If you see something white and fuzzy lurking in the rows between the vines in California’s Carneros wine growing region, there’s no need to clean your sunglasses. You’re not looking through dirty lenses, you’re spotting one of the hottest ideas in low-impact vineyard groundskeeping: sheep. 

These downy little vegetarians aren’t merely vineyard mascots allowed to roam free. They’re the eco-friendly solution for weeding and fertilizing Robert Sinskey Vineyards, a certified organic winery that comprises roughly 200 acres in Carneros (which includes parts of Napa and Sonoma Valleys) and their vineyard and tasting room in the Stags Leap district of Napa Valley.

“They’re living lawnmowers,” says Rob Sinskey, 48, vintner and second-generation owner of the business, which was founded in 1982 with 15 acres of pinot noir, chardonnay and merlot varietals. A staunch supporter of biodynamics — a science that views the farm as a system of interrelated organisms — Sinskey believes his sheep and vines are a perfect pairing.

“The benefit is you have animals doing the work of tractors, so you don’t burn fuel and you have less soil compaction,” he says. As you pack soil down, it begins to contain less air, so it contains fewer microorganisms and less fungal growth. “Those are all part of life’s necessary forces,” says Sinskey.

Sinskey plants a low-lying cover crop of natural grasses and legumes in between the rows of vines to help maintain the desired aerated soil. More than 700 four-legged friends — most of which are rented from local sheep farmers — munch their way through it, eventually also kerplunking a pile of natural fertilizer to use in lieu of chemical-laden sprays. “If you can provide the nutrients in a natural form, the vines can access them as needed, versus when man sees a deficit and dumps on the fertilizer,” Sinskey explains. “The vines take in that fertilizer all at once and you get this nitrogen growth that creates a big, green canopy that’s not great for wine grapes. Slow and steady is a much better philosophy.”

The usefulness of Sinskey’s baah-ing beauties doesn’t stop in the vineyard either; they slaughter a few of the lambs to make sausage and other culinary treats for the vineyard’s tasting room. In the future, he also plans to make sheep’s milk cheese to pair with the wines. Rob’s wife Maria, a chef and former San Francisco culinary wiz from the PlumpJack Café and author of The Vineyard Kitchen, is the brains behind the vineyard’s food. She is a firm believer in the European tenet that wine is meant to be consumed and enhanced by a great, locally sourced meal — a “what grows together, goes together” philosophy both she and Rob share.   

But the real passion that fuels Sinskey is his vision of an even greener business. The vineyard’s main building, where the tasting room, crushing, and winemaking magic happens, has solar panels on its roof, allowing about 75 percent of the facility’s energy to come from the sun. And trucks used for hauling grapes and transporting employees are powered by bio-diesel sourced from leftover cooking oil used at Napa’s venerable Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. “Once you adopt a green philosophy, it’s a slippery slope, because then you begin to question everything you do and battle with the contradictions of being in business,” he says. “If you are having a negative impact in one way, how do you offset it in another? We just keep looking at how to get better and at the same time be responsible to the planet — we don’t want to engage in mining instead of farming.”

Story by Amy Zavatto. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

The perfect relationship
How living, breathing lawnmowers make fabulous wine.