When he arrived at Ram’s 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’s spring, which means hundreds of sheep are once again frolicking, eating, baaah-ing, and pooping on Ram’s Gate’s 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’s environmental footprint. In early summer, sheep eat the vines’ 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, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so fun to watch,'” said Nielsen. “Now we’re in year three, and it still feels like it’s 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’s 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.
One day in 1991, their sheep wandered into a nearby vineyard owned by Robert Mondavi, the pioneering Napa Valley winemaker. Embarrassed at his flock’s 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’ 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’s 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’re building up those soils annually.”
In addition to being photogenic, which is a boon to wineries’ marketing efforts, sheep also support their sustainability goals. Growers can reduce their use of synthetic herbicides—or eliminate them entirely—and make fewer passes with tractors and farm machinery, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions. (Tractors also get stuck in the mud during California’s rainy season, whereas sheep have no trouble navigating sticky situations.) Their droppings serve as a natural, chemical-free fertilizer.
“It’s all interconnected,” said Tom Gendall, winemaker for Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards in the North Coast, which benefit from the Watsons’ wooly weeders. “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.”