Llamas in the Vineyards of Paso Robles: Wine Bloggers visit Wild Horse Winery

Written by Michael Oudyn


I share a snack with Floyd, head of the Wild Horse Winery clan of llamas

I share a snack with Floyd, head of the Wild Horse Winery clan of llamas

We from the Wine Bloggers Convention 2014 are at the Wild Horse Winery and Vineyards, in Paso Robles, California.We have sampled a few tasty high-octane Zinfandels at the neighboring Dusi Ranch.  We have had an excellent buffet lunch and  tasted a few more wines, some unique. Like their “Pink Floyd” a highly original rosé blend of pinot noir, cab franc, and sangiovese named in honor of Floyd, the godfather of Wild Horse Winery’s  hard-working llama clan. Unlike the brutish llama, I have done very little spitting today; I am ready to meet Floyd face-to-face.

“Llamas in the vineyards?”

“Of course. To protect the sheep.”

“To protect the sheep?”

“Yes, from the coyotes.”


The villain of the story, the  coyote

The villain of the story, the coyote

Let’s let the winery explain: “We actually have three llamas… Floyd, the original. Then Dolly Llama, and her baby Sal (Salvador Dali Llama)…They protect our sheep. The sheep eat the grass and ground cover in the vineyards…We put an electric fence around the sheep (so they won’t wander off) but coyotes are everywhere and they can easily jump the fence and eat the sheep…So we use the llamas to chase the coyotes away. The llamas are not scared of anything. And they are bigger than coyotes…but it doesn’t make much to scare a coyote anyway.”

“Do llamas have to be trained to protect the sheep?”

“No, they do it naturally. Once they graze together they form part of the herd.”

“Do you have any other animals?”

“We have created an owl habitat…the owls will eat a lot of gophers and squirrels… And we have chickens to help fertilize the vineyards.”

The humble sheep, key player in “natural” vineyards.

But the humble sheep is the key player in sustainable and natural vineyards. Sheep dung makes good fertilizer. Sheep eat leaves from canopies that would have to be removed by hand and eat grass that is often mowed. So labor costs are reduced. And no need for tractors. So, lower fuel costs along with reduced carbon emissions, soil compaction, and erosion. Which all fits perfectly with the natural wine movement and the trend toward more holistic agriculture.  Paso Robles wine makers are very serious about sustainable and organic; about one in four is organic and they calculate that “30% of consumers are looking for sustainability in the wines.”

This may sound a little out there, but these “wooly weeders” are getting more and more popular in California, especially among biodynamic and natural growers. And these “mutton mowers” are quite common in Australia and New Zealand where labor is very expensive and sheep are everywhere.

Wooly weeders at work.

The Wild Horse Vineyards only use sheep in the winter, but other winemakers use them all year, especially down under. The big risk is that sheep, “unpicky eaters”, will eat the grapes when they ripen. One way around this is to get yourself some Olde English Miniature Babydoll Sheep which don’t get higher than 2 feet tall; they can walk under the trellis wires, but can’t reach the grapes.

Baby doll sheep, smaller is better.

Baby doll sheep, smaller is better.

Well, back on the bus I am mulling over everything I have heard, much of which is new, wondrous, and strange. I am about to learn the raw truth about the origin of many urban (rural?) legends. It had been rumored about that Floyd had been won in a poker game and went on be the proud progenitor of the Wild Horse’s llama clan. Well, this is tall-tale country; you just can’t believe everything you hear. My friend Anna of Anna Uncorked, in a true in-vino-veritas moment, confesses that it was she in fact who started the poker-game yarn. She just felt it added a little wild-west spice to the llama saga. Anna: “The truth is that Floyd was rescued from a petting zoo and has been a wonderful llama for protecting the crops. Floyd was getting older, and Dolly Llama, no relation to Floyd, was actually purchased (from neighbors) and was pregnant with Salvador Dali Llama… So two for the price of one. ” (She also related some risqué Oedipal shenanigans on the part of young Sal, but modesty forbids.)

Dlly Llama and son, Salvador Dali Llama.

Dolly Llama and son, Salvador Dali Llama.

“So it’s like which story do you want to believe?”  Well, the petting-zoo version would explain why I could share a treat with a llama, notoriously antisocial beasts. On the other hand starting a vineyard llama dynasty in a California poker game has a certain Mark Twain charm to it.

Sheep in New Zealand.

Sheep in New Zealand.

Llamas in Chile.

Llamas in Chile.

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