Making wine requires the obvious—grapes, terroir, yeast, hard work yet there are other ingredients that go largely unheralded but yet are just as necessary: determination, sense of humor, flexibility, experience, and most importantly, inspiration. Without inspiration I wouldn’t be making wine. I’m regularly deeply moved and inspired by my environment and our California landscape as I spend a lot of time outdoors hiking, mushroom hunting, gardening, bird watching and, of course, I spend a good amount of time in our local vineyards (this fall will mark the start of my 25th year in wine production).
Back in the early 1990’s when I was only just starting out working in wine cellars in Napa, I was handed the jobs typically given to neophyte cellar workers—cleaning drains, managing stormwater and wastewater, scrubbing tanks, cleaning barrels, working bottling lines, etc. When work was slower in the winter time, one of those jobs at one winery in Carneros was building Bluebird boxes. I hadn’t known of the existence of the Western Bluebird prior to this project, but learned that their population had been in decline for quite some time due to habitat loss. Bluebird box projects were all over the country to assist the population. Not only did I get to build those boxes but we also installed them, monitored the condition of existing boxes, cleaned used boxes and noted any that were used (or unused) the previous season. I found myself looking forward to catching a glimpse of these birds—their bright blue wings flashing momentarily neon in the winter sun—but sadly those glimpses were rare.
As my career progressed and I spent more time in the vineyards, I learned that many large growers trapped birds during the ripening season in traps with poisoned grain bait. I also witnessed many dead birds—including Bluebirds—that had gotten caught in bird netting. I have freed many birds twisted up in netting and grew to despise the use of all these methods. And still, only very rarely, saw living Bluebirds anywhere. Many folks recognized this issue and tried other methods of deterring birds—sound cannons, workers driving ATV’s shooting flares, mylar tape—which all worked to some degree. The method that has been adopted though that I see as the most effective is the use of falconry-based bird abatement. Falconers and their birds (usually Peregrine Falcons, Aplomado Falcons or Harris Hawks) work the vineyard environment on a regular basis during grape ripening—about a 4-6 week period—not to hunt or catch birds but to deter them from enter- ing the vineyard at all. This is a really cost-effective way for the vineyard owner to manage their crop as they don’t spent time on labor, materials and fuel to apply or remove bird netting or on other deterrent methods. It reduces bird deaths overall and encourages birds to live in the vineyard most other times of the year—a winning solution for all involved.
I have witnessed quite an increase in bird populations over the last few years that I attribute to this change in bird management in vineyards, and for me this is very inspiring—now I don’t have to look long or hard to see flocks of Western Bluebirds and other beneficial, bug eaters flying freely. It makes me proud to be a part of this industry.