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Sheep in the Vineyard!

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Ask The Advisor

Have a wine related question? "Ask the Advisor" is our new feature where you can have your burning wine questions answered.  We plan to tackle a broad range of subjects from food and wine pairing to the pros and cons of wild yeast fermentation. No question is too simple (we like those because they are easier to answer) and if you have a tough one we can't answer it we will either punt, call in for industry reinforcements or go back to Fresno State.

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Question:    Dear Advisor Guy,

On a recent mid-week wine tour in Mendocino County I was cruising in my Porsche Boxster and spotted dozens of sheep rummaging through a vineyard. Was this because of a bad neighbor with a broken fence or were they there for a purpose?

Terrence, from Marin County

Advisor Answer:   Dear Cool Dude in the Porsche,

First off its Mr. Advisor Guy.

While you were sitting comfortably in your sheepskin covered car seats, relatives of those skins were working for a living (unlike you). What you saw in the vineyard was probably a flock of hired hands whose job is to keep the weeds down, fertilize the soil, and to save the grape grower a bit of green.

For centuries, farmers have used sheep to graze on unwanted vegetation but often at the expense of part of the farmer’s crop. With sky high fuel costs and a desire for more environmentally friendly practices, grazing sheep has become part of the scenery in a number of California vineyards. Growers are figuring out how to keep these weeds eaters from damaging their crops--and of course providing you a nice bucolic view from your turbocharged roadster.

One way growers are doing this is to time the grazing with the vines annual development. Growers will send in the furry “Jumbucks” to mow between the rows in the late winter and early spring before the vines start to bud. They can be re-introduced later between June and August, when they help thin the leaves as well as keep the weeds down. Later after harvest the animals can be re-introduced a third time to clean up the vineyard of post harvest debris.


Another trick is to hire only short legged sheep. These “baby doll sheep” are short in stature and can’t quite reach the new buds or fruit of the vine. These cute little runts are only 19 to 23 inches tall.

The most recent development is happening at the University of California Cooperative Extension where instead of teaching farmers they are teaching ewes and rams to not like grapes. Researchers let sheep eat their fill of grape leaves, and then administer a small, harmless dose of a medicine that made them nauseous. The resulting stomach ache is remembered by these four legged geniuses and they learn to keep their heads down and stick to the weeds.

Look for sheep at Navarro Vineyards, Sinskey Vineyards, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Cline Cellars, Alban Vineyards and at DeLoach to name a few.


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