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When Don Watson’s best friend died from cancer in 1986, Watson became angry at God. He had grown up in California’s Central Valley and intended to start a farm with his college buddy, Steve Peterson. They’d just need to spend a few years building their bank accounts. They were young. They had time. The two men married their college sweethearts and they all met often to discuss their shared plans. But those plans never came to fruition, and after Peterson passed at age 27, Watson and his wife, Carolyn, packed their bags and headed to Australia. There they hoped to find a new life — one with meaning and purpose.

“We just wanted to get away — start over,” Watson said. “I had a vague idea that herding sheep might be in our future, but it was only a thought at the time.”

In Australia, after a chance meeting in the outback, the American couple found themselves working on a remote sheep ranch and learning the trade. From that point on, other opportunities led them to where they are now. Along with their son, Donny, and his wife, Stephanie, they are the owners of one of Northern California’s most prestigious sheep-herding companies. And like most businesses in the area, they’ve developed deep ties to the wine- and food-service industries. That, too, came from an unexpected encounter.

Meeting Mondavi

In the middle of the summer of 1991 Watson was grazing 500 sheep in a grassy, open parcel adjacent to one of Robert Mondavi’s Oakville properties.

“We were careful to keep the sheep out of the vineyards because they’ll eat the leaves and even the grapes if they’re ripe,” he said. “But somehow they got loose and got into what was a really nice-looking vineyard right next door. I was thinking I had a big problem on my hands.”

Learning that it was Mondavi’s property, Watson contacted their friend Holly Peterson (Mondavi’s chef at the time) and offered to donate a couple of lambs as atonement. The winery agreed.

“So I delivered two butchered lambs to the winery kitchen at about 7 o’clock in the morning,” Watson said. “There’s this old guy sitting at the counter drinking coffee. He gets right up and helps me hang the lambs in the refrigerator and then offers to take me on a tour of the winery. I thought he might be the security guard. Later I find out that was Robert Mondavi himself. I had no idea.”

Mondavi never mentioned the lamb-in-the-vineyard incident, but a few weeks later (after the grapes had been harvested) Watson received a call.

“Mondavi wanted the sheep back in the vineyard,” Watson said. “They wanted them for weed control and as a natural fertilizer source.”

Sheep “weeders”

When Watson started his handshake deal with Mondavi in 1991, the idea of sheep weeding vineyards was novel in California.

Although the practice had been done for centuries in Italy and France, Napa Valley vintners had not yet widely adopted the practice. But since then, finding sheep grazing in vineyards has become less novel and is looking more and more like a good business decision. According to Watson, sheep can clear about 10 acres per day, and using other methods (humans, herbicides or machines) costs more. The practice also helps environment.

A friend of Watson and another early adopter of sheepherding was Clay Shannon, owner of Shannon Ridge Wines and Shannon Ranches, a vineyard management company, which services Napa Valley wineries such as Clos Pegase, Girard, Cosentino and Charles Krug.

“Throughout the year the sheep are eating summer annual grasses and weeds, and then they start on the winter annual weeds and grasses. This process we call fertilizing with our woolly compost machines,” Shannon said. “Sheep have rumen in their stomachs that accelerates the breakdown of grasses and weeds and turns it into poop that’s scattered throughout the vineyard.”

According to Shannon, the poop is composed of more available fertilizer than that of normal sources.

“This form of nitrogen creates a good slow release of fertilizer for the vines,” Shannon said. “This also leads to fewer pest issues, which means less spraying, fewer tractors, less diesel used and no tractor tires to compact the earth.”

Beyond the weeding and pooping, many herders have found that their flocks can also handle some more technical vineyard duties, such as “leafing,” which is typically done by human hands.

“Some years, we put sheep back in the vineyards at bunch closure to eat the basal leaves in the fruit zone (to improve ripening of clusters) while the fruit is green and acidic,” he said. “The sheep will not damage the fruit (when it’s green). We call this ‘sheafing,’ — leaf removal with sheep.”

Shannon points to what he calls the ovis (Latin for sheep) cycle.

“The entire time these sheep are eating, making fertilizer and reducing the use of fossil fuels the sheep are (growing wool and) making milk to feed their lambs, which, in turn, feeds people,” he said. “This is a truly sustainable system.”

Having a lot of sheep means needing a lot of grass

By the early 2000s, Watson’s herd had grown to nearly 18,000 sheep that “mowed” nearly all of Mondavi’s vineyards. But when the Mondavi Winery sold to Constellation Brands in 2004, Watson was in a quandary.

“We had a lot of sheep at that point,” he said. “We weighed the idea of starting fresh in Colorado. But in the meantime, where do you put them all? They still need to eat.”

But through another chance encounter, this time with Jere Starks, vice president of facilities and operations of the Sonoma Raceway at Sears Point, Watson found a way out of his dilemma. Starks, he learned, was having a problem of his own: How could he cost-effectively mow his 1,600 acres of hilly property?

“I met Jere on a plane while flying to Denver,” Watson said. “At that point I was paying about $1,000 a day for extra hay, so things were pretty tough. When Jere asked when I could get the sheep to his place, I said, ‘How about tomorrow?’”

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Wool, weeds, food and fire

According to Watson, the local demand for his sheeps’ wool is on the increase, but he says currently the bulk of his business is split mostly between the work his weeders do and selling his lamb meat to Bay Area restaurants. Because the sheep are local and graze at organic locations, their meat is highly prized and has graced the menus of some of the area’s finest establishments — such as Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and San Francisco’s Quince — and has been a consistent addition to Yountville’s Mustards Grill since the early 1990s.

“When the lamb is of such high quality and is also this fresh it basically takes the experience to another level,” said Mustards Grill executive chef and partner, Michael Foster. “Having a relationship with Don for so many years, the restaurant has come to learn about how the lamb’s changing diet throughout the year can affect the flavor and texture of the meat. Knowing this, we can design new dishes that highlight not only the quality but are also dialed into the season. That’s just something you can’t get from products farmed from who knows where and by who knows who.”

Beyond the sheep working in vineyards, supplying quality meat to local restaurants and wool to local manufacturers, the biggest demand for their services today is coming from an entirely new direction.

“Fire control has become our No. 1 source of new business lately,” Watson said.

Writer and philanthropist Terry Gamble and her husband, Peter Boyer, own a 200-acre ranch in the Carneros region of the Napa Valley. For the last five years, they’ve been using Watson’s sheep for weed and poison oak control. According to Gamble, when the 2017 fires hit the region, their land and trees remained relatively unscathed while other nearby structures and trees were lost. She attributes much of the success to Wooly Weeders.

“Initially, we brought them on as a way to beautify the property and improve carbon sequestration of the land,” Gamble said. “But Don’s focus, even back then, was to highlight the benefits of fire control. And he was right. By removing much of the taller grass and bramble the fire was not able to spread quickly or reach the structures, but it was also unable to spread upward into the trees, which is what saved most of our oaks.”

A future of hope

Be it for fire protection, vineyard health or just to have the company of herd animals, clients of Wooly Weeders quickly become accustomed to the sight and sounds of the sheep as they graze or the occasional call of one of the trained Peruvian sheepherders as they direct the dogs — primarily border collies and Great Pyrenees — that function both to keep the sheep directed and in a group and to keep predators such as coyotes, mountain lions and golden eagles away.

Donny Watson worked alongside Peruvian sheepherder Adrian Estrella Espinoza and their dogs to lead the sheep to where they’d rest for the night.

Watson paused and took a deep and audible breath. In the distance, the soft and comforting sounds of the sheep baaing echoed throughout the landscape.

“I’m no longer angry with God,” Watson said, turning his gaze skyward.

“You know the Bible verse Jeremiah 29:11,” he asked rhetorically, pausing only a moment before he recited the verse from memory: “I know the plans I have in mind for you, declared the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.”

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