While we at Strey Cellars may not be farmers, we deeply appreciate the viticulturists who so lovingly nurture the vines that produce the beautiful grapes which we look forward to smashing in a few months. Vineyard life is far removed from our contemporary Ventura County winery and tasting room, but still an important piece to the Strey Cellars puzzle. We look forward to the few and far between trips to wine country. Being mesmerized by rows and rows of grape vines, feeling the warm summer sun, and to our surprise, meeting a few four legged friends along the way.
Many vineyard owners have been shying away from the use of chemicals for weed and pest problems. Some have chosen to use nature’s weed killers and pest control. The most common “natural” weed killer on a vineyard is sheep! Sheep (and llamas) graze the grass and weeds, and are especially helpful after harvest, to clean up excess leaves, vines and any grapes that have fallen. Some vineyards even use sheep to leaf the vines, which is a process of leaf removal. When the bigger leaves form a canopy they cover the the lower parts of the vines, prohibiting sunlight and air from reaching these areas. This can cause yellow, dying leaves, and mildew. It’s extremely expensive and time consuming to hand leaf, so sheep have been called in to do the job. Babydoll sheep from New Zealand are actually used year round to weed the vineyards because they are too small to reach the grapes.
New Zealand probably has had the most interesting animal helpers, while sheep are used regularly, Kunekune pigs have been used to weed, and eat vegetation. I was surprised to learn this, because pigs can be rather destructive, rooting into the ground, bursting pipes, and upending your garden. Kunekune pigs don’t excessively dig, and provide fertilizer. Prior to pigs, one vineyard in New Zealand used giant guinea pigs (capybaras) for weeding, sadly, they were hunted by hawks, so that experiment was short lived.
Speaking of hawks, hawks and falcons are used regularly to hunt birds, rodents and rabbits that would eat the grapes, or ruin the vines. You can even rent hawks (and sheep) to guard your vineyard. Geese and chickens are often seen around the vines, eating worms, weeds and insects. They also provide valuable compost. Insects can be deadly to grape vines, which is a reason many vintners do choose chemical pest control. Luckily, chickens can help take care of that problem, particularly if sustainable farming is important to the vintner. Often, if a winery has chickens, they will also have cats. There is a program that re-homes ferrel cats to vineyards to take care of the rat problem that tends to surface (generally around the chicken’s food). Cats are helpful with most rodents, and won’t disturb the grapes.
There are a few less conventional animals used on vineyards, like armadillos and bobcats. Bobcats take care of jackrabbits and gophers. I’m not entirely sure if bobcats are rentable, or if you just get lucky when one discovers your vineyard and gets to work de-pesting. I can say, though, that the last thing you want to find among the vines, is a bear. Bears really like grapes, and are not peaceful negotiators. One winery in California noticed that the bear that discovered their vineyard loved Merlot grapes, but wasn’t interested in Gewurtztraminer grapes.
Dogs are not uncommon on a vineyard or in a tasting room. Sheep dogs are important for herding sheep, and protecting them from coyotes, and other predators. More than anything, dogs are companions. Case in point, Tawny. You all know her and love her, in fact, many of our wine club members look forward to seeing her so much that they bring chew toys, tug of war ropes and treats. Tawny is our happiest, most loving unofficial Strey Cellars employee. I cannot count how many people have chosen to visit Strey solely because they read about Tawny on our website. She is the happiest greeter, and seems to have springs in her feet. When I walk through the door I have to brace myself for her sixty pounds of love that’s rushing towards me. She has even had sleepovers at our house. My son pulls out his trundle bed and sleeps with his arm around her. (Yes we undo all of Scott and Katie’s rules by letting her snuggle on the couch and beds with us.)
She was 8 weeks old when Malibu Boxer Rescue called, making her birthday St. Patrick’s Day, 6 years ago. She spent less than 6 hours at the shelter before Scott and Katie picked her up. After having been abandoned in a field in Bakersfield she immediately became their constant companion. Her “rescue meal” was a cheeseburger from In-n-Out, and from that day on, she went everywhere they went. Tawny is extremely socialized, and isn’t shy about belly rubs. Scott and Katie have two little girls, now, and they love Tawny as much as she loves them. Tawny is famous for sneaking onto the couch while the family is asleep, and slinks off in the morning before anyone comes down stairs. She once managed to steal a raw steak off of a table while the barbecue was being prepped, and two years ago she stole not one, but two chicken burritos off the counter while Katie and her brother were setting up our famous suspended Christmas tree. She has not stolen food since, even when toddlers wave their drool soaked cheerios in her face. She will, however, happily lick their faces clean. We are so lucky to have such a powerhouse of love in our winery, and it truly would not be the same without her.
*PS: I will out of the country (while you read this, actually), and will resume blogs after my trip. I can’t wait to share with you all about the wine in the Israel. Some of the oldest evidence of wine making was discovered in the Middle East, and I look forward tasting and learning while I am visiting. Cheers!