Vineyards Benefit from Biodynamic Farming Program

Vineyards Benefit from Biodynamic Farming Program
Sheep, chickens and bees contribute to the harmonious interaction of soil, vegetation, insects and each other.

Spring 2006
By Philippe Pessereau, Director of Vineyard Operations

At Joseph Phelps Vineyards, we strongly believe that wine is not only made in the vineyards but it is also a natural and unique expression of the soil, vine, and climate continuum known as terroir. In an effort to enhance this typicity from each block and to elaborate wines of increased quality, we began applying biodynamic principles in our viticulture program in 1999.

In line with the core concept of biodynamic farming, we are trying to recreate a farm environment here on the St. Helena ranch. This year we began incorporating farm animals by using sheep to graze in the vineyard during vine dormancy. It was an amazing sight as 640 ewes and their lambs roamed from one vineyard block to another grazing on cover crops and grasses and fertilizing over 120 acres of vineyard soil.

Our purpose in bringing in the sheep was twofold: we wanted to increase biodiversity on the home ranch (we have chickens and bees which perform a similar role within their respective realms), while maximizing use of our natural resources.

Sheep grazed on the cover crop and transformed it, illustrating the animal’s role on a farm. They not only recycled the grass but most importantly they influenced the soil ecology (manure = deposition of organic matter = humus) as well as the flora. In addition, they enabled us to keep the vineyard floor mowed and ready for frost season. (Each year around April, after the onset of budbreak, vines become very sensitive to cold and freezing temperatures. Hence, we mow the vineyard to gain heat from soil re-radiation at night).

This year, for the first time, instead of using farm equipment (which can contribute to soil compaction, lead to asphyxia in the root zone and impact early vine development) “mowing” was accomplished through grazing.

When the sheep made the first pass, some grasses remained untouched; however the second pass produced amazing results. The grass was cut low like a lawn and there was little compaction and no soil erosion despite the intense rains.

Overall, we feel that this first attempt at grazing was very successful and beneficial and we look forward to repeating the effort next year.