A sheep's bleat is no mere mild-mannered "Baa." It's insistent, full of needy vibrato. Imagine a few dozen of them at it, and the din almost turns into a horror movie soundtrack, but that doesn't seem to faze Levi Glenn, viticulturist at Tablas Creek Vineyard, who is standing amidst the flock, plus a couple of donkeys, and a few more aloof alpacas. As part of a recent Meet the Vineyard Animals event at the Paso Robles winery, Glenn led the tour, and got into the pen to fed the eager ruminants, who were up on their hind legs trying to jam their heads into his feed bucket. "If we get to a hundred sheep, then 50% of the mowing will be done by them," he explains. That helps keep the vineyard organic -- no need for Round-up when the sheep chomp the weeds -- and saves on hand-mowing, too.
But Tablas has bigger goals in mind, as they grow their biodynamic program -- all the animals make the vineyard more a farm, providing essential biodiversity. Sitting at home drinking our wines, it's sometimes easy to forget it all starts as agriculture. Tablas is trying to help us not forget. "There are ancillary benefits, too," Glenn says. "The animals provide interest for visitors, for kids [who often have little to do when mommy and daddy want to do some wine-tasting], for employees, even. Animals are just fun to hang around with." And while the sheep chew weeds away, the donkeys and alpacas guard the sheep, since this is a vineyard amidst all sorts of possible predators (mainly coyotes, but some mountain lions, and more).
The Dorper sheep and their guardians aren't the only animals added to the farm: Tablas also has a flock of chickens, both for the eggs, of course, but also because the chickens love to eat cutworms, which can cause much havoc on vines. They get moved about the vineyard in mobile coops and brought in at night so they survive the predators.
The animal visit concludes at the sty of two fabulously muddy, hairy Mangalista pigs. While the pigs do get to free roam on occasion, they aren't on the farm for their weed or bug eating capability. They're there to be eaten, or as Glenn puts it, "Basically, they're tasty. We don't name them anymore, let's just say that." One of Tablas's big annual events is an August pig roast, and this Eastern European heritage breed should make for a spectacular feast, especially since they have a 4-6 inch fat layer.
"Biodiversity is probably not going to make a significant impact on the quality of our wines in the short term," Glenn has written on the Tablas Creek Blog. "But we expect the healthier soils that we are building to improve the long-term health of the vines, and their longevity ... Plus, the changes we're making are the next logical step in trying to become a single farm unit, where we produce as much as we can from our own property, and reduce outside inputs, which should further encourage the expression of our terroir."
Anyone lucky enough to be familiar with their already fine Rhone varietals (including a delicious rosé I blogged about before) can only smile hearing that. Maybe even let out a little "Baa" in appreciation.