"This holiday [Presidents' Day] weekend has been super-busy!" proclaimed Frankie Arburua III, the sole proprietor of Lodi's F Ewe Sheep Company. Arburua is far from the first sheep rancher in Lodi, but he is the first that has also been established for this additional, specific purpose: to supply a natural, and sustainable, way of farming vineyards — something that the Lodi Viticultural Area has in far greater number in sheer acreage than any other wine region in California, or the entire U.S for that matter.
We met up with Mr. Arburua this past Monday (February 15) in Schulenburg Vineyard, a meticulously farmed 18-acre block of spur-pruned, old vine Zinfandel located at the corner bend of Moore Rd., on the west side of Lodi's Mokelumne River AVA. Arburua drove up in his truck pulling a trailer of 30 working ewes and had no problem coaxing them out onto the carpet of green, winter-grown grass to get to work, like a crew of seasoned field hands — or, perhaps, more like a busload of road-starved tourists disembarking at a hotel salad bar.
Explained Arburua, "I meant to start working on Schulenburg Vineyard yesterday [Sunday], but I fell behind on their yearly shearing, which I like to get done by mid-February." Arburua explained this in more detail on his Monday Instagram post: "The girls were scratching like crazy just begging to get all their wool off which can weigh up to 12-15 pounds for a really heavy fleece. They are now enjoying their last month in the alfalfa fields with their lambs.
"In the bigger news, for the first time ever I put some of my ewes in a vineyard for weed management! This is super-exciting for myself as well as the Lodi wine region. Sheep can perform all kinds of eco-friendly tasks in the vineyard that reduce labor as well as the carbon footprint. Not to mention, they love the delicious grass right now.
"So with the sheared bodies and full bellies, as well as 10 days of mid 60°, 70° weather ahead, I think these sheep are going to think they died and have gone to heaven."
Arburua started off in the vineyard on Monday with 30 working ewes. "Over the next few days I'll be bringing in several more trailers — depending on how it goes, we may have as many as 100 ewes working the field by the end of the week."
In another conversation over the weekend, Mr. Arburua shared his story: "Technically, as of 2021, I am in my fourth year as a sheep rancher here in Lodi, the first in my family to go it alone. Sheep is in my blood — I am a fourth-generation sheep rancher, of Basque descent. The rest of my family still lives in the Tracy area [San Joaquin County, CA].
"I love the Lodi area. I raise roughly 500 ewes at a given time, primarily to supply the meat market. But being in Lodi also will also us the opportunity to get out in the vineyards. I'm hoping three times a year: during winter for weed control, during the spring for leaf-pulling which helps the grapes get more sun, and after the harvest in late fall to help clean up the residual leaves on the vine and ground.
"I have a day job, as a loan officer for the Bank of Stockton, which pays the bills. I've been completely self-funded, while slowly increasing my flock as the business grows. My ultimate goal, though, is to operate F Ewe Sheep Company full-time.
"I'm in Lodi because of the opportunity. I have been speaking to a mentor, who does vineyard work with sheep in Napa Valley and Sonoma County. There are sheep companies utilized in other vineyards and farming areas, like Rio Vista, Bakersfield, and Fresno. Lodi made sense to me because there currently isn't a sheep operation geared towards vineyard work, at least one that is home-based here."
The bread and butter of F Ewe Sheep Company, however, will remain the production of high-quality meat, which Arburua plans to tie in directly with the natural benefits of grazing in farms and vineyards, preferably sustainable or organic. "The ewes usually give birth in February/March," he explains, "and the lambs are ready to go to market six months later — mostly to a farm in Dixon [Solano County, CA], and a few to local auction yards. I anticipate that the vineyard work will generate a smaller revenue, but it's to the mutual benefit of all parties. While things like leaf pulling can save the grape growers in labor costs, which keep going up, the sheep can help by replenishing nutrients in the soil.
"Part of our time and labor goes into the portable electric fencing we have to put up around the vineyards to keep the sheep in, and any predators, like coyotes, out. The fencing is non-invasive, requiring just thin stakes which don't tear up the ground.
"This past winter my sheep have been grazing in alfalfa fields — we've done 600 acres just these past few months. The Schulenburg Vineyard is our first try at vineyard work, and hopefully, not the last. But grazing is grazing, it's fairly simple. You from one field, or vineyard block, to the next, moving the fences along with you."
Adds, Arburua, "We raise several different breeds, but in every flock of mixed breeds there are always the individual 'bad actors' — the destructive ones, who may get out of fences. We have to select the sheep doing the grazing for temperament as well. During the second phase, when the sheep are allowed to eat leaves around the grape clusters, the plan is to move the flock along a little more quickly, since you can eat too many leaves and over-expose the fruit to the sun. Early in the growing season, we won't have to worry about the sheep eating the fruit because they don't like the taste of green, underripe grapes."
Wendy Schulenburg, who manages the vineyard along with her father Robert, also came out to chat about the benefits of Arburua's flock. She tied in his services directly with the history of their family farm, and in terms of its long-term sustainability: "Most of our Zinfandel was planted 75 years ago (in the mid-1940s), all on St. George rootstock. The more recent plantings are about 30 years old, and we also have a small section of younger Zinfandel vines that were grafted over from Chardonnay just four years ago.
"The entire vineyard has been LODI RULES for Sustainable Winegrowing-certified since 2008. We were among the first vineyards in Lodi to get certification.
"My father bought the property in 1977. At the time there were also quite a bit of Flame Tokay and also a little Carignan, which he pulled out and replaced with Zinfandel, plus with the Chardonnay that has been since pulled out. We keep just a few plants of Tokay closer to the house, just for eating.
"The opportunity to work with Frankie was a no-brainer for me. I think it will be a great way to farm more naturally, using fewer chemicals, even if they're soft enough to be approved under sustainable practices. Starting this year, for instance, we no longer plan to use any glyphosate [such as Roundup], which is still commonly used around here. To get to the weeds under the vines that the sheep won't get to, we may explore some kind of low-impact tool to mechanically remove them, but we'll see how this goes.
"The idea of sustainability, after all, is to move away from pesticides and herbicides. The sheep are a win-win for us since they'll also provide some natural compost to help boost nutrients in the soil, which promotes vine health. As for what we have for the sheep to graze on, it's mostly native grass mixed with some self-seeding ryegrass that we had put down several years ago. I also like the fact that the sheep will reduce the need for mowing and disking, especially since we prefer not to till our soil in order to preserve the microbial life built up in the ground."
During our conversation with Ms. Schulenburg, her father Robert Schulenburg strolled out from the family vineyard home to chat — at first, wearing a generic baseball cap, which he replaced a little later with a cap proudly bearing the name and crossed-corkscrews logo for Lodi's Michael David Winery.
Said Mr. Schulenburg, "We were one of the first grape growers to buy into LODI RULES, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that our sole customer has been the Phillips family at Michael David Winery. They began incentivizing their growers by offering bonuses for certified sustainable grapes, and later they made it mandatory. It's a good thing to be sustainable, but a lot of credit goes to Michael David for pushing it.
"We like doing business with the Phillips. They're more like family than customers. We take trips together, like to Mexico, and we go fishing with them.
"When Wendy brought up the idea of using sheep, my thought was, why not try it? If it's good for the environment, and good for the vineyard, of course, I'm all for it!"
Randy Caparoso is a full-time wine journalist who lives in Lodi, California. Randy puts bread (and wine) on the table as the Editor-at-Large and Bottom Line columnist for The SOMM Journal, and currently blogs and does social media for Lodi Winegrape Commission’s lodiwine.com. He also contributes editorial to The Tasting Panel magazine and crafts authentic wine country experiences for sommeliers and media.