Local vineyard, herder implement mutually beneficial grazing program
Herd of more than 1,200 sheep roamed Booker Vineyard estate over the winter
– It was “mob rule” at Booker Vineyard this winter as more than 1,200 sheep roamed the estate vineyard as part of a mutually beneficial handshake deal between the winery and a longtime local sheepherder.
Now, with spring bud break underway, the vines are naturally fertilized while the sheep are happily fed, advancing a model for progressive farming that continues to take root at Booker Vineyard in the Willow Creek District of Paso Robles.
The sheep belong to local herder Jean-Baptiste Jaureguy, who practices what is known as mob grazing at the vineyard: a high number of animals feeding on the land for a short period of time. This activity helps trim Booker’s nourishing cover crops while providing organic real-time fertilizer in advance of the growing season.
“This is a win-win arrangement for all of us,” said Hilary Graves, vineyard manager at Booker Vineyard. “It provides us with all of the benefits of a robust cover crop—including nitrogen fixing and carbon capture—without compacting the soil and burning fossil fuels to run a tractor-mower. It also saves the 80 hours it would take to run a mower across our vineyard. It’s a modern solution that draws upon ancient ways of organic land management.”
Nine species of cover crops
Booker Vineyard has been farmed with organic practices since 2006, and in 2021 it became certified by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), which oversees one of the nation’s most stringent and respected programs of its kind. The vineyard is currently working to achieve Regenerative Organic Certified status this summer.
“Regenerative viticulture takes inspiration from nature,” said Farmer-Winemaker Eric Jensen, who founded Booker Vineyard in 2005. “Whereas organic spells out what you can’t do, regenerative takes it a step further to create discernable improvement to the ecological and social function of the farm and community. In this way, problems are solved holistically within the parameters of a healthy ecosystem—which is something we’ve always strived for at Booker.”
At the Booker estate, Graves has created her own curated blend of cover crops that includes nine different species. These include legumes for nitrogen fixing; prairie grasses for channeling water deeper into the vine roots; and other grasses that make the mix palatable for the sheep.
Collectively, these cover crops also promote carbon capture and beneficial insect populations. They also help control erosion, which has been nonexistent at the estate despite Booker’s steep slopes and the extraordinary rainfall across Paso Robles this year.
A Paso Robles sheepherder with Basque Country roots
Paso Robles-based sheep herder Jean-Baptiste Jaureguy grew up in the village of Saint-Étienne de Baïgorry in the Basque region. In 1962, at the age of 17, he moved to California’s Central Coast, where he joined a herding enterprise operated by his brother and cousin.
Forty years ago, Jaureguy struck out on his own, and today he runs a herd of up to 6,000 sheep, which he raises for wool and meat. The sheep are from the Merino and Rambouillet breeds, which are prized for their high-quality wool.
Jaureguy moves his herd around the region throughout the year for the sake of both animal welfare and soil health. “Natural feed is the best, and that’s why my sheep are very happy at Booker Vineyard,” he said. “It makes me happy, too, because I like to work outside in this beautiful countryside.”
Added Graves, “We love working with Jean-Baptiste because stewardship of the land is very important to him. There is a real thoughtfulness behind his work, which meshes with our mindset at Booker Vineyard.”