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Tablas Creek Vineyard

Tablas Creek Vineyard

The Rhône varietals and blends made by Tablas Creek in Paso Robles are consistently some of the very best wines made in the area. Unlike many of the wines from this area, they are always beautifully balanced and offer a true impression of the varietal and the terroir. The alcohols are mostly in the 13 percent-percent range, which preserves the purity and balance of the fruit. I have been tasting and drinking these wines for several years now and they never fail to deliver great satisfaction and enjoyment. Below is an introduction to Tablas Creek taken from my first article followed notes on some stunning new releases.

Background

Tablas Creek Vineyard is a partnership between the Perrin family, proprietors of Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf du Pape, and Robert Haas, founder of Vineyard Brands, as majority partners and French and American friends as minority partners. The search for a vineyard location to grow Rhône varietals began in 1987 and in 1989 they purchased a 120-acre parcel in West Paso Robles some 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Here the rock and limestone soils are of the same geologic origin as at Beaucastel and the climate is also similar. The result is grapes that mature fully, yet retain crisp acidity. The vine cuttings were imported from Beaucastel to replicate the clonal selection and assure the quality and genetic source. The vine cuttings arrived in 1990 and planting began several years later. The first wine was made in 1997. Production, both in terms of quantity and number of wines produced, has been increasing steadily since then. Today the planting is complete and consists of two-thirds red varieties: mouvedre, grenache noir, syrah, tannat, and counoise, and the one-third white varieties: roussanne, marsanne, viognier, picpoul blanc, and grenache blanc. The centuries-old Châteauneuf du Pape tradition is followed with the varieties blended to produce wines of a unique style and complexity. The concept of blending different varietals to make wines is one that I have always believed would make better wines in California. There are only a few exceptions to this belief and those would include the Burgundian varietals, chardonnay and pinot noir.

Tablas Creek is dedicated to pursuing its goal of balanced, harmonious wines, but one thing is consistent through all the recent vintages: The wines have lovely fruit and are harmonious and balanced. Some require aging, others are meant to be consumed young. This is a very good trend, and is as it should be. To read a recent article featuring Tablas Creek, click here.

Tasting Notes

Information on the 2012 and 2013 vintages at Tablas Creek as well as tasting notes on six new releases are shown below. These are really stunning wines that you should not miss. They are attractively priced and very distinctive as compared with the more well-known California varietals. They are also food-friendly, balanced, and just plain delicious to drink! The wines are available through selected retail outlets and direct from the winery through their three different wine clubs (to read more about the wine clubs, click here). I encourage you to try these Tablas Creek Vineyards wines. They are truly special.

2012 Vintage – The 2012 vintage was a classic Paso Robles vintage, warm and sunny, but with above-average yields thanks to average winter rainfall and the frost-reduced 2011 crop. Despite the warm summer, ripening was slowed due to the healthy crop levels, and harvest at a normal time starting in early September and finishing in late October…. The wines are forward and have a lot of early appeal and they should age beautifully as well.

2013 Vintage: The 2013 vintage was the earliest ever for Tablas Creek. It was accelerated by the low yields from the second consecutive drought year and a consistently warm summer without the heat spikes or cold stretches that can delay ripening. The result was a blockbuster vintage, with excellent concentration, refined tannins and good freshness; a vintage that should be impressive and approachable young, but with the stuffing to age.

The wines listed below were tasted over several days. They evolved beautifully and became even more expressive, especially the reds. The wines are delicious to drink now, but will keep for an extended period as well.

2013 Tablas Creek Vineyard Patelin de Tablas Blanc, SRP $20

This wine is made from 54 percent grenache blanc, 25 percent viognier, 13 percent roussanne, 8 percent marsanne. The grapes were sourced from 11 Paso-Robles-, Rhône-style vineyards.

The production is 3,200 cases.

Light yellow in color, the wine has a lovely floral melon tinged perfume with very pure fruit showing hints of melon, citrus, and peach. Flavorful, rounded and supple with melon and citrus nuances, this is a really lovely wine with a lot of early appeal; Outstanding.

2013 Tablas Creek Vineyard Côtes de Tablas Blanc Estate Bottled, SRP $27

This wine is made from 39 percent viognier, 29 percent grenache blanc, 20 percent marsanne, and 12 percent roussanne estate-grown grapes. The production is 1,250 cases.

Light yellow in color the wine has a lovely perfume with hints of melon, apple, and pear with very faint hint of spice. It is rounded and supple with great elegance and finesse and subtle hints of pear and citrus. Beautifully balanced, this is a delicious wine; Outstanding.

2012 Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Tablas Blanc, SRP $45

This wine is made from 3 estate-grown varietals and is 75 percent roussanne, 20 percent grenache blanc, and 5 percent picpoul blanc. The production is 2,465 cases.

Light yellow gold in color the wine has a gorgeous floral perfume with hints of melon and pear and a touch of spice and citrus. It is lush and rounded with gorgeous flavors intermingling pear and melon with a nice underlying citrus tinge. Very stylistic and beautifully balanced this is a unique wine with great character and appeal. It can be enjoyed now or kept for a decade or more; Outstanding Plus.

2012 Tablas Creek Vineyard Roussanne, $35

Made from 100 percent estate-grown roussanne, the production of this wine is only 800 cases.

The 2012 is the 12th bottling of this wine at Tablas Creek. It is a serious white wine that is capable of aging for over a decade and will gain more complexity with time. Light yellow gold in color, this roussanne has a faintly honeyed perfume with hints of melon, apple, and pear, with a kiss of citrus and spice. It is lush and rounded with a honeyed nuance and a myriad of white fruit flavors showing a faint floral note and tinges of apricot, citrus, and spice. Beautifully balanced, this wine really opens with some air and is best decanted before serving. This is a great indication of the wine’s ability to age; Outstanding Plus.

2012 Tablas Creek Vineyard Côtes de Tablas, SRP $35

This wine was made from four estate-grown varietals: 60 percent grenache, 25 percent syrah, 10 percent counoise, and 5 percent mourvèdre. The production is 2,600 cases.

This 2012 vintage is a heady wine with 14.5 percent alcohol yet it is full and rich without being heavy. Dark in color it has a great perfume of plums with a faint exotic note and a floral spice nuances. The flavor profile is a myriad of black fruits accented by spice and a nice underlying crispness. Rounded and supple there is an underlying structure of soft tannins that will round out more with age. Drink now with decanting or age for many years; Outstanding Plus.

2012 Tablas Creek Vineyard Mourvèdre, SRP $40

Made from 100 percent estate-grown mourvèdre, this is the ninth varietal bottling of this wine. The production is only 100 cases.

Deep in color, the wine has a lovely perfume of floral tinged black fruits with a faintly smoky nuance and hints of spice and mint. Structured with a firm backbone, it has a complex flavor of red and black fruits intermingled with hints of spice, smoke, and mint. With air the wine softens and develops a nice roundness which is complemented by the underlying crispness. Drink now with decanting or keep for 10 or more years; Outstanding Plus.

Again, this is a truly unique group of wines. If you have not tried Tablas Creek wines this is a great place to start. And, if you know the Tablas Creek wines then make sure that you don’t miss these!

Read the “Tablas Creek Vineyard” article at the Underground Wine Letter.


Meet the Wooly Weeders, the Adorable Heroes of California Wine

Some vineyards rely on sheep to weed, mow, and fertilize their property—and keep everyone in good spirits.

When he arrived at Ram&aposs Gate Winery three years ago, Joe Nielsen found himself googling an unusual question: "Can I rent sheep?"

This may seem like a strange request for a head winemaker, but if you visit the Sonoma winery today, it all makes perfect sense. It&aposs spring, which means hundreds of sheep are once again frolicking, eating, baaah-ing, and pooping on Ram&aposs Gate&aposs 150-acre property.

Meet the "wooly weeders," a roving band of sheep that helps California wineries with eco-friendly farming, landscaping, grounds maintenance, and fire protection. 

In early spring, they mow, weed, and fertilize the vineyards, which saves grape-growers time and money while also reducing the operation&aposs environmental footprint. In early summer, sheep eat the vines&apos young leaves, clearing the way for more sunlight and air to reach the grapes, which helps prevent mold and mildew while promoting even ripening and deep flavor. 

They create firebreaks to help protect properties ahead of wildfire season and munch on invasive plants in fallow fields, giving native species more breathing room.

As an added benefit, the sheep also bring pure, unadulterated joy to vineyard staffers and customers.

"Year one, we were over the moon with happiness, &aposOh my gosh, this is so fun to watch,&apos" said Nielsen. "Now we&aposre in year three, and it still feels like it&aposs a holiday when the sheep arrive."

The wooly weeders belong to Don and Carolyn Watson, who split their time between California and Colorado. After his best friend died of cancer in the mid-1980s, Don Watson, now 63, re-evaluated his priorities and his life&aposs purpose. He quit his job as an accountant in San Francisco, and the young couple moved to Australia and New Zealand for a year, where they learned sheep husbandry.

When they returned, they settled in Napa Valley and began building up their own herd. Initially, the Watsons supplied open-range, milk-fed lamb to Northern California restaurants, but a chance occurrence soon added an unexpected revenue stream.

We really, really love them. It's good for the environment, it's good for the grapes, it's good for the vines, it's good for everything."

One day in 1991, their sheep wandered into a nearby vineyard owned by Robert Mondavi, the pioneering Napa Valley winemaker. Embarrassed at his flock&aposs behavior and horrified by the potential damage the sheep caused, Don Watson took over two butchered lambs to make amends. A few days later, however, the vineyard manager called and asked if he could bring the sheep back. As it turned out, they were great weeders and fertilizers for the vineyard.

And so began the Watsons&apos new venture. Today, their flock consists of 2,500 ewes and more than 3,000 lambs. In late February and early March, the sheep start in the Carneros American Viticultural Area, munching down the weeds and cover crops that grow among the chardonnay and pinot noir grapevines. 

When tiny buds begin to emerge, the sheep head north to vineyards growing merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and other Bordeaux varietals, which reach bud-break a little later. (The sheep have discerning palates: They love mustard blossoms, rye, and radishes, and will eat the new growth if given the chance.)

By using sheep, vineyards are drawing on old-school farming and natural land-management practices that were the norm before the advent of high-tech machinery and chemicals. They hope wine-drinkers can taste this return to simpler times in the end product, too.

"Grazing animals have always been a part of the grasslands, and this is just an enhancement of that natural activity," said Don Watson. "And what vineyards are always trying to do is develop nuance, a unique character and flavor in their wines. One way to do it is to enhance the tilth and nutrition of the soil to get the optimal flavors out of the wine grapes. We play a role in that terroir."

While some vineyards put sheep on the payroll temporarily, others keep them on full-time. Tablas Creek Vineyard, an organic vineyard in Paso Robles specializing in Rhone varietals, has more than 250 sheep, plus a full-time shepherd, donkeys, a llama, alpacas, herding dogs, and guard dogs to help take care of them.

"We have 270 acres of property and the sheep graze all of it," said Jason Haas, Tablas Creek&aposs general manager and partner. "About 100 are creekbed or oak forest, where they clear out the understory and reduce our fire risk. The other 170 are vineyards or soon-to-be-vineyard, and they&aposre building up those soils annually."

In addition to being photogenic, which is a boon to wineries&apos marketing efforts, sheep also support their sustainability goals. Growers can reduce their use of synthetic herbicides—or eliminate them entirely𠅊nd make fewer passes with tractors and farm machinery, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions. (Tractors also get stuck in the mud during California&aposs rainy season, whereas sheep have no trouble navigating sticky situations.) Their droppings serve as a natural, chemical-free fertilizer.

"It&aposs all interconnected," said Tom Gendall, winemaker for Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in the North Coast, which benefit from the Watsons&apos wooly weeders. "We really, really love them. It&aposs good for the environment, it&aposs good for the grapes, it&aposs good for the vines, it&aposs good for everything."


Meet the Wooly Weeders, the Adorable Heroes of California Wine

Some vineyards rely on sheep to weed, mow, and fertilize their property—and keep everyone in good spirits.

When he arrived at Ram&aposs Gate Winery three years ago, Joe Nielsen found himself googling an unusual question: "Can I rent sheep?"

This may seem like a strange request for a head winemaker, but if you visit the Sonoma winery today, it all makes perfect sense. It&aposs spring, which means hundreds of sheep are once again frolicking, eating, baaah-ing, and pooping on Ram&aposs Gate&aposs 150-acre property.

Meet the "wooly weeders," a roving band of sheep that helps California wineries with eco-friendly farming, landscaping, grounds maintenance, and fire protection. 

In early spring, they mow, weed, and fertilize the vineyards, which saves grape-growers time and money while also reducing the operation&aposs environmental footprint. In early summer, sheep eat the vines&apos young leaves, clearing the way for more sunlight and air to reach the grapes, which helps prevent mold and mildew while promoting even ripening and deep flavor. 

They create firebreaks to help protect properties ahead of wildfire season and munch on invasive plants in fallow fields, giving native species more breathing room.

As an added benefit, the sheep also bring pure, unadulterated joy to vineyard staffers and customers.

"Year one, we were over the moon with happiness, &aposOh my gosh, this is so fun to watch,&apos" said Nielsen. "Now we&aposre in year three, and it still feels like it&aposs a holiday when the sheep arrive."

The wooly weeders belong to Don and Carolyn Watson, who split their time between California and Colorado. After his best friend died of cancer in the mid-1980s, Don Watson, now 63, re-evaluated his priorities and his life&aposs purpose. He quit his job as an accountant in San Francisco, and the young couple moved to Australia and New Zealand for a year, where they learned sheep husbandry.

When they returned, they settled in Napa Valley and began building up their own herd. Initially, the Watsons supplied open-range, milk-fed lamb to Northern California restaurants, but a chance occurrence soon added an unexpected revenue stream.

We really, really love them. It's good for the environment, it's good for the grapes, it's good for the vines, it's good for everything."

One day in 1991, their sheep wandered into a nearby vineyard owned by Robert Mondavi, the pioneering Napa Valley winemaker. Embarrassed at his flock&aposs behavior and horrified by the potential damage the sheep caused, Don Watson took over two butchered lambs to make amends. A few days later, however, the vineyard manager called and asked if he could bring the sheep back. As it turned out, they were great weeders and fertilizers for the vineyard.

And so began the Watsons&apos new venture. Today, their flock consists of 2,500 ewes and more than 3,000 lambs. In late February and early March, the sheep start in the Carneros American Viticultural Area, munching down the weeds and cover crops that grow among the chardonnay and pinot noir grapevines. 

When tiny buds begin to emerge, the sheep head north to vineyards growing merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and other Bordeaux varietals, which reach bud-break a little later. (The sheep have discerning palates: They love mustard blossoms, rye, and radishes, and will eat the new growth if given the chance.)

By using sheep, vineyards are drawing on old-school farming and natural land-management practices that were the norm before the advent of high-tech machinery and chemicals. They hope wine-drinkers can taste this return to simpler times in the end product, too.

"Grazing animals have always been a part of the grasslands, and this is just an enhancement of that natural activity," said Don Watson. "And what vineyards are always trying to do is develop nuance, a unique character and flavor in their wines. One way to do it is to enhance the tilth and nutrition of the soil to get the optimal flavors out of the wine grapes. We play a role in that terroir."

While some vineyards put sheep on the payroll temporarily, others keep them on full-time. Tablas Creek Vineyard, an organic vineyard in Paso Robles specializing in Rhone varietals, has more than 250 sheep, plus a full-time shepherd, donkeys, a llama, alpacas, herding dogs, and guard dogs to help take care of them.

"We have 270 acres of property and the sheep graze all of it," said Jason Haas, Tablas Creek&aposs general manager and partner. "About 100 are creekbed or oak forest, where they clear out the understory and reduce our fire risk. The other 170 are vineyards or soon-to-be-vineyard, and they&aposre building up those soils annually."

In addition to being photogenic, which is a boon to wineries&apos marketing efforts, sheep also support their sustainability goals. Growers can reduce their use of synthetic herbicides—or eliminate them entirely𠅊nd make fewer passes with tractors and farm machinery, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions. (Tractors also get stuck in the mud during California&aposs rainy season, whereas sheep have no trouble navigating sticky situations.) Their droppings serve as a natural, chemical-free fertilizer.

"It&aposs all interconnected," said Tom Gendall, winemaker for Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in the North Coast, which benefit from the Watsons&apos wooly weeders. "We really, really love them. It&aposs good for the environment, it&aposs good for the grapes, it&aposs good for the vines, it&aposs good for everything."


Meet the Wooly Weeders, the Adorable Heroes of California Wine

Some vineyards rely on sheep to weed, mow, and fertilize their property—and keep everyone in good spirits.

When he arrived at Ram&aposs Gate Winery three years ago, Joe Nielsen found himself googling an unusual question: "Can I rent sheep?"

This may seem like a strange request for a head winemaker, but if you visit the Sonoma winery today, it all makes perfect sense. It&aposs spring, which means hundreds of sheep are once again frolicking, eating, baaah-ing, and pooping on Ram&aposs Gate&aposs 150-acre property.

Meet the "wooly weeders," a roving band of sheep that helps California wineries with eco-friendly farming, landscaping, grounds maintenance, and fire protection. 

In early spring, they mow, weed, and fertilize the vineyards, which saves grape-growers time and money while also reducing the operation&aposs environmental footprint. In early summer, sheep eat the vines&apos young leaves, clearing the way for more sunlight and air to reach the grapes, which helps prevent mold and mildew while promoting even ripening and deep flavor. 

They create firebreaks to help protect properties ahead of wildfire season and munch on invasive plants in fallow fields, giving native species more breathing room.

As an added benefit, the sheep also bring pure, unadulterated joy to vineyard staffers and customers.

"Year one, we were over the moon with happiness, &aposOh my gosh, this is so fun to watch,&apos" said Nielsen. "Now we&aposre in year three, and it still feels like it&aposs a holiday when the sheep arrive."

The wooly weeders belong to Don and Carolyn Watson, who split their time between California and Colorado. After his best friend died of cancer in the mid-1980s, Don Watson, now 63, re-evaluated his priorities and his life&aposs purpose. He quit his job as an accountant in San Francisco, and the young couple moved to Australia and New Zealand for a year, where they learned sheep husbandry.

When they returned, they settled in Napa Valley and began building up their own herd. Initially, the Watsons supplied open-range, milk-fed lamb to Northern California restaurants, but a chance occurrence soon added an unexpected revenue stream.

We really, really love them. It's good for the environment, it's good for the grapes, it's good for the vines, it's good for everything."

One day in 1991, their sheep wandered into a nearby vineyard owned by Robert Mondavi, the pioneering Napa Valley winemaker. Embarrassed at his flock&aposs behavior and horrified by the potential damage the sheep caused, Don Watson took over two butchered lambs to make amends. A few days later, however, the vineyard manager called and asked if he could bring the sheep back. As it turned out, they were great weeders and fertilizers for the vineyard.

And so began the Watsons&apos new venture. Today, their flock consists of 2,500 ewes and more than 3,000 lambs. In late February and early March, the sheep start in the Carneros American Viticultural Area, munching down the weeds and cover crops that grow among the chardonnay and pinot noir grapevines. 

When tiny buds begin to emerge, the sheep head north to vineyards growing merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and other Bordeaux varietals, which reach bud-break a little later. (The sheep have discerning palates: They love mustard blossoms, rye, and radishes, and will eat the new growth if given the chance.)

By using sheep, vineyards are drawing on old-school farming and natural land-management practices that were the norm before the advent of high-tech machinery and chemicals. They hope wine-drinkers can taste this return to simpler times in the end product, too.

"Grazing animals have always been a part of the grasslands, and this is just an enhancement of that natural activity," said Don Watson. "And what vineyards are always trying to do is develop nuance, a unique character and flavor in their wines. One way to do it is to enhance the tilth and nutrition of the soil to get the optimal flavors out of the wine grapes. We play a role in that terroir."

While some vineyards put sheep on the payroll temporarily, others keep them on full-time. Tablas Creek Vineyard, an organic vineyard in Paso Robles specializing in Rhone varietals, has more than 250 sheep, plus a full-time shepherd, donkeys, a llama, alpacas, herding dogs, and guard dogs to help take care of them.

"We have 270 acres of property and the sheep graze all of it," said Jason Haas, Tablas Creek&aposs general manager and partner. "About 100 are creekbed or oak forest, where they clear out the understory and reduce our fire risk. The other 170 are vineyards or soon-to-be-vineyard, and they&aposre building up those soils annually."

In addition to being photogenic, which is a boon to wineries&apos marketing efforts, sheep also support their sustainability goals. Growers can reduce their use of synthetic herbicides—or eliminate them entirely𠅊nd make fewer passes with tractors and farm machinery, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions. (Tractors also get stuck in the mud during California&aposs rainy season, whereas sheep have no trouble navigating sticky situations.) Their droppings serve as a natural, chemical-free fertilizer.

"It&aposs all interconnected," said Tom Gendall, winemaker for Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in the North Coast, which benefit from the Watsons&apos wooly weeders. "We really, really love them. It&aposs good for the environment, it&aposs good for the grapes, it&aposs good for the vines, it&aposs good for everything."


Meet the Wooly Weeders, the Adorable Heroes of California Wine

Some vineyards rely on sheep to weed, mow, and fertilize their property—and keep everyone in good spirits.

When he arrived at Ram&aposs Gate Winery three years ago, Joe Nielsen found himself googling an unusual question: "Can I rent sheep?"

This may seem like a strange request for a head winemaker, but if you visit the Sonoma winery today, it all makes perfect sense. It&aposs spring, which means hundreds of sheep are once again frolicking, eating, baaah-ing, and pooping on Ram&aposs Gate&aposs 150-acre property.

Meet the "wooly weeders," a roving band of sheep that helps California wineries with eco-friendly farming, landscaping, grounds maintenance, and fire protection. 

In early spring, they mow, weed, and fertilize the vineyards, which saves grape-growers time and money while also reducing the operation&aposs environmental footprint. In early summer, sheep eat the vines&apos young leaves, clearing the way for more sunlight and air to reach the grapes, which helps prevent mold and mildew while promoting even ripening and deep flavor. 

They create firebreaks to help protect properties ahead of wildfire season and munch on invasive plants in fallow fields, giving native species more breathing room.

As an added benefit, the sheep also bring pure, unadulterated joy to vineyard staffers and customers.

"Year one, we were over the moon with happiness, &aposOh my gosh, this is so fun to watch,&apos" said Nielsen. "Now we&aposre in year three, and it still feels like it&aposs a holiday when the sheep arrive."

The wooly weeders belong to Don and Carolyn Watson, who split their time between California and Colorado. After his best friend died of cancer in the mid-1980s, Don Watson, now 63, re-evaluated his priorities and his life&aposs purpose. He quit his job as an accountant in San Francisco, and the young couple moved to Australia and New Zealand for a year, where they learned sheep husbandry.

When they returned, they settled in Napa Valley and began building up their own herd. Initially, the Watsons supplied open-range, milk-fed lamb to Northern California restaurants, but a chance occurrence soon added an unexpected revenue stream.

We really, really love them. It's good for the environment, it's good for the grapes, it's good for the vines, it's good for everything."

One day in 1991, their sheep wandered into a nearby vineyard owned by Robert Mondavi, the pioneering Napa Valley winemaker. Embarrassed at his flock&aposs behavior and horrified by the potential damage the sheep caused, Don Watson took over two butchered lambs to make amends. A few days later, however, the vineyard manager called and asked if he could bring the sheep back. As it turned out, they were great weeders and fertilizers for the vineyard.

And so began the Watsons&apos new venture. Today, their flock consists of 2,500 ewes and more than 3,000 lambs. In late February and early March, the sheep start in the Carneros American Viticultural Area, munching down the weeds and cover crops that grow among the chardonnay and pinot noir grapevines. 

When tiny buds begin to emerge, the sheep head north to vineyards growing merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and other Bordeaux varietals, which reach bud-break a little later. (The sheep have discerning palates: They love mustard blossoms, rye, and radishes, and will eat the new growth if given the chance.)

By using sheep, vineyards are drawing on old-school farming and natural land-management practices that were the norm before the advent of high-tech machinery and chemicals. They hope wine-drinkers can taste this return to simpler times in the end product, too.

"Grazing animals have always been a part of the grasslands, and this is just an enhancement of that natural activity," said Don Watson. "And what vineyards are always trying to do is develop nuance, a unique character and flavor in their wines. One way to do it is to enhance the tilth and nutrition of the soil to get the optimal flavors out of the wine grapes. We play a role in that terroir."

While some vineyards put sheep on the payroll temporarily, others keep them on full-time. Tablas Creek Vineyard, an organic vineyard in Paso Robles specializing in Rhone varietals, has more than 250 sheep, plus a full-time shepherd, donkeys, a llama, alpacas, herding dogs, and guard dogs to help take care of them.

"We have 270 acres of property and the sheep graze all of it," said Jason Haas, Tablas Creek&aposs general manager and partner. "About 100 are creekbed or oak forest, where they clear out the understory and reduce our fire risk. The other 170 are vineyards or soon-to-be-vineyard, and they&aposre building up those soils annually."

In addition to being photogenic, which is a boon to wineries&apos marketing efforts, sheep also support their sustainability goals. Growers can reduce their use of synthetic herbicides—or eliminate them entirely𠅊nd make fewer passes with tractors and farm machinery, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions. (Tractors also get stuck in the mud during California&aposs rainy season, whereas sheep have no trouble navigating sticky situations.) Their droppings serve as a natural, chemical-free fertilizer.

"It&aposs all interconnected," said Tom Gendall, winemaker for Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in the North Coast, which benefit from the Watsons&apos wooly weeders. "We really, really love them. It&aposs good for the environment, it&aposs good for the grapes, it&aposs good for the vines, it&aposs good for everything."


Meet the Wooly Weeders, the Adorable Heroes of California Wine

Some vineyards rely on sheep to weed, mow, and fertilize their property—and keep everyone in good spirits.

When he arrived at Ram&aposs Gate Winery three years ago, Joe Nielsen found himself googling an unusual question: "Can I rent sheep?"

This may seem like a strange request for a head winemaker, but if you visit the Sonoma winery today, it all makes perfect sense. It&aposs spring, which means hundreds of sheep are once again frolicking, eating, baaah-ing, and pooping on Ram&aposs Gate&aposs 150-acre property.

Meet the "wooly weeders," a roving band of sheep that helps California wineries with eco-friendly farming, landscaping, grounds maintenance, and fire protection. 

In early spring, they mow, weed, and fertilize the vineyards, which saves grape-growers time and money while also reducing the operation&aposs environmental footprint. In early summer, sheep eat the vines&apos young leaves, clearing the way for more sunlight and air to reach the grapes, which helps prevent mold and mildew while promoting even ripening and deep flavor. 

They create firebreaks to help protect properties ahead of wildfire season and munch on invasive plants in fallow fields, giving native species more breathing room.

As an added benefit, the sheep also bring pure, unadulterated joy to vineyard staffers and customers.

"Year one, we were over the moon with happiness, &aposOh my gosh, this is so fun to watch,&apos" said Nielsen. "Now we&aposre in year three, and it still feels like it&aposs a holiday when the sheep arrive."

The wooly weeders belong to Don and Carolyn Watson, who split their time between California and Colorado. After his best friend died of cancer in the mid-1980s, Don Watson, now 63, re-evaluated his priorities and his life&aposs purpose. He quit his job as an accountant in San Francisco, and the young couple moved to Australia and New Zealand for a year, where they learned sheep husbandry.

When they returned, they settled in Napa Valley and began building up their own herd. Initially, the Watsons supplied open-range, milk-fed lamb to Northern California restaurants, but a chance occurrence soon added an unexpected revenue stream.

We really, really love them. It's good for the environment, it's good for the grapes, it's good for the vines, it's good for everything."

One day in 1991, their sheep wandered into a nearby vineyard owned by Robert Mondavi, the pioneering Napa Valley winemaker. Embarrassed at his flock&aposs behavior and horrified by the potential damage the sheep caused, Don Watson took over two butchered lambs to make amends. A few days later, however, the vineyard manager called and asked if he could bring the sheep back. As it turned out, they were great weeders and fertilizers for the vineyard.

And so began the Watsons&apos new venture. Today, their flock consists of 2,500 ewes and more than 3,000 lambs. In late February and early March, the sheep start in the Carneros American Viticultural Area, munching down the weeds and cover crops that grow among the chardonnay and pinot noir grapevines. 

When tiny buds begin to emerge, the sheep head north to vineyards growing merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and other Bordeaux varietals, which reach bud-break a little later. (The sheep have discerning palates: They love mustard blossoms, rye, and radishes, and will eat the new growth if given the chance.)

By using sheep, vineyards are drawing on old-school farming and natural land-management practices that were the norm before the advent of high-tech machinery and chemicals. They hope wine-drinkers can taste this return to simpler times in the end product, too.

"Grazing animals have always been a part of the grasslands, and this is just an enhancement of that natural activity," said Don Watson. "And what vineyards are always trying to do is develop nuance, a unique character and flavor in their wines. One way to do it is to enhance the tilth and nutrition of the soil to get the optimal flavors out of the wine grapes. We play a role in that terroir."

While some vineyards put sheep on the payroll temporarily, others keep them on full-time. Tablas Creek Vineyard, an organic vineyard in Paso Robles specializing in Rhone varietals, has more than 250 sheep, plus a full-time shepherd, donkeys, a llama, alpacas, herding dogs, and guard dogs to help take care of them.

"We have 270 acres of property and the sheep graze all of it," said Jason Haas, Tablas Creek&aposs general manager and partner. "About 100 are creekbed or oak forest, where they clear out the understory and reduce our fire risk. The other 170 are vineyards or soon-to-be-vineyard, and they&aposre building up those soils annually."

In addition to being photogenic, which is a boon to wineries&apos marketing efforts, sheep also support their sustainability goals. Growers can reduce their use of synthetic herbicides—or eliminate them entirely𠅊nd make fewer passes with tractors and farm machinery, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions. (Tractors also get stuck in the mud during California&aposs rainy season, whereas sheep have no trouble navigating sticky situations.) Their droppings serve as a natural, chemical-free fertilizer.

"It&aposs all interconnected," said Tom Gendall, winemaker for Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in the North Coast, which benefit from the Watsons&apos wooly weeders. "We really, really love them. It&aposs good for the environment, it&aposs good for the grapes, it&aposs good for the vines, it&aposs good for everything."


Meet the Wooly Weeders, the Adorable Heroes of California Wine

Some vineyards rely on sheep to weed, mow, and fertilize their property—and keep everyone in good spirits.

When he arrived at Ram&aposs Gate Winery three years ago, Joe Nielsen found himself googling an unusual question: "Can I rent sheep?"

This may seem like a strange request for a head winemaker, but if you visit the Sonoma winery today, it all makes perfect sense. It&aposs spring, which means hundreds of sheep are once again frolicking, eating, baaah-ing, and pooping on Ram&aposs Gate&aposs 150-acre property.

Meet the "wooly weeders," a roving band of sheep that helps California wineries with eco-friendly farming, landscaping, grounds maintenance, and fire protection. 

In early spring, they mow, weed, and fertilize the vineyards, which saves grape-growers time and money while also reducing the operation&aposs environmental footprint. In early summer, sheep eat the vines&apos young leaves, clearing the way for more sunlight and air to reach the grapes, which helps prevent mold and mildew while promoting even ripening and deep flavor. 

They create firebreaks to help protect properties ahead of wildfire season and munch on invasive plants in fallow fields, giving native species more breathing room.

As an added benefit, the sheep also bring pure, unadulterated joy to vineyard staffers and customers.

"Year one, we were over the moon with happiness, &aposOh my gosh, this is so fun to watch,&apos" said Nielsen. "Now we&aposre in year three, and it still feels like it&aposs a holiday when the sheep arrive."

The wooly weeders belong to Don and Carolyn Watson, who split their time between California and Colorado. After his best friend died of cancer in the mid-1980s, Don Watson, now 63, re-evaluated his priorities and his life&aposs purpose. He quit his job as an accountant in San Francisco, and the young couple moved to Australia and New Zealand for a year, where they learned sheep husbandry.

When they returned, they settled in Napa Valley and began building up their own herd. Initially, the Watsons supplied open-range, milk-fed lamb to Northern California restaurants, but a chance occurrence soon added an unexpected revenue stream.

We really, really love them. It's good for the environment, it's good for the grapes, it's good for the vines, it's good for everything."

One day in 1991, their sheep wandered into a nearby vineyard owned by Robert Mondavi, the pioneering Napa Valley winemaker. Embarrassed at his flock&aposs behavior and horrified by the potential damage the sheep caused, Don Watson took over two butchered lambs to make amends. A few days later, however, the vineyard manager called and asked if he could bring the sheep back. As it turned out, they were great weeders and fertilizers for the vineyard.

And so began the Watsons&apos new venture. Today, their flock consists of 2,500 ewes and more than 3,000 lambs. In late February and early March, the sheep start in the Carneros American Viticultural Area, munching down the weeds and cover crops that grow among the chardonnay and pinot noir grapevines. 

When tiny buds begin to emerge, the sheep head north to vineyards growing merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and other Bordeaux varietals, which reach bud-break a little later. (The sheep have discerning palates: They love mustard blossoms, rye, and radishes, and will eat the new growth if given the chance.)

By using sheep, vineyards are drawing on old-school farming and natural land-management practices that were the norm before the advent of high-tech machinery and chemicals. They hope wine-drinkers can taste this return to simpler times in the end product, too.

"Grazing animals have always been a part of the grasslands, and this is just an enhancement of that natural activity," said Don Watson. "And what vineyards are always trying to do is develop nuance, a unique character and flavor in their wines. One way to do it is to enhance the tilth and nutrition of the soil to get the optimal flavors out of the wine grapes. We play a role in that terroir."

While some vineyards put sheep on the payroll temporarily, others keep them on full-time. Tablas Creek Vineyard, an organic vineyard in Paso Robles specializing in Rhone varietals, has more than 250 sheep, plus a full-time shepherd, donkeys, a llama, alpacas, herding dogs, and guard dogs to help take care of them.

"We have 270 acres of property and the sheep graze all of it," said Jason Haas, Tablas Creek&aposs general manager and partner. "About 100 are creekbed or oak forest, where they clear out the understory and reduce our fire risk. The other 170 are vineyards or soon-to-be-vineyard, and they&aposre building up those soils annually."

In addition to being photogenic, which is a boon to wineries&apos marketing efforts, sheep also support their sustainability goals. Growers can reduce their use of synthetic herbicides—or eliminate them entirely𠅊nd make fewer passes with tractors and farm machinery, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions. (Tractors also get stuck in the mud during California&aposs rainy season, whereas sheep have no trouble navigating sticky situations.) Their droppings serve as a natural, chemical-free fertilizer.

"It&aposs all interconnected," said Tom Gendall, winemaker for Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in the North Coast, which benefit from the Watsons&apos wooly weeders. "We really, really love them. It&aposs good for the environment, it&aposs good for the grapes, it&aposs good for the vines, it&aposs good for everything."


Meet the Wooly Weeders, the Adorable Heroes of California Wine

Some vineyards rely on sheep to weed, mow, and fertilize their property—and keep everyone in good spirits.

When he arrived at Ram&aposs Gate Winery three years ago, Joe Nielsen found himself googling an unusual question: "Can I rent sheep?"

This may seem like a strange request for a head winemaker, but if you visit the Sonoma winery today, it all makes perfect sense. It&aposs spring, which means hundreds of sheep are once again frolicking, eating, baaah-ing, and pooping on Ram&aposs Gate&aposs 150-acre property.

Meet the "wooly weeders," a roving band of sheep that helps California wineries with eco-friendly farming, landscaping, grounds maintenance, and fire protection. 

In early spring, they mow, weed, and fertilize the vineyards, which saves grape-growers time and money while also reducing the operation&aposs environmental footprint. In early summer, sheep eat the vines&apos young leaves, clearing the way for more sunlight and air to reach the grapes, which helps prevent mold and mildew while promoting even ripening and deep flavor. 

They create firebreaks to help protect properties ahead of wildfire season and munch on invasive plants in fallow fields, giving native species more breathing room.

As an added benefit, the sheep also bring pure, unadulterated joy to vineyard staffers and customers.

"Year one, we were over the moon with happiness, &aposOh my gosh, this is so fun to watch,&apos" said Nielsen. "Now we&aposre in year three, and it still feels like it&aposs a holiday when the sheep arrive."

The wooly weeders belong to Don and Carolyn Watson, who split their time between California and Colorado. After his best friend died of cancer in the mid-1980s, Don Watson, now 63, re-evaluated his priorities and his life&aposs purpose. He quit his job as an accountant in San Francisco, and the young couple moved to Australia and New Zealand for a year, where they learned sheep husbandry.

When they returned, they settled in Napa Valley and began building up their own herd. Initially, the Watsons supplied open-range, milk-fed lamb to Northern California restaurants, but a chance occurrence soon added an unexpected revenue stream.

We really, really love them. It's good for the environment, it's good for the grapes, it's good for the vines, it's good for everything."

One day in 1991, their sheep wandered into a nearby vineyard owned by Robert Mondavi, the pioneering Napa Valley winemaker. Embarrassed at his flock&aposs behavior and horrified by the potential damage the sheep caused, Don Watson took over two butchered lambs to make amends. A few days later, however, the vineyard manager called and asked if he could bring the sheep back. As it turned out, they were great weeders and fertilizers for the vineyard.

And so began the Watsons&apos new venture. Today, their flock consists of 2,500 ewes and more than 3,000 lambs. In late February and early March, the sheep start in the Carneros American Viticultural Area, munching down the weeds and cover crops that grow among the chardonnay and pinot noir grapevines. 

When tiny buds begin to emerge, the sheep head north to vineyards growing merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and other Bordeaux varietals, which reach bud-break a little later. (The sheep have discerning palates: They love mustard blossoms, rye, and radishes, and will eat the new growth if given the chance.)

By using sheep, vineyards are drawing on old-school farming and natural land-management practices that were the norm before the advent of high-tech machinery and chemicals. They hope wine-drinkers can taste this return to simpler times in the end product, too.

"Grazing animals have always been a part of the grasslands, and this is just an enhancement of that natural activity," said Don Watson. "And what vineyards are always trying to do is develop nuance, a unique character and flavor in their wines. One way to do it is to enhance the tilth and nutrition of the soil to get the optimal flavors out of the wine grapes. We play a role in that terroir."

While some vineyards put sheep on the payroll temporarily, others keep them on full-time. Tablas Creek Vineyard, an organic vineyard in Paso Robles specializing in Rhone varietals, has more than 250 sheep, plus a full-time shepherd, donkeys, a llama, alpacas, herding dogs, and guard dogs to help take care of them.

"We have 270 acres of property and the sheep graze all of it," said Jason Haas, Tablas Creek&aposs general manager and partner. "About 100 are creekbed or oak forest, where they clear out the understory and reduce our fire risk. The other 170 are vineyards or soon-to-be-vineyard, and they&aposre building up those soils annually."

In addition to being photogenic, which is a boon to wineries&apos marketing efforts, sheep also support their sustainability goals. Growers can reduce their use of synthetic herbicides—or eliminate them entirely𠅊nd make fewer passes with tractors and farm machinery, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions. (Tractors also get stuck in the mud during California&aposs rainy season, whereas sheep have no trouble navigating sticky situations.) Their droppings serve as a natural, chemical-free fertilizer.

"It&aposs all interconnected," said Tom Gendall, winemaker for Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in the North Coast, which benefit from the Watsons&apos wooly weeders. "We really, really love them. It&aposs good for the environment, it&aposs good for the grapes, it&aposs good for the vines, it&aposs good for everything."


Meet the Wooly Weeders, the Adorable Heroes of California Wine

Some vineyards rely on sheep to weed, mow, and fertilize their property—and keep everyone in good spirits.

When he arrived at Ram&aposs Gate Winery three years ago, Joe Nielsen found himself googling an unusual question: "Can I rent sheep?"

This may seem like a strange request for a head winemaker, but if you visit the Sonoma winery today, it all makes perfect sense. It&aposs spring, which means hundreds of sheep are once again frolicking, eating, baaah-ing, and pooping on Ram&aposs Gate&aposs 150-acre property.

Meet the "wooly weeders," a roving band of sheep that helps California wineries with eco-friendly farming, landscaping, grounds maintenance, and fire protection. 

In early spring, they mow, weed, and fertilize the vineyards, which saves grape-growers time and money while also reducing the operation&aposs environmental footprint. In early summer, sheep eat the vines&apos young leaves, clearing the way for more sunlight and air to reach the grapes, which helps prevent mold and mildew while promoting even ripening and deep flavor. 

They create firebreaks to help protect properties ahead of wildfire season and munch on invasive plants in fallow fields, giving native species more breathing room.

As an added benefit, the sheep also bring pure, unadulterated joy to vineyard staffers and customers.

"Year one, we were over the moon with happiness, &aposOh my gosh, this is so fun to watch,&apos" said Nielsen. "Now we&aposre in year three, and it still feels like it&aposs a holiday when the sheep arrive."

The wooly weeders belong to Don and Carolyn Watson, who split their time between California and Colorado. After his best friend died of cancer in the mid-1980s, Don Watson, now 63, re-evaluated his priorities and his life&aposs purpose. He quit his job as an accountant in San Francisco, and the young couple moved to Australia and New Zealand for a year, where they learned sheep husbandry.

When they returned, they settled in Napa Valley and began building up their own herd. Initially, the Watsons supplied open-range, milk-fed lamb to Northern California restaurants, but a chance occurrence soon added an unexpected revenue stream.

We really, really love them. It's good for the environment, it's good for the grapes, it's good for the vines, it's good for everything."

One day in 1991, their sheep wandered into a nearby vineyard owned by Robert Mondavi, the pioneering Napa Valley winemaker. Embarrassed at his flock&aposs behavior and horrified by the potential damage the sheep caused, Don Watson took over two butchered lambs to make amends. A few days later, however, the vineyard manager called and asked if he could bring the sheep back. As it turned out, they were great weeders and fertilizers for the vineyard.

And so began the Watsons&apos new venture. Today, their flock consists of 2,500 ewes and more than 3,000 lambs. In late February and early March, the sheep start in the Carneros American Viticultural Area, munching down the weeds and cover crops that grow among the chardonnay and pinot noir grapevines. 

When tiny buds begin to emerge, the sheep head north to vineyards growing merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and other Bordeaux varietals, which reach bud-break a little later. (The sheep have discerning palates: They love mustard blossoms, rye, and radishes, and will eat the new growth if given the chance.)

By using sheep, vineyards are drawing on old-school farming and natural land-management practices that were the norm before the advent of high-tech machinery and chemicals. They hope wine-drinkers can taste this return to simpler times in the end product, too.

"Grazing animals have always been a part of the grasslands, and this is just an enhancement of that natural activity," said Don Watson. "And what vineyards are always trying to do is develop nuance, a unique character and flavor in their wines. One way to do it is to enhance the tilth and nutrition of the soil to get the optimal flavors out of the wine grapes. We play a role in that terroir."

While some vineyards put sheep on the payroll temporarily, others keep them on full-time. Tablas Creek Vineyard, an organic vineyard in Paso Robles specializing in Rhone varietals, has more than 250 sheep, plus a full-time shepherd, donkeys, a llama, alpacas, herding dogs, and guard dogs to help take care of them.

"We have 270 acres of property and the sheep graze all of it," said Jason Haas, Tablas Creek&aposs general manager and partner. "About 100 are creekbed or oak forest, where they clear out the understory and reduce our fire risk. The other 170 are vineyards or soon-to-be-vineyard, and they&aposre building up those soils annually."

In addition to being photogenic, which is a boon to wineries&apos marketing efforts, sheep also support their sustainability goals. Growers can reduce their use of synthetic herbicides—or eliminate them entirely𠅊nd make fewer passes with tractors and farm machinery, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions. (Tractors also get stuck in the mud during California&aposs rainy season, whereas sheep have no trouble navigating sticky situations.) Their droppings serve as a natural, chemical-free fertilizer.

"It&aposs all interconnected," said Tom Gendall, winemaker for Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in the North Coast, which benefit from the Watsons&apos wooly weeders. "We really, really love them. It&aposs good for the environment, it&aposs good for the grapes, it&aposs good for the vines, it&aposs good for everything."


Meet the Wooly Weeders, the Adorable Heroes of California Wine

Some vineyards rely on sheep to weed, mow, and fertilize their property—and keep everyone in good spirits.

When he arrived at Ram&aposs Gate Winery three years ago, Joe Nielsen found himself googling an unusual question: "Can I rent sheep?"

This may seem like a strange request for a head winemaker, but if you visit the Sonoma winery today, it all makes perfect sense. It&aposs spring, which means hundreds of sheep are once again frolicking, eating, baaah-ing, and pooping on Ram&aposs Gate&aposs 150-acre property.

Meet the "wooly weeders," a roving band of sheep that helps California wineries with eco-friendly farming, landscaping, grounds maintenance, and fire protection. 

In early spring, they mow, weed, and fertilize the vineyards, which saves grape-growers time and money while also reducing the operation&aposs environmental footprint. In early summer, sheep eat the vines&apos young leaves, clearing the way for more sunlight and air to reach the grapes, which helps prevent mold and mildew while promoting even ripening and deep flavor. 

They create firebreaks to help protect properties ahead of wildfire season and munch on invasive plants in fallow fields, giving native species more breathing room.

As an added benefit, the sheep also bring pure, unadulterated joy to vineyard staffers and customers.

"Year one, we were over the moon with happiness, &aposOh my gosh, this is so fun to watch,&apos" said Nielsen. "Now we&aposre in year three, and it still feels like it&aposs a holiday when the sheep arrive."

The wooly weeders belong to Don and Carolyn Watson, who split their time between California and Colorado. After his best friend died of cancer in the mid-1980s, Don Watson, now 63, re-evaluated his priorities and his life&aposs purpose. He quit his job as an accountant in San Francisco, and the young couple moved to Australia and New Zealand for a year, where they learned sheep husbandry.

When they returned, they settled in Napa Valley and began building up their own herd. Initially, the Watsons supplied open-range, milk-fed lamb to Northern California restaurants, but a chance occurrence soon added an unexpected revenue stream.

We really, really love them. It's good for the environment, it's good for the grapes, it's good for the vines, it's good for everything."

One day in 1991, their sheep wandered into a nearby vineyard owned by Robert Mondavi, the pioneering Napa Valley winemaker. Embarrassed at his flock&aposs behavior and horrified by the potential damage the sheep caused, Don Watson took over two butchered lambs to make amends. A few days later, however, the vineyard manager called and asked if he could bring the sheep back. As it turned out, they were great weeders and fertilizers for the vineyard.

And so began the Watsons&apos new venture. Today, their flock consists of 2,500 ewes and more than 3,000 lambs. In late February and early March, the sheep start in the Carneros American Viticultural Area, munching down the weeds and cover crops that grow among the chardonnay and pinot noir grapevines. 

When tiny buds begin to emerge, the sheep head north to vineyards growing merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and other Bordeaux varietals, which reach bud-break a little later. (The sheep have discerning palates: They love mustard blossoms, rye, and radishes, and will eat the new growth if given the chance.)

By using sheep, vineyards are drawing on old-school farming and natural land-management practices that were the norm before the advent of high-tech machinery and chemicals. They hope wine-drinkers can taste this return to simpler times in the end product, too.

"Grazing animals have always been a part of the grasslands, and this is just an enhancement of that natural activity," said Don Watson. "And what vineyards are always trying to do is develop nuance, a unique character and flavor in their wines. One way to do it is to enhance the tilth and nutrition of the soil to get the optimal flavors out of the wine grapes. We play a role in that terroir."

While some vineyards put sheep on the payroll temporarily, others keep them on full-time. Tablas Creek Vineyard, an organic vineyard in Paso Robles specializing in Rhone varietals, has more than 250 sheep, plus a full-time shepherd, donkeys, a llama, alpacas, herding dogs, and guard dogs to help take care of them.

"We have 270 acres of property and the sheep graze all of it," said Jason Haas, Tablas Creek&aposs general manager and partner. "About 100 are creekbed or oak forest, where they clear out the understory and reduce our fire risk. The other 170 are vineyards or soon-to-be-vineyard, and they&aposre building up those soils annually."

In addition to being photogenic, which is a boon to wineries&apos marketing efforts, sheep also support their sustainability goals. Growers can reduce their use of synthetic herbicides—or eliminate them entirely𠅊nd make fewer passes with tractors and farm machinery, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions. (Tractors also get stuck in the mud during California&aposs rainy season, whereas sheep have no trouble navigating sticky situations.) Their droppings serve as a natural, chemical-free fertilizer.

"It&aposs all interconnected," said Tom Gendall, winemaker for Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in the North Coast, which benefit from the Watsons&apos wooly weeders. "We really, really love them. It&aposs good for the environment, it&aposs good for the grapes, it&aposs good for the vines, it&aposs good for everything."


Meet the Wooly Weeders, the Adorable Heroes of California Wine

Some vineyards rely on sheep to weed, mow, and fertilize their property—and keep everyone in good spirits.

When he arrived at Ram&aposs Gate Winery three years ago, Joe Nielsen found himself googling an unusual question: "Can I rent sheep?"

This may seem like a strange request for a head winemaker, but if you visit the Sonoma winery today, it all makes perfect sense. It&aposs spring, which means hundreds of sheep are once again frolicking, eating, baaah-ing, and pooping on Ram&aposs Gate&aposs 150-acre property.

Meet the "wooly weeders," a roving band of sheep that helps California wineries with eco-friendly farming, landscaping, grounds maintenance, and fire protection. 

In early spring, they mow, weed, and fertilize the vineyards, which saves grape-growers time and money while also reducing the operation&aposs environmental footprint. In early summer, sheep eat the vines&apos young leaves, clearing the way for more sunlight and air to reach the grapes, which helps prevent mold and mildew while promoting even ripening and deep flavor. 

They create firebreaks to help protect properties ahead of wildfire season and munch on invasive plants in fallow fields, giving native species more breathing room.

As an added benefit, the sheep also bring pure, unadulterated joy to vineyard staffers and customers.

"Year one, we were over the moon with happiness, &aposOh my gosh, this is so fun to watch,&apos" said Nielsen. "Now we&aposre in year three, and it still feels like it&aposs a holiday when the sheep arrive."

The wooly weeders belong to Don and Carolyn Watson, who split their time between California and Colorado. After his best friend died of cancer in the mid-1980s, Don Watson, now 63, re-evaluated his priorities and his life&aposs purpose. He quit his job as an accountant in San Francisco, and the young couple moved to Australia and New Zealand for a year, where they learned sheep husbandry.

When they returned, they settled in Napa Valley and began building up their own herd. Initially, the Watsons supplied open-range, milk-fed lamb to Northern California restaurants, but a chance occurrence soon added an unexpected revenue stream.

We really, really love them. It's good for the environment, it's good for the grapes, it's good for the vines, it's good for everything."

One day in 1991, their sheep wandered into a nearby vineyard owned by Robert Mondavi, the pioneering Napa Valley winemaker. Embarrassed at his flock&aposs behavior and horrified by the potential damage the sheep caused, Don Watson took over two butchered lambs to make amends. A few days later, however, the vineyard manager called and asked if he could bring the sheep back. As it turned out, they were great weeders and fertilizers for the vineyard.

And so began the Watsons&apos new venture. Today, their flock consists of 2,500 ewes and more than 3,000 lambs. In late February and early March, the sheep start in the Carneros American Viticultural Area, munching down the weeds and cover crops that grow among the chardonnay and pinot noir grapevines. 

When tiny buds begin to emerge, the sheep head north to vineyards growing merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and other Bordeaux varietals, which reach bud-break a little later. (The sheep have discerning palates: They love mustard blossoms, rye, and radishes, and will eat the new growth if given the chance.)

By using sheep, vineyards are drawing on old-school farming and natural land-management practices that were the norm before the advent of high-tech machinery and chemicals. They hope wine-drinkers can taste this return to simpler times in the end product, too.

"Grazing animals have always been a part of the grasslands, and this is just an enhancement of that natural activity," said Don Watson. "And what vineyards are always trying to do is develop nuance, a unique character and flavor in their wines. One way to do it is to enhance the tilth and nutrition of the soil to get the optimal flavors out of the wine grapes. We play a role in that terroir."

While some vineyards put sheep on the payroll temporarily, others keep them on full-time. Tablas Creek Vineyard, an organic vineyard in Paso Robles specializing in Rhone varietals, has more than 250 sheep, plus a full-time shepherd, donkeys, a llama, alpacas, herding dogs, and guard dogs to help take care of them.

"We have 270 acres of property and the sheep graze all of it," said Jason Haas, Tablas Creek&aposs general manager and partner. "About 100 are creekbed or oak forest, where they clear out the understory and reduce our fire risk. The other 170 are vineyards or soon-to-be-vineyard, and they&aposre building up those soils annually."

In addition to being photogenic, which is a boon to wineries&apos marketing efforts, sheep also support their sustainability goals. Growers can reduce their use of synthetic herbicides—or eliminate them entirely𠅊nd make fewer passes with tractors and farm machinery, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions. (Tractors also get stuck in the mud during California&aposs rainy season, whereas sheep have no trouble navigating sticky situations.) Their droppings serve as a natural, chemical-free fertilizer.

"It&aposs all interconnected," said Tom Gendall, winemaker for Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in the North Coast, which benefit from the Watsons&apos wooly weeders. "We really, really love them. It&aposs good for the environment, it&aposs good for the grapes, it&aposs good for the vines, it&aposs good for everything."


Watch the video: First day of Harvest at Tablas Creek Vineyard (October 2021).