As the climate changes, some winemakers explore ancient practices to produce wine more sustainably. Among these are the use of sheep, which have long histories in vineyards. In recent years, eco-minded viticulturists have re-embraced the animals’ ability to weed, maintain soil health and even eliminate the need for certain pesticides.
“For thousands of years, shepherding was a valuable career that was part of the life of the community,” says Nicole Rolet, co-owner of Chêne Bleu, a 340-acre vineyard and farm in southern Rhône. It’s been in operation since the Middle Ages.
She and her husband, Xavier, purchased the property in 1993, determined to restore the vineyard—which had not been tended for 50 years—to its historical glory.
“We knew that sheep would be a part of that because they’re natural lawn mowers and fertilizers, but also because they are part of the circular economy that was broken by industrial farming,” says Rolet. “We decided to sponsor a young shepherd, which in our region of France, is a generational profession that is in decline. We believe that like organic and biodynamic winemaking, it is an economically challenging profession, but rewarding and valuable.”
Fifteen years ago, they hired shepherd Vincent Anselme. In the winter, Anselme brings the flock down from the snowy Alps to the sunnier climate in Rolet’s parcel of the Rhône, where the sheep eat weeds and improve the soil.
Since he began working with Chêne Bleu, Anselme married and had two children, who often join him at the vineyard.
“This property had sheep for centuries, and it’s a gift to see them back here,” says Rolet. “We feel like we’re restoring the natural symbiotic balance. When the family brings the sheep into the vineyard, you can feel the energy and joy.”
While hard numbers are tough to come by, the use of sheep, and other animals, in vineyards is on the rise after about a century of decline.
“I have seen a growing realization among winegrowers across the world that returning [to] the old-fashioned, holistic approach to farming not only makes better wine, but is better for the environment and the community at large,” says Rolet.
Weed-Busting Soil Boosters
Chemical weed killers like glyphosate may eliminate problems in vineyards in the short-term, but the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has linked glyphosate to cancer in humans. Numerous United Nations studies also connect glyphosate to the rise of zoonotic diseases, the spread of viruses from animals to humans, antimicrobial resistance, water and soil contamination and widespread environmental degradation.
A flock of sheep is not a panacea for these issues. But vintners and shepherds believe it can help offset some of the damage of chemical overuse.
“We began converting our vineyards to biodynamic farming in 1993, which was early on,” says Chris Benziger, who oversees the Benziger Family Winery’s 85-acre home ranch in Sonoma County. “There was no internet, or book, or manual that could tell us how or what to do. But through trial and error, and advice from fellow farmers, we discovered how radically sheep could transform our landscape and the quality of our wines.
“I saw sheep change the vineyards,” he says. “They were dead from pesticide, brown, quiet [and] now they’re full of life, joy [and] fertility.”
“We have 300 sheep that come in and graze one to five acres at a time of our 100 under vine,” says Dane Jensen, shepherd at Tablas Creek. “They clean up invasive species in our unplanted woodlands and the savannah around the vineyard too. The list of contributions that they make to the vineyard’s health is long.”
According to Jensen, sheep help eliminate the need for chemicals, herbicides and fertilizers. They also help reduce tractor passes to take care of weeds with the built-in fertilizer their urine and feces provide. As an added bonus, the stimulation of sheep’s hooves helps build microflora in the soil and makes it more resilient to extreme cold and heat.
“We are testing the soil year after year, and we see how much the fertility and the health is improving every year,” says Jensen.
There are benefits to grazing, too.
“Growing grass absorbs carbon from the atmosphere. Every time grass is grazed and regrows, it stores and sequesters carbon in the soil.”
The benefits of sheep in the vineyard are “multifold,” says Joseph Brinkley, the vineyard director at Bonterra Organic Vineyards in Mendocino, California. Each year, since 2004, the winery brings in 3,500 sheep to weed and fertilize their 1,000 acres of certified organic vineyards.
“One of the foundational principles here is closing the loop, and creating a resilient, regenerative and energetic farm without outside inputs,” says Brinkley. “Sheep really help us do that. We don’t have to bring in any compost or inputs from outside. Sheep feed on the grass we have, and because of their sophisticated metabolic system, their guts are teeming with beneficial bacteria and microflora that they then put back into the vineyard through their waste. That improves the health of the soil, and the vines.”
Since introducing sheep to their vineyards in 2004, Brinkley has noticed the vineyards are more resistant to droughts, floods and extreme heat and cold spells.
Jaime Irwin, whose family works with Bonterra and several other vineyards and agricultural operations through the target-grazing company Kaos Sheep Outfit, says that while “everyone we work with sees the benefit of sheep, we feel like we need to prove it.”
To do this, Kaos Sheep is working with UC Davis on a study to estimate just how much soil fertility on a farm can be improved with the addition of grass-grazing ruminants, she says.
Brinkley also believes that sheep enable winemakers to get ever closer to authentic terroir.
“If you’re bringing in compost and manure from another place, that will have some sort of effect on the grapes,” he says.
“We planted our vineyards in 1999, and I was truly a newbie,” says Hagen. “I knew that terroir was the most important key to making great wine and bringing in inputs from far away seemed antithetical to terroir.”
In 2007, he brought in sheep. Like other vintners, he prefers sheep to goats, saying that goats will “eat you out of house and home.”
But he found a place for several other critters as well, saying that every single one has an essential role.
“Chickens help reduce the parasite load of the sheep, the pigs are also effective weed killers and contribute their own unique biological signature and inoculum to the vineyard microbiome,” says Hagen. “Turkeys and geese are essentially pest killers and sanitizers. They all perform a part in creating a functioning, self-sustaining ecosystem.”