Published March, 2015 in SLO New Times
Photos by Kaori Funahashi
By Hayley Thomas
I traveled to Adelaida Cellars in Westside Paso Robles with the mission of exploring and understanding Deborah Sowerby’s Sheep in the Vineyard program. What I found was a bit of a surprise. The sheep were far more interested in exploring and understanding me, including my digital recorder, my hair, my iPhone, and even my glasses, which quickly became fogged up with hot sheep breath.
Under the watchful eye of Liam (the flock’s wise guardian llama), I sat quietly in an open meadow not far from the winery’s production facility. All around me, the flock—including a mischievous pair of spotted, four-day-old twins—grazed on bright yellow mustard flowers. After a while, I let out a little “baaahhhh,” noise, as if to ask, “I’m one of the group now, right?” No one looked up from the fresh grass.
I took their response as a “we’ll see—but don’t push it, lady.”
Sowerby is undeniably “one of the flock.” The owner/shepherd of Bradly-based Olive Ewe Ranch and Sheep in the Vineyard founder is actually considered a “sheep rockstar” in Paso Robles—if there is such a thing. The breeder finds infinite joy in educating wineries on the benefits of her program, already in action at Tablas Creek, Booker Vineyards, Villa Creek, and Palletiere Estate, among others. Some wineries rent Sowerby’s sheep, while others purchase their own. All see green results from the ground up.
“For wineries and vineyards that pursue biodynamic, organic, and sustainable practices, sheep go a long way to help add to a healthy permaculture,” Sowerby said. “Conventional farming dictates the use and need for tractors, causing soil compaction—not to mention use of spraying herbicides like Roundup.”
By contrast, sheep are incredibly nimble and environmentally friendly, cleaning up ground vegetation while simultaneously enriching the soil with up to 4 pounds of organic fertilizer per day. According to Sowerby, over the span of five months, 20 sheep can distribute 12,000 pounds of fertilizer across a vineyard.
“For a drought-prone area, this is a big plus and really helps enrich our soil,” Sowerby added.
Adelaida Cellars’ family owned vineyards include seven distinct properties totaling 168 acres in the craggy mountainous terrain of Paso Robles’ Adelaida district. A planting of 24 varieties with an emphasis in Rhônes, old vine pinot noir, dry farmed zinfandel, and mountain style cabernet sauvignon have been farmed organically since 2013.
For the past five years, the sheep at Adelaida Cellars have enthusiastically looked forward to their fall journey from walnut orchard to vineyard. The sheep are allowed to begin grazing just after harvest, which usually nears completion around October. From sunup to sundown, the wooly critters devour invasive ground cover that can deplete the soil’s nutrients and harm the vines.
It’s quite the all-you-can eat buffet.
“The muscat grapes just went into bud break last week, and the sheep were in the vineyard for over five months before then,” Sowerby said. “They really cleaned up all the summer vegetation and weeds. The nice thing about using sheep is they can really get in between and under the vines.”
If you think all sheep are the same, think again. The grazers at Adelaida are of the Dorper variety, sporting a short, light coat and a sturdy disposition. According to Sowerby, Dorpers “have the cutest babies” and are also quite easy to train. They’ll even come when called.
Armed with her authentic shepherd’s cane, Sowerby showed me how to “speak Dorper.” Clapping your hands means: “Time to move on now/you will be rewarded with a bucket of something delicious if you listen.” Blowing gently on the face means, “Pleased to meet you. This is my scent.”
Originally a horse person, Sowerby grew up in the Orange County area, where she cleaned out stables for the chance to ride. If you had asked Sowerby to talk about sheep as an adult, she would probably have rattled off a few facts about wool. In a past life, the shepherd lived in the fashion design and merchandising world, where she traversed the globe for designer Giorgio Armani.
About two decades ago, Sowerby and her wine industry hubby, Paul, moved to Paso Robles and eventually purchased 40 acres in the Bradley area. To aid in fire prevention, the couple allowed four ewes and a few lambs to graze their steep, overgrown hillsides.
Then, the vineyard managers came knocking.
“They wanted to add sheep to their vineyard plan as a holistic means to a healthier vineyard,” Sowerby said. “This insight added a new dimension to raising sheep with an aim onfocus and developing small flocks for vineyards. There has been such a growth in the green movement, it’s amazing how much people love seeing sheep in the vineyard.”
Currently, Sowerby has downgraded her sheep business to more of a “hobby status,” although she’s still breeding, selling, and educating when she can. At home, these animals provide companionship as well as weed abatement. The way the animal lover looks at the new lambs speaks volumes. Not only does she truly love her sheep, she respects them. When I bring up the sorry state of sheep-human relations in books and TV today, Sowerby is quick to defend the animal’s honor.
“These animals can recognize up to 50 different sheep faces and 10 human faces and still know them two years later,” she said. “These are not just cute little animals in a petting zoo—they all have their own personalities. They can tell if you’re making a mad face or a happy face, so I always tell people smile around them.”
As if that were a daunting task.
Part of the allure of having the animals at Adelaida Cellars is in the joy they bring to tasters. For this reason, you can find the sheep on Adelaida wine labels and brochures alike.
According to Adelaida Cellars Winemaker Jeremy Weintraub, it’s all part of the experience. When I asked him what it means to him to have the sheep “bahhing” outside his workplace, he didn’t attempt to make a concrete correlation between being eco-friendly and the end product. For him, and so many winemakers like him, it’s more about the journey.
“I believe energy follows intent, and we approach the Sheep in the Vineyard program as doing something intentionally beneficial for the vineyard,” Weintraub said. “We’ve really seen the soil really come alive. However, it’s not ‘all about the soil’ or ‘all about’ one thing, for that matter. It’s all about all of it. I love that we can incorporate animals into farming, which is a time-honored practice. It just feels right for us.”