At Tablas Creek winery in Paso Robles, California, 200 black-faced Dorper sheep munch weeds among rows of vines. Along the way, they fertilise the soil while donkeys and 200-pound Spanish mastiffs ward off coyotes and mountain lions.
Pairs of owls zoom from vineyard boxes to eliminate more than 500 vine root-eating gophers a year. Chickens scratch the earth, scarfing up unwelcome bugs.
A couple of decades ago, this vineyard menagerie would have been highly unusual. Now, the commitment to organic and biodynamic viticulture has pushed top wineries across the globe to look to nature for alternatives to chemicals. Furry, feathered, scaly, and four-legged animals (even bats) have become essential winery employees, contributing to vineyards’ overall health by replacing toxic pesticides and herbicides.
Tablas Creek goes even further. It’s the first winery in the world to obtain regenerative organic certification, a new international farming standard intended to combat climate change.
“It’s about creating an ecosystem,” explains partner Jason Haas. “The sheep replace tractors and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save money on fuel, and help create healthy soils with the microorganisms they leave behind in manure.” Right now, he has weasels on his mind as a good addition.
Not every vineyard animal experiment works out.
New Zealand’s Yealands estate trialed giant guinea pigs as weed eaters. Alas, they became a favourite food for falcons and hawks.
But many of the critters prized in vineyards right now might surprise you. Here are 10 of them:
Armor-shelled armadillos use their long, sticky tongues to feast on the aggressive ants that damage vines and leaves at Bodega Chacra, a boutique pinot noir winery in Patagonia, on the edge of Argentina’s central desert. Encouraging them means owner Piero Incisa della Rocchetta doesn’t have to put out poisonous ant traps.
“One day, the vineyard manager found an inebriated armadillo on top of discarded fermenting grape skins and was anxious to eat it,” says Incisa, “but I banned that.” The vineyard needs all the armadillos it can get.
Norwegian Fjord horses
Horse power for tilling vineyard soil is now common, especially in France’s Loire Valley and Bordeaux.
You’ll find the most unusual horse breed at Odfjell winery in Maipo Valley, Chile, whose founder is Norwegian shipping magnate Dan Odfjell. He transported fjord horses from western Norway via Lufthansa, even before he started planting vines. One of the world’s oldest breeds, they are small, tough, and above all, sure-footed — ideal for spring plowing and transporting grapes during harvest, even from steep mountain vineyards.
Sweet-tempered, hairy kunekune porkers (pronounced coonee coonee), a heritage breed from New Zealand, make exotic pets and are beloved by chefs.
They’re also good vineyard weed mowers, which is why the owners of Oregon’s Balanced Earth Farm send them out in rotation with Scottish highland cattle and sheep. Kunekunes don’t tear up the turf, as other pigs do, and they nicely complete the eco-circle by ending up as the main course at family dinners.
Not being a snake fan, I was a tad alarmed to find Bordeaux’s Château Coutet in St Emilion experimenting with three varieties of non-venomous serpents. Co-owner Adrien David-Beaulieu says they restrain the population of destructive rodents that eat succulent vine roots and dig underground tunnels that dry out vineyard soil.
To make sure he has enough snakes, David-Beaulieu spreads large black “carpets” on the ground in the vineyard to trap morning heat, and the snakes take refuge under them.
Indian Runner ducks
Every morning at precisely 10:30 a.m., a massive squad of ducks marches off to the vineyards at Vergenoegd Low wine estate in the Stellenbosch region of South Africa. They’re foraging for white dune snails, an invasive species that eats buds on the grapevines in spring.
Slim Indian runner ducks can slide between vines, and their long necks let them reach snails high up on vine trunks. The parade has become a famous sight for visitors.
Come spring in Bordeaux, you’ll see Poitevin mules among the oldest vines at Domaine de Chevalier. “We can’t use tractors, because old vines aren’t in straight rows,” explains Olivier Bernard, whose family owns the estate. “With mules, we can adapt the work to each individual vine and avoid damaging the roots and shoots.”
Like horses, mules don’t compact the soil, which allows more microbes to flourish in the soil, adding character and freshness to the wines. Mules are less nervous than horses and have more strength and endurance.
Hungry birds, especially aggressive starlings, have a voracious appetite for sugar-rich ripe grapes. They peck holes in individual berries, which allows bacteria and mold to destroy them, and they nosh on whole grapes, too.
Soaring falcons scare them off, which is why such Napa wineries as Bouchaine Vineyards hire falcon-whisperer Rebecca Rosen during the harvest season. On sighting her peregrine falcons (one of them named Rambo), birds head for the trees. Rambo splits the flocks into smaller groups, that can do less damage. A bonus: Falcons cost much less than draping nets over the vines.
In New Zealand, the fierce endangered native Karearea falcon helps Felton Road winery in Central Otago control rabbits, the region’s top pest, swooping down at speeds of up to 200 km an hour.
The most common eco-lawnmowers are easy to control: Sheep can be kept busy, from winter through spring bud break, munching weeds and keeping vines tidy in vineyards from California to England and beyond. In New Zealand, Two Paddocks winery in Central Otago, owned by actor Sam Neill, maintains about 25. Some are named after celebrities so he won’t be tempted to eat them.
Yealands winery in Marlborough also has a flock of cute, woolly Baby Doll sheep, only 17-inches to 24-inches tall, which is too short to reach up and snack on grapes.
In Chile, at Emiliana Vineyards, chickens are essential in doing away with the vine weevil, which eats vine roots and shoots.
At Jonata winery in Santa Barbara County, mobile chicken coops regularly roll from plot to plot in the 84-acre vineyard, spilling out 60-odd birds that eat insects and enrich the soil with nitrogen from their droppings. (The owner, sports billionaire Stan Kroenke, also owns Napa’s Screaming Eagle.) Winemaker Matt Dees’s animal-rich farming approach integrates chickens, turkeys, Catalina goats, pigs, and sheep in the winery’s workings. “Almost all could be on the winery payroll,” he laughs.