In one of the stranger stories from 2021 – a great robbery in Moët & Chandon’s Champagne vineyard.
Unlike back in the 1980s, however, when thieves snuck onto French vineyards in search of illicit vine cuttings (smuggling them back to California in Samsonite briefcases, hence the name “suitcase clones” for some pinot noir clones), the thieves in this case stole not vines... not bottles of some rare vintage from deep under the earth (more than a million bottles of sparkling wine are stored underground in Champagne)... but 14 sheep.
The sheep were at the vineyard as part of a trial to reduce, or even eliminate, the need for chemicals and machines.
While the practice is new to Moët, others, mainly in New Zealand and California, are already using sheep to produce low-intervention or organic wines of high quality.
More on that in a moment... But first...
You could easily mistake Clay Shannon for a sheep farmer, especially if you visit his Shannon's Ridge vineyard in the High Valley AVA (in Northern CA, east of Mendicino, California’s northernmost wine region) at shearing season (right about now).
A bleating mass (watched over by several Great Pyrenees dogs) crowds around a temporary trailer, from whence emanates a low hum. Clay and his farm hands are inside with electric clippers – the best shearers take 2 minutes a sheep, lifting the wool in large sheets you can hang around your shoulders like a shawl.
The wool is incidental. Clay’s sheep provide natural weed control and fertilization for his vines, reducing the need for machinery and chemicals.
Long-time readers know all about the many adulterations that take place at modern vineyards.
Much like milk or corn, wine in recent years has gone from a local product – varying greatly, depending on the region and vineyard – to a homogenized commodity produced on an industrial scale.
Winemakers have become factory foremen, using all manner of machines and chemicals to ensure a reliable product.
Here’s a short list of what can result:
- Grapes coated in carbon monoxide
- Twigs and bugs passed into the wine must (because harvesting machines aren’t accurate)
- Pesticides found in wines (a 2013 study from France found traces of pesticides in 90% of wines sold in supermarkets there)
- Damage to the terroir’s soil biome that has to be repaired through more chemical intervention
Even putting the health aspects of industrial wine aside, the flavor suffers from all these interventions as well.
French wine importer and best-selling author Kermit Lynch has said:
“Only in this century have we seen the hard-earned knowledge of the ancients discarded, almost overnight, in the name of progress... [Winemakers] feel secure with a sterile wine. I say if it is sterile, it is not alive.”
The fact that wines from Argentina’s most isolated vineyards tend to have fewer industrial interventions is one reason we like them so much. You can taste the difference.
But unlike the vintners of high-and-dry Argentina, who can forego chemicals because the climate there is inhospitable to pretty much all forms of life, vintners of wetter locales often need some kind of intervention to keep their vines healthy.
We read somewhere long ago about a winemaker who tried to replace chemicals with guinea pigs. Although we’ve long forgotten the details, we do remember that the guinea pigs proved excellent weeders and fertilizers. Alas, their reign was short lived. Word got out in the local hawk community that an all-you-can-eat buffet had materialized among the vines. So ended the guinea pigs.
Enter the considerably more “hawk proof” Ovis aries.
The practice of keeping sheep in vineyards first became widespread in New Zealand – sheep there outnumber humans 5-to-1.
Californians like Clay Shannon have welcomed these fluffy ruminants only more recently.
Today, Shannon’s flock wanders his vineyard in the High Valley AVA, munching, fertilizing, and pruning as they go.
Yes, the sheep really do prune. Not only do they eat weeds, they also eat the larger vine leaves that throw shade over the grapes, slowing maturation and creating a rot and mildew risk in High Valley's chillier climate.
But these sheep aren’t satisfied with merely protecting the grapes from rot and mildew. They also protect the entire vineyard from one of California’s biggest threats.
In 2018, wildfires razed 280,000 acres of Lake County (where the High Valley AVA is located). By cleaning up dry plant debris (sticks, leaves, etc.) Shannon’s sheep play their part in reducing the risk of wildfires.
In tribute to his ovine protectors, Clay names his limited-production cabernet sauvignon (only 1618 cases) “Ovis.” They can be proud of their namesake – it's a 93 point monster of a red with notes of blackcurraent, chocolate, cherry, and toasted hazelnut. Those of you who are Partnership members will get to taste a bottle next month. When you do, be sure to raise a glass to the sheep of Shannon Ridge.
Until next time,
The Wine Explorer