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St. Helena's Rombauer Vineyards diversifies vineyard with sheep

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: April 17, 2021 series

Rombauer Vineyards' viticulturist Patrick Tokar explains how sheep are helping to diversify their St. Helena vineyard's ecosystem.

Rombauer Vineyards launched a pilot program earlier this year, hiring a team of “workers” to bring more ecological ba-aa-alance to the land.

With sheep, that is.

Rombauer owns approximately 650 acres in various counties, including a newly planted 5-acre vineyard on Silverado Trail in St. Helena, which seemed like a good place to test-run the sheep. Patrick Tokar, Rombauer Vineyards viticulturist, said he is working towards diversifying the natural elements within the vineyards, and this year Rombauer wanted to try something different.

“We’re trying to diversity the ecosystem a little more, trying to create a sustainable balance. If we can get away from applying fertilizers and doing this naturally, it fits with our goal,” Tokar said. “The sheep help by bringing a different mix of compost and green manure into the vineyard that we ordinarily wouldn’t have, and it gives the grapes more nutrients.”

Between the vines of the new Sauvignon Blanc plot, Tokar planted a cover crop mix of triticale and beans. When the crop got to be about three feet tall, the sheep were brought in.

Typically, the cover crop would be mowed down and tilled.

“The sheep are like little compost machines, eating and creating compost in different places, which helps to break down the cover crop further,” Tokar said, plus, “With a tractor we can’t get between the smaller spaces.”

The sheep’s work will allow the vineyard to eliminate at least one tractor pass, which also saves on fuel and labor.

“We’ve got free labor with these guys and don’t have to pay overtime,” Tokar said.

The rented sheep are trucked in, and also come with a dog to look over and protect the herd. They are kept within the confines of the vineyard by an electric fence.

These are Suffolk sheep primarily raised for this kind of “work.” It took 100 of them about four weeks to mow through the rows, with the sheep favoring the beans, Tokar said.

“Sheep are grazers, they’ll stay and eat what’s around them,” he said. “Once the triticale started to bud, I don’t know if they’re going to eat much more of it. They don’t like the burrs on the top."

Sustainable and also cost saving, setting sheep to work grazing between the vines has been popular in Mendocino and Sonoma counties for a number of years, and is gaining in popularity in the Napa Valley.

“More and more, people are beginning to realize the benefits of using sheep,” Tokar said.

Next, Rombauer is looking at bringing in more sheep for their 170-acre vineyard in the Carneros region, Davitto Ranch, and keep them there from November until about budbreak. Once budbreak starts, the sheep will start nibbling on the tasty green shoots. And that would be a ba-aa-ad thing for the vineyard.  

Rombauer Vineyards' viticulturist Patrick Tokar explains how sheep are helping to diversify their St. Helena vineyard's ecosystem.

You can reach Cynthia Sweeney at 942-4035 or

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The Weekly Calistogan Editor

Cynthia Sweeney has been editor of The Weekly Calistogan since July, 2018. Previously, she was a reporter for the St. Helena Star, and North Bay Business Journal. She also spent a significant amount of time freelancing in Hawaii.

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