Sheep aren’t normally what you’d think of when it comes to wine, but two San Benito County businesses are starting to change that. Paicines Ranch teamed up with Calera Wine Company last year to incorporate grazing principles and bring sheep into Calera’s vineyards.
Being an organic wine company for the last 12 years, Calera’s viticulturist Mylene Hermier said she was inspired after hearing what Kelly Mulville, director of vineyard operations at Paicines Ranch, was doing with his regenerative farming practices.
“He opened my eyes on livestock grazing,” Hermier said.
The Calera vineyard is situated in the Diablo Mountain Range and faces unique challenges.
“We are on top of the mountain so there is a lot of erosion,” Hermier said. “We don’t have a lot of water available to irrigate the plants. Everything we do is to maintain moisture in the ground as much as possible.”
Hearing of the potential benefits that could come from grazing sheep, Paicines Ranch brought roughly 115 sheep to graze the land.
“We went in the middle of February,” Mulville said. “We go in when there is enough forage for them to graze and then we stay until budbreak.”
According to Paicines Ranch livestock manager Martha Skelley, budbreak is, “the physiological event where the vegetative buds of the vine are literally breaking from dormancy.”
So what benefits come from having livestock graze in vineyards? According to Mulville and Skelley, it promotes soil health and is a more natural way to manage vineyards.
“Number one is going to be the mowing management and the removal of suckers from the base of the root stalks if they are on the lower part of the vines,” said Skelley. “You are also eliminating human error on weed whacking or nicking the vines. Another benefit is fertilizer. The manure is rich in available nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.”
To properly manage this, the sheep move to a new paddock about every five days to graze.
“The animals have to be carefully managed on how long they are in each paddock, and the recovery time,” Mulville said. “What ends up happening by managing carefully is you increase your soil’s carbon and organic matter, which helps you increase your fertility and water holding capacity.”
Natural processes are important to Hermier.
“By keeping the moisture in the ground, it also helps build a more rich soil and makes it so we don’t have to use chemical fertilizer,” Hermier said. “It has always been the idea at Calera to keep it as natural as possible.”
Moving forward, both Calera Wine Company and Paicines Ranch hope to continue their partnership in grazing sheep within Calera’s vineyards.
“Kelly and I are working on a project to see if we can keep them longer,” Hermier said. “The longer we keep them in the vineyards the better it will be for our soils.”
According to Mulville, Paicines Ranch and Calera Wine Company are also working together to try to get a grant to do a research project that would measure factors such as soil health, wine quality, and economic factors when utilizing sheep grazing in vineyards.
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