organic viticulturist, Phil Coturri, increased its yield to (a still-miniscule) 1.5 tons per acre. Bucklin now shares the grapes with Ravenswood, which vinifies all the grapes separately, blending them by taste. As a result, Old Hill is not only an historic embodiment of California wine, but an ongoing incarnation of Otto Teller: big, rich, deep, generous, complex, uncompromising, and inimitable.
Location: Sonoma Valley
Year(s) Planted: Around 1880 – oldest vineyard in Ravenswood portfolio
Acreage: About 14 Acres
Soil Type: Clay loam
Climate: “Banana Belt of Sonoma County”
Elevation: Sea level
Exposure: Slightly eastern