Nathan Stuart is the shepherd on staff at Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles, a wine region that sits halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Stuart's actually the only shepherd on staff at any winery in Paso Robles. When he's wearing his Clint Eastwood-style duster and gaucho hat, and especially when he's surrounded by his adoring, bleating flock, he looks every bit the part. Stuart, who has been a shepherd since 2011, watches over a herd of close to 200 sheep. He says the animals are crucial not only to the health of the vines, but to the health of the soil they grow in.
"When Tablas Creek first got sheep, it was to increase the diversity of species on the property. We now have chickens, fruit trees, olive trees, bees, donkeys, sheep, a llama, alpacas, and pigs," says Stuart. "The sheep keep the weeds down, which helps us minimize the amount of tractor passes we're doing in the vineyard. They're fertilizing in the vineyard, dropping roughly 80 cubic feet of manure per day, so we don't have to truck in as much compost. They graze, which encourages the growth of beneficial plants. And they clean up after harvest, eating whatever fruit was dropped or left behind."
A growing number of wineries are using sheep to graze and fertilize their vineyards. The animals are especially popular among wine producers who practice biodynamic farming, which is all about making the vineyard a balanced and self-sustaining ecosystem. Essentially, biodynamics combines a biological approach to farming focused on improving soil health with a "dynamic" approach meant to influence the very life force of the farm. Think of it as organic with a dose of magic thrown in. Compost is a cornerstone of biodynamics, but it must be prepared with specific ingredients, ranging from manure (packed into a cow horn and fermented underground for six months) to yarrow blossoms. Ideally, the manure comes from the farm's own livestock for a perfect, closed system. Tablas Creek, which went organic in 2003, is about to be certified biodynamic, which means its sheep also have to pass certification.
Few proponents of biodynamics are able to explain exactly how it works—never mind how it results in better grapes or wine. Neil Collins, the winemaker at Tablas Creek, talks about the soil being more alive, that it teems with more microorganisms, and how that vibrance finds its way into the bottle. Of course, there's no way to measure how healthier soil and a more biodiverse ecosystem affects the taste of wine. You can only trust your palate and Collins trusts his. For Stuart, however, the benefits extend beyond the vineyard.
"If we took two-thirds of all the grasslands on the planet and properly managed them with livestock, we could bring carbon levels down to pre-dinosaur-era levels," he says, paraphrasing ecologist Allan Savory whose TED Talk on holistic management of agriculture has been viewed nearly 4 million times. Savory is a proponent of the theory that plants can pull enough carbon from the air—which gets turned into carbohydrates that feed microorganisms in the soil, which in turn produce more fresh soil, encouraging the growth of new plant species—to reverse the effects of climate change. Grazing livestock, he says, ushers along the process by promoting the growth of new vegetation and boosting organic matter in soil. It's a theory that has its critics. But several studies support it.
"It's like completely hitting reboot," says Stuart. "We've got the livestock. We've got the graze land. All we need is education. That's the reason I do sheep: because, properly managed, livestock on grasslands builds soil. And the more soil we build, the more carbon we pull from the air and store in the ground. Nature has given us a way out."
Running sheep in a balanced ecosystem means having to cull the herd when it grows too large. Tablas Creek recently started supplying local restaurants—but only those equipped with a kitchen suited to breaking down an entire lamb carcass—with lamb meat. The lamb is not cheap. With all the work that goes into raising it, it can't be, says Stuart. The animals are raised to strict biodynamic standards, using no antibiotics or modified feed of any kind.
"There's no difference between the deer in the forest and our sheep, as far as what they consume," says Stuart.
The sheep are watched over by livestock guardians—a llama, alpacas, and donkeys. The llama and alpacas, with their long necks, have a heightened awareness of their surroundings and are always on the lookout for predators. They emit a high-pitched screech if they spot a predator, which usually scares it off. The donkeys become aggressive should any unwanted guest try to approach. Research shows the sheep have improved weight gain when they live with livestock guardians, as it reduces their stress level. It makes for better-tasting lamb meat.
But back to the wine.
Talking to the on-staff shepherd at a winery can reveal a whole lot about the soil, which has a huge influence on the wine, but doesn't necessarily tell you much about the wine itself. Tablas Creek specializes in Rhone Valley varieties from which it produces varietal wines and small-production blends. Stuart says he's been a fan of the wines since long before ever working for the winery. He credits Neil Collins' winemaking style, which he describes as rather simple: making the kind of wine that expresses the land and that will still be there for the grandkids.
"He has a really hands-off approach, which is why I think the wines are so beautiful.," says Stuart. "They reflect a healthy ecosystem. The sheep are a small part of that. It's the bees, the fruit trees, the native grasslands, the oak trees… It's all of it that makes the wine so cool."