As many of you know, we have been building up our flock this year. The animals help nourish our soil, spreading manure thoroughly and evenly, reducing or eliminating our need to bring in outside fertilizer. They help keep weeds down and reduce the number of tractor passes we need come spring. And they attract different microbes and insects into soil that is vibrantly alive in a way that just doesn't happen in a monoculture. The past few years, we've had around 80 sheep, along with a few alpacas, two donkeys, and a llama. Now, thanks to a fertile winter season, we're up to 165 sheep, plus the other members of the menagerie. The flock can at times be seen from the tasting room, but is more often working quietly, out of view:
The results, for us, have been remarkable. In this record rainy winter, we've seen practically no erosion, as the soils have absorbed massive quantities of the rainfall we've received. The cover crops have thrived in the nutrient-rich soils the animals leave behind. The regular movement of the animals around the property has meant that in what could have become an overgrown jungle, we've instead kept the grasses under the height of the cordons, which will help as we get to frost season. And because we've moved the animals out of each block after just a day or two, they haven't overgrazed anything, and the grasses have resumed growing right away, giving us that much more biomass from our winter months. We are excited for the vines to reap the benefits of this investment come spring.
Our goal is to graze the entire property twice each winter between harvest and budbreak, at which point we have to move the animals out of the vineyard lest they eat the new growth off the vines. We'll probably manage that this winter, thanks to the early start to the rainy season and the early end to harvest. But for a normal winter, Nathan -- the experienced shepherd who we brought aboard last year -- estimates that we'll need about 200 sheep to get the entire vineyard grazed. Hence why we've been building up our flock.
As a general rule, you get 1.5 healthy lambs per ewe each year. Many have twins, but some don't lamb at all, and some lambs don't survive. But even so, you can grow your herd fast. We got 86 lambs this year from our 55 ewes. Luckily, 53 of these were female, and will be added to the flock long-term. But once they reach maturity, you can run into problems if you have too many rams in a flock. Some rams will fight for dominance.1 But even if you get lucky and they don't, the extra rams are still mouths to feed during the dry summer season, where forage is at a premium because the animals can't be in the vineyard, and extra rams won't contribute to the building of the flock for the next year.
So, for the last few years, we've been reaching out to local restaurants about our male lambs, once they reach a certain age. It's perhaps not surprising that these have provided some of our most memorable food and wine pairing opportunities. The lamb, as you would expect from where and how they graze, is some of the most delicious -- as well as the most sustainable -- meat you'll ever taste. And to have it come from the same place as the wine, grown on vines nourished by the healthy soils the animals helped create, ties together what we really love about Biodynamics.
With the growth of the flock, we're no longer talking about a dozen or so lambs a year. This year, we have about 20 year-old lambs from last year's brood, and another 30 or so from this winter's. We will continue to work with our local restaurants, and are in fact hoping that you'll see Tablas Creek lamb on more local menus. But after receiving a number of inquiries from consumers, we've also started working in a small way with Jensen Lorenzen's Larder Meat Company.
Many of you will remember Jensen from the Cass House in Cayucos, where he was the chef and his wife Grace ran the dining room and wine program. When the property sold a couple of years ago, he started what is, in essence, a meat club. Using his contacts with local farmers, he's sourced high quality beef, pork and chicken, always whole animals, always pasture raised and humanely (and locally) harvested at a USDA-licensed facility. He divides up the meats into a monthly "share", and his members receive a mix of cuts in each box, along with recipes and pairing suggestions.
So, when Jensen (above, working on a recipe with one of our lamb shoulders) reached out to us to see if we would be willing to create a "Tablas Creek lamb" offer with him, we agreed. If you'd like to try it, these lamb boxes are 6 lbs. each, and include a roast, rack and/or chops, ground lamb and sausage, as well as Jensen's Larder lamb seasoning and recipe ideas. They cost $98, shipping included (CA only)2. If you'd like to learn more, or sign up, you can here.
Delicious lamb, raised on a certified organic (and hopefully soon certified Biodynamic) property, with recipes from one of our best local chefs? Knowing that the lambs helped produce great wine (that I might even choose to pair with that lamb)? And knowing from first-hand experience that the lambs led good lives and were humanely harvested? Even for me -- and I am typically skeptical of arguments touting ethical meat production -- that works. If it works for you and you decide to try it, we hope you will let us know what you think.
- In the wild, young rams leave the presence of the dominant male, often spending several years on their own. When they come back, they fight for the right to breed. Neither the leaving nor the fighting are practical in a working flock. We left a young ram with the flock longer than we should have a few years back, and he was so badly injured in a fight with the dominant ram that he had to be put down.
- Jensen has not yet shipped anything out of state. But it sounds like it's possibly in the works for the future.