Cat Got Your Wine?

by Jim Clarke
February 2007

I recently adopted a cat, so I was distressed to learn shortly thereafter that cats are actually the enemies of wine. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised – after all, dogs’ affinity for vineyards is well documented; see, for example, the extensive screen time they get in Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary Mondovino, or the Jacoby family’s book, Winery Dogs of Napa Valley, published last year. I had thought cats were merely indifferent to wine, just as they seem indifferent to most human endeavors. However, I'd noticed my new pet eyeing the wine fridge with what may have been animosity, and then I came across a short piece of wine-related news from New Zealand: a clear case of sabotage in the vineyards.

It seems that some of the vineyards in Marlborough were using falcons – specifically, the local and threatened New Zealand Falcon – to scare off smaller birds from the vineyards and keep them from eating the grapes. Not only is this a boon to the winegrowers, but also to New Zealand wildlife, which has lost several species of birds to mammals introduced from elsewhere such as feral cats and possums. As in this case – one morning in July a worker for the Falcons for Grapes organization discovered an empty falcon nest; all that remained was a pile of feathers, a transmitter, and the incriminating tracks of a cat leading away from the murder site. A small but meaningful strike against the wine industry by the feline species.

The contrast with Man’s Best Friend couldn’t be starker. Dogs function as the greeters and cheerleaders of many wineries, valued enough to even grace the labels of many: Calistoga’s Graeser Winery has Simba’s Sinful Zinfandel and Alex’s Ruff Red, for example. The names of a winery’s dogs can even tell you something about the role models and aspirations of the winemaker. When Margaux runs up to greet you at South Africa’s Rust en Vrede, it leaves little doubt as to the ideals or aspirations of the winery.

It’s also no mistake that an animal noted for its nose has become wine’s mascot. In California, that nose is being put to use to sniff out disease in the vines. Vintners donated $33,000 to a project to train golden retrievers to sniff out and identify the vine mealybug, which can contaminate grape clusters with larvae and egg sacs, killing the vine itself within five years. The dogs are being trained to detect the pest early by smelling out its sex pheromones; once trained, they are expected to bark when they encounter the smell in the vineyards.

Dogs aren’t the only animals helping out in the vineyards, though. As I mentioned before, winegrowers in California and New Zealand are using falcons and other predatory birds to protect their grapes from other birds such as starlings, which like to eat grapes. The more traditional alternatives include expensive netting over the vines, visual repellents (scarecrows, of a sort) that startle invasive birds, or even loud noises or recordings of birds in distress. Using falcons is a natural, organic approach, especially in Marlborough’s case, where the birds themselves need the help to repopulate.

In California Getty Pollard’s company B-1RD has developed the Vineyard Falcon Crop Protection program, which uses trained falcons. The falcons don’t hunt down and kill starlings in the vineyards; their very presence is enough to discourage the starlings from swooping down and landing for a meal. The falcons got their first test at Gallo’s Two Rock Vineyard in Sonoma in 2004; Dennis Devitt, the winegrowing manager, considered them very effective and successful.

Other animals can contribute as well. Some of the biodynamic vineyards in Alsace are grazed by sheep, controlling the cover crop and fertilizing at the same time. Many sheep also roam the vineyards of New Zealand; some growers let them remain there during the growing season, when they nibble at the vines’ leaves, thereby trimming back the canopy and exposing the grapes to direct sunlight. Biodynamic theory holds that monocultural farms – farms with only one crop – are naturally imbalanced; the mixture of different crops and animals makes a better, healthier ecosystem. Grazing sheep and horse-driven plows help redress the imbalance (The horse-driven plow reduces compaction of the soil.).

However, I’m not about to take a horse (or a sheep) into my apartment, so I’m trying to reconcile my cat to wine – I even named her Alba, after the town in the center of Piedmont’s wine industry (Her colors vaguely remind me of a Barolo). Even if she remains anti-wine, at least she’s a lesser opponent compared to the baboons faced by some winegrowers in South Africa. Not only do they love grapes, but they’ve also been known to throw things at vineyard workers who try to scare them off.