Sheep at Joseph Phelps by Terence Ford

Wool Blend: What Sheep Have to Do With Napa Winemaking

No, this isn’t a Thomas Hardy novel or a nursery rhyme. There are no crooks or bags of wool, comfy sweaters or socks or tiny barbecued shanks. But this is a story about sheep — some of them black — and just what these sheep have to do with making wine.

Biodynamic farming, admittedly, is a complex notion. Lunar cycles, mysterious preparations, and what is this about cow horns? But really, it’s very simple. Biodynamics is about acknowledging the cycles of nature and working with those cycles to nurture the land so that it is healthy and productive for years to come.

Cover crops, for example, do more than just brighten the scenery during the desolate winter months. Poppies, mustard seed, oat and clover, to name just a few, help the vineyard in a myriad of ways from preventing erosion to soaking up extra moisture  to attracting beneficial insects. Cover crops also counts toward the Demeter certification requirement that at least 10 percent of a vineyard be planted to something other than vines — compensating for the toll that a monocrop takes on the soils and immediate ecosystem.

But all that cover crop must be mowed. Something sheep are really good at. Plus they are cuter, quieter (for the most part) and even more efficient than a lawnmower. (In order to maximize on this, many vineyards, such as Raymond Vineyards in St. Helena, will breed mini-sheep, so that they are closer to the ground and can fit under the vines making for a more stealth escape from camera-wielding tourists. More on mini animals later.)

Phillippe Pessereau, the Director of Vineyard Operations at Joseph Phelps Vineyard has been farming this renowned plot of land — home of the much-lauded Insignia wine — biodynamically since 1999. This is no small feat: He has essentially created an independent self-sustaining ecosystem and restored the microbial life of the soil. The whole vineyard, which is spread out over 308 acres (150 of those planted to vine) is healthy and alive and you can feel it. Being here, like being in other biodynamic farms, just feels good.  “It is important to preserve the terroir,” says Pessereau. Particularly in a place like Napa Valley where land is in high demand and at constant risk of being overdeveloped.

Pessereau’s sheep spend most of the year in the cool confines of northern Oregon, but every winter, from January to bud break, the sheep spend their lives between the vines — mowing the cover crop and converting  photosynthetic energy into microbial energy for the soil.

Joe Papendick, the Head Gardener at Raymond Vineyards, who has been a vital part of transitioning the property from traditional to  biodynamic farming methods since Jean-Charles Boisset purchased the property in 2008, loves compost more than anyone we know. On a recent tour, after explaining in detail how compost is made, he dug his hand into a pile and admired the texture and yes, even the smell. He clarified that compost is not the same thing as fertilizer: It isn’t going to make the vines overproduce or less stressed. It’s more similar to providing a well-balanced meal for the vines: “Applying fertilizer is like eating a candy bar and trying to run a marathon,” says Joe. Instead of saying “fertilize” Joe says “nourish.”

Sheep, for all their nervousness and adorableness are not without their own dangers. At Phelps, Pessereau must carefully monitor their grazing so they don’t nibble the cover crop so far as to keep it from growing back. And then there are the vines themselves. Buds make for one tender delicious little snack, so in any area where they have begun to swell, Pessereau, with the help of a shepherd who travels with the herd (yes, it’s a job), must move the sheep lest the only thing living in that plot of land is the soil.

During the warm months, Raymond keeps their sheep at the DeLoach Vineyard in Sonoma where a reservoir provides a more temperate environment year-round.

As a side note, please don’t hit the sheep with your car. Let’s say one of them happens to get confused and wanders onto Zinfandel Lane. We don’t care how much Cabernet you have been guzzling, there is no excuse for killing a sheep.

Image at top, sheep at Joseph Phelps Vineyards, by Terence Ford