What if it were possible to design a vineyard that required very few inputs or human labor, produced good yields of high quality grapes, produced animal protein, improved soil health, sequestered carbon, increased diversity, and made a good financial return? This was the vision presented by holistic management educator and viticulturist, Kelly Mulville, at an EcoFarm presentation in January, 2013. His presentation was based on a trial that he had done in California between 2008 and 2010.
Paicines ranch owner, Sallie Calhoun, was intrigued by the vision and the possibility. In the 1960's vineyards on the ranch were part of what was then the world's largest varietal vineyard in Paicines. Sallie had considered partnering with conventional grape producers on a lease basis, but was not comfortable with the bare ground, erosion, repeated tillage, and spraying common in CA vineyards today. Kelly's vision was something altogether different, and the opportunity to design a vineyard from the beginning to be grazed by sheep year-round as a polyculture growing healthy soil was an idea too compelling to walk away from.
Kelly joined the Paicines Ranch team in early 2014 and began the vineyard design. The intention is that once the vineyard is planted, most of the work normally done by tractors will instead be done by sheep, and the ground will not be tilled again during the life of the vineyard. The 25-acre site was a conventional vineyard from 1965-1995 and has been grazed by cattle in the years since. Site prep consisted of installation of irrigation, some leveling and ripping, and installation of the newly designed high trellis system. Soil prep included a light compost application, the planting of cover crops, and high stock density grazing by sheep and cattle from late 2014 until planting of the 12.5 acres of phase 1 in the spring of 2017. The final 12 acres were planted in early summer 2020.
Since that first planting in 2017, many ideas have been tried and much has been learned. The planting was split into two phases so that learnings from phase 1 could be incorporated into phase 2. Changes included trellis modifications and planting ungrafted rootstock. In order to keep the grapes and most of the leaves out of reach of the sheep during the summer, the trellis is much higher than in a conventional vineyard. This has meant learning how best to train the vines and how to get them tall as quickly as possible. There have also been major challenges with ground squirrels.
We are still on a rapid learning curve, but the results are encouraging so far. We have seen increased soil carbon on the 25-acre site and the appearance of a variety of native plants in the vineyard. The first warm season grazing happened in summer of 2021, and that September we completed the first commercial harvest for the vineyard. This included 3.6 tons of grenache, 1/2 ton of verdejo and 1/4 ton of assyrtiko. In Spring 2022, Megan Bell of Margins Wine released the first wines made with our grapes.
We look forward to continuing to learn and watch the vineyard ecosystem develop. Read more about the magic of the vineyard and the stellar wines produced from the 2021 harvest in The New York Times' The Pour article by wine critic Eric Asimov.