AT THE top of a very tall pole in the Trefethen Family Vineyard, there sits a box. And in that box, there lives a family of barn owls.
Over the course of a year, that single family can eat more than 2,000 gophers or “critters”, helping to control one of the pests that stalks the vines in California’s Napa Valley.
And they’re not the only owls that call Trefethen home. The boxes are spread at intervals throughout the vineyard, each containing a feathered sentry that patrols the rows at night.
When the sun comes up, western bluebirds take over the day shift, eating insects that would otherwise harm the vines before returning to their nest boxes on the estate.
“I don’t want to kill all the gophers,” explains Jon Ruel, president and chief executive at Trefethen. “The owls keep the number of gophers in balance.
“There must be some kind of shortage in the owl housing market,” he jokes. “We didn’t have to introduce the birds, we just put up the boxes and they came.”
Both Trefethen’s vineyard and its winery are certified as sustainable under the Napa Green scheme, one of the programmes designed to give consumers confidence that their favourite tipples have been made in an ecologically-sound manner.
Sustainability extends beyond caring for the environment though; Trefethen also grows vegetables on its estate that are distributed among its 100-plus workers and their families, who also receive medical insurance and other benefits, while its car park even boasts a recharging point for electric cars.
All that effort goes into producing wines such as the 2014 Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon ($60), which is full of blackberry, blackcurrant and mint flavours, with structured fine tannins and a refreshing pop of acidity.
Across the hills from Napa in Sonoma, a scheme was launched in 2014 to turn the county into the United States’ first 100% sustainable wine region by 2019.
Meanwhile, California’s wider Sustainable Winegrowing Programme will launch a “certified sustainable” sticker this year that can be used on wines that meet strict standards.
Judging by the number of birds flapping their wings over Northern California, all these initiatives appear to be bearing fruit.
Driving through Napa and Sonoma, hawk after hawk swirled effortlessly in the air above the vineyards, while American robins, Brewer’s blackbirds and red-winged blackbirds dipped and dived between the vines.
Visiting in the spring that followed the first wet winter after five years of drought yielded plenty of flooded field margins, with a great egret flashing its yellow beak and shaking its long white-feathered neck quickly noted as a highlight.
The countryside in the Napa and Sonoma valleys felt like Perthshire on steroids – the same mixture of lush green pine woods and fertile farmers’ fields, but with palm trees and cacti poking up through the undergrowth.
‘Theatre of nature’
Nowhere was the link between wildlife and wine made clearer than at Raymond Vineyards’ Rutherford site in the Napa Valley, where head gardener Joe Papendick has created a “theatre of nature” to extoll the benefits of working in harmony with the environment.
Papendick guides guests along a path through his demonstration garden, explaining how biodynamic winemaking begins with creating compost that will nourish the vines.
As well as the chickens, goats and peacocks in the garden, there are more boxes for barn owls and little brown bat colonies – while Frederick the ginger cat patrols the paths in search of “varmints”.
Inside the winery at Raymond, there’s “wild life” of a different kind.
The site is owned by Boisset Family Estates, the company run by colourful Frenchman Jean-Charles Boisset, often known as “JCB” and certainly not to be confused with a large yellow digger.
The winery is split into a series of “rooms” that guests can visit, including the velvet-lined “red room” for tastings, the “crystal cellar” in which burlesque-clad manikins cavort from trapeses under chandeliers and a stuffed lion stands guard between the stainless-steel tanks, and a new cabaret-style bar, in which JCB himself revealed details of “Haute Couture”, a new blend of crémants or sparkling wines from around France.
Among his Californian wines, the 2013 Raymond Vineyards Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon (£72.10, Hedonism Wines) hit the spot with aromas of blackberries, chocolate and coffee, leading into red fruit on the palate and a rounded mouthfeel, combined with a full body and long finish.
Adding a splash of dynamism
While a visit to Papendick’s “theatre of nature” at Raymond is a great introduction to biodynamic winemaking, the technique reaches what is perhaps its pinnacle at The Pivot, the vineyard surrounding the Littorai winery on a ridge among the rolling hills between Sebastopol and Freestone, just seven miles from the coast of Sonoma.
Rudolf Steiner – the educator behind the eponymous schools – founded the biodynamic approach to agriculture, which farmers began to adopt from the 1920s.
Although many wine lovers will giggle into their glass when they think about biodynamic techniques – such as carrying out pruning and harvesting to tie-in with certain phases of the Moon and burying cow horns full of manure in the vineyard – while walking among the vines at Littorai, it’s easy to start to see some of the science that underpins the ideas.
Carrying out tasks in the vineyard to tie-in with the lunar cycle could simply be interpreted as working with instead of against the Moon’s influence over the water inside the plants – a nice bit of astrophysics among the vines.
Most of the “preparations” that are sprayed on or around the vines are simply natural alternatives to factory-produced chemicals, with camomile to protect the plants against heat shock, dandelion to help the fruit set and bark tea to fight powdery mildew.
“We’re using nature as a first defence against farming problems,” explained Casey Richards, the estate educator.
Life is a Lemon
Littorai was launched by biodynamic pioneer Ted Lemon and his wife, Heidi, in 1993. They bought The Pivot in 2003 and began creating an integrated biodynamic farm and vineyard.
While many vineyards are now biodynamic, few have their own farm, instead buying in the preparations that are sprayed on the vines.
Instead, Littorai creates its own preparations, while members of staff also spend time and effort creating their own compost.
“The compost is like a layer cake or lasagne,” explained national sales manager Rachel Dixon, pointing to the pile of natural materials breaking down at a cooler temperature of 140F (60C), compared to the 180F (82C) used in commercial production.
Flowers in the surrounding garden have been planted to encourage bees to come and pollinate the farm – spotting a hummingbird flitting amongst the borders suggested that the plants were popular with other species too.
Inside the estate’s energy efficient winery, the grapes from individual vineyards are turned into separate wines, retaining the character of each site.
Among the highlights of a pinot noir tasting was the 2014 The Haven Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (£79.62, The Fine Wine Company) with its fruity red cherry and red plum aromas and velvety tannins, with a long fruit-driven finish that lasted out onto the driveway, amid views over the tranquil hillside.
*Where possible, I’ve included British stockists.