Human Journey

Winemaking in Sheep Country

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By Frances Lefkowitz

Day two of my sustainable wine tour of Mendocino County is all about sheep. I descend into the rugged Anderson Valley, just one narrow mountain range in from the ocean, as the morning fog is lifting. By the time I reach Breggo Cellars, the sun is out and the sky is blue.”Breggo” means sheep in Boontling, which is a peculiar native dialect named after the valley’s town of Boonville. It’s bottling day at Breggo, but the exuberant proprietor, Doug Stewart, takes some time away from the cellar to show me his vineyard and talk about wine, sustainable farming and sheep.

“Both sheep and wine thrive in difficult terrain,” explains Stewart, as we wander through the rows of white cones protecting his newly planted vines. The steep slopes and thin soils of this vineyard were once home to flocks of sheep, which grazed nimbly where other crops and farm animals feared to tread. Grapes, too, can handle these conditions, and the pinot noir grape, which has made this valley famous recently in the wine world, is especially fond of the coastal fog that chills these hills.

Stewart, who lives with his wife and two small children on the vineyard, brings a youthful enthusiasm and think-outside-the-box attitude to the ancient art of growing grapes and making wine.”Weed control is the primary reason that organic wines are not competitive with wines from conventionally grown grapes,” he says. It costs about $50 an acre to spray herbicides, according to Stewart, and close to $2,000 an acre to hand-control the weeds on a densely planted vineyard like his. But herbicides kill the plant diversity that keeps soil healthy, and healthy soils produce quality fruit. So he’s experimenting with an intensive farming method, narrow rows, underground irrigation lines to allow for easier mowing, and other innovative ways to help control weeds. Just down the road at the Navarro Vineyards, hungry sheep roam the vineyards, in another innovative solution to the weed-control problem.

Stewart is not one to shy away from the tricky issues confronting organic and sustainable growing.”Organic is arguably less sustainable than conventional growing in some ways,” he points out. For instance, you often have to spray so much of the”natural” mildecides and fungicides that they can end up being more toxic to the soil than the lighter applications of some synthetic sprays. And then, of course, there’s the issue of carbon footprint: More applications of natural sprays means more passes through the vineyard on a petroleum-powered tractor.

On the one hand, he prefers the known effects of the natural sprays to the unknown effects of the synthetics. Echoing family farmers the world over, he says,”My kids live here. And we drink the water.” On the other hand,”It just makes flat-out economic sense to think about carbon footprint, to use less fuel.” Part of a new breed of winemakers, Stewart is looking to science, tradition and innovation for solutions.

“There are no easy answers,” says Stewart. But he remains undaunted, even excited, as he looks out at his baby vines, then heads back to the cellar for the bottling.

Recommended: Breggo Cellars, which was just named Best New Winery by Food & Wine magazine, has a lovely tasting room on the Boonville vineyard and a small but sophisticated selection of wines including several pinot noirs ($42-$55) that are helping to cement the Anderson Valley’s reputation for this varietal. The Wiley Vineyard Pinot Gris ($25) was called the New World’s finest Pinot Gris by wine critic Robert Parker; and the dry, floral Gewurztraminer ($25) and bright, lemony Ferrington Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc ($25) are delightful whites as well.

For more on Frances Lefkowitz’s travels through wine country, see:

Different Shades of Green in Wine Country

California’s Green Wine Country

Frances Lefkowitz writes for Good Housekeeping, Body+Soul, Natural Health, The Sun, Utne Reader, and other magazines. She’s been a finalist for the James Beard Award for Food Writing, and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. How to Have Not, her memoir of poverty, comes in 2009 from MacAdam/Cage.

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