Can Sheep Save the World? Tablas Creek Is Going to Find Out

Happy New Year! I can’t think of a better way to kick off 2019 than to write about what’s going on over at Tablas Creek. They’re still making graceful, seductive Rhône Blends out of Paso Robles, but the way they are thinking about their land strikes me as an essential model for sustainability in California winemaking. They’re going above and beyond organic farming. They are building a complex, self-sustainable world on their 300+ acres, and they’re leaving the land even better than they found it. They’re putting carbon back into the soil to hold more water. They’re adding new species of grasses. They’re minimizing potential risks for fire. And they’re doing it all with sheep.

Last week, I spoke with Nathan, the Shepherd of Tablas Creek, and learned about his herd—currently 240 strong—the only certified biodynamic herd in California. It’s not easy to get a herd certified biodynamic: 100% of their feed must be organically raised on their land, which means they have to farm and store it diligently to make it through the entire year. Three generations of sheep need to be biodynamic, all raised without antibiotics. But the payoff is big; it enables them to have an entirely closed farm system. Nathan says, “Nothing comes from off the property. All our composting is done on site by material that was done on site. Having a closed herd that way is the same thing. You don’t know where a hay bale comes from and what seeds it brings onto the property and, if there’s a disease that comes from alfalfa, it’s gonna have negative impact.”

Ruminant animals such as sheep are actually the perfect processors of organic material. They break down the nutrients in the grass very quickly in their stomachs and turn it into fertilizer. And they drop a lot of it—about 400 pounds of manure every day! Nathan swears it never smells, because the pellets are so small that the nutrients are “super available to be absorbed by the plants.” The microorganisms from lush springtime grasses stay alive in the sheep stomachs all summer long, so they continue to inoculate the soil with healthy flora even when the grasses are dry and dead. And after harvest, they clean up under the vines, eating rotten grapes and mildew. “They’ll eat that and keep it from going dormant in the ground and popping up next spring. So it is a reboot for the vineyard. We see new grasses grow up that weren’t there before.”

But the key to it all is to keep them moving. Nathan’s sheep are grazing evenly, transferring nutrients throughout the property, and not building up methane in one place. Industrial animal farming is hard on the environment because—well, for a lot of reasons, but namely because the animals don’t move. Luckily Tablas Creek has about 180 acres (give or take) of pasture in addition to their 120 of vineyards, and an awesome dog named Maya to keep the herd on the go constantly. When budbreak happens the sheep can’t be in the vineyard because they will eat the buds. It’s the most critical time of the year for Nathan because buds hold the DNA for next year’s crops. One bud holds eight clusters. So, that extra grazing land is crucial.

If you can imagine California before we got here—beautiful grasslands, healthy streams—that’s what they’re working toward. “We are trying to grow grapes to make high quality wine but we want to express this place and improve the land without injecting nitrogen into the soil.” With sheep manure, they are increasing the amount of carbon in the soil, which is essential to improving the soil’s ability to hold water. Nathan explained: “Carbon holds water. The atmosphere has too much carbon in the air, which is why it’s not raining. That carbon is supposed to be stored in the soil. The more carbon you have in the ground the more water there is in the ground. So instead of it running off or evaporating you are holding it in the aquifer. It holds tens of thousands of times more water, so much more than we could ever buy. “

The other huge benefit of an actively grazing herd is fire prevention, which is no doubt a concern for winemakers in California these days (all Californians these days, really). There’s no better way to remove dry grass than have it grazed by animals. The sheep remove the tinder and then make it useful by turning it into fertilizer. Nathan: “We took animals off and we’re paying the price. We have to put animals back on our land. The wine industry is a monoculture and that’s going to have an impact, and it’s going to change the natural progression of this land. We’re trying to mitigate that by planting fruit trees in all our vineyards and seeding beneficial plants to bring the right predatorial insects to help with pest invasions. In addition to the sheep, we have bees, llamas, alpacas, donkeys, chickens. Diversity always brings strength. The more elements you have working together the more sustainable. This place is alive. You come onto the property in the springtime and there’s nothing that isn’t alive. No chemicals. We don’t worry about our dogs. There’s not a thing here that is not beneficial.”

They harvest 100 lambs every year for local restaurants through Davis Superior Farms. He loves his sheep and is glad to have a very humane place to bring them. “Just a couple of years ago they redesigned all the shoots and corrals for cattle to ease stress for processing. I deliver them personally. The facility is really nice. I’m very comfortable with it. I go up there two or three times a year with a full truck. You aren’t allowed to have dogs on the facility. No prods or electric things. When you pull up, the shepherd will whistle and all the sheep will jump into my trailer, say hi, and then my sheep follow them out. It’s really humane.”

As collaborators with the Perrin family from Château de Beaucastel, one of the first organic farmers in Southern France, Tablas Creek has valued organic farming since the beginning. But this current, comprehensive approach to biodiversity on their land seems to directly address so many of the problems that winemakers (and climate scientists) are actively grappling with. Nathan pointed me toward an amazing TED talk that outlines how beneficial herd ruminants can be for not just a parcel of land, but for the entire global climate. He talks about reversing “desertification,” which happens in in areas of the earth with long, dry stretches, such as California. If you have a chance to watch it, I highly recommend it:

Tablas Creek is making killer, iconic wines, for sure. But when you drink Tablas Creek, you can feel good about what you are supporting: an approach to farming and winemaking that considers the whole system; a winery that is striving to be a beneficial citizen of the world. As Nathan put it: “Everyone wants to know if it makes the wine taste better. I’d be lying if I said yes. The reason we do this is the long-term benefits for the land. We want our grandkids to have a better piece of property than we did.” And isn’t this the conversation we should all be having? Could drinking wine actually be making the world a better place?

- Kate Soto