AT THE END OF EACH GROWING SEASON, WENTE VINEYARDS RELIES ON THE ANCIENT ART OF FALCONRY TO PROTECT ITS HARVEST
by David Gadd
Sustainability is a ubiquitous buzzword these days, but at Wente Vineyards, it’s more than a trendy catchphrase. In fact, according to the Wente family, the concept is deeply rooted in five generations of winegrowing in California’s Livermore Valley and Arroyo Seco appellations.
“We’ve been living sustainably for 135 years now,” says Niki Wente, Fifth- Generation Winegrower and Viticulturalist. The daughter of Phil Wente, Niki studied wine and viticulture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before graduating in 2014. In addition to a stint at Huneeus Vintners in Napa Valley, she interned for three summers at her family’s winery, where she now manages the buying and selling of grapes and winegrower relations under Senior Viticulture Manager Keith Roberts. “It was a job offer I couldn’t refuse,” Niki says with a laugh.
When it comes to controlling the vineyards’ mammalian and avian pests, Niki advocates for natural solutions compatible with the family’s ethos. “About 15 years ago, we started putting up owl boxes and raptor perches for native birds,” she says. “Even the first year we had the highest rates of inhabitancy for owl boxes in the state.”
Owls make short work of ground pests such as gophers and ground squirrels, which gnaw on vine roots and nibble on green leaves during bud break. (Both pests also wreak havoc on the roads throughout the vineyards, causing safety issues for machinery and workers.) The raptor perches, meanwhile, serve to attract hawks that scare away feisty birds such as starlings, which fly in huge swarms called murmurations and can devastate an entire grape crop in a matter of days.
In addition to these natural measures, Wente Vineyards uses electronic squawk boxes that broadcast the shrieks of predators and the alarming cries of birds in distress, both signals bird pests take heed of. (Older “cannon” technology has proved inefficient in scaring away avian pests: “The birds get used to the sound of the cannon going off regularly,” Niki explains.)
Beginning around August 1, as the grapes near ideal ripeness, Niki calls in Jana Barkley, a Master Falconer and owner of Aero Falconry, for additional pest control. In addition to working with wineries, Barkley’s company provides bird abatement services for airports, shopping malls, and fruit orchards. “Jana had been falconing on our property for sport,” Niki recalls, “and she reached out to us to see if she could be of help.”
During the critical late summer and early fall months of harvest, Barkley’s presence in the vineyards complements Wente’s other pest-control measures, creating what she refers to as “a predatory presence” that makes the vineyards a no-fly zone for starlings. “It’s an easy way to get rid of all the birds that are taking away our crop, so that we can maintain our crop load,” Niki says.
Barkley’s well-trained dog, a Pointer named Doc Holliday, routs birds from the vines, while her birds of prey—gryfalcon-peregrine hybrid Kaede, Lanner falcon Aero, and Harris’ hawks Serenity and Cowboy—chase them out of the vineyard. “The falcon is like a heat-seeking missile,” says Barkley, explaining that these birds fly high and dive down on their prey, while hawks fly lower and drag prey to the ground with their powerful talons. Each type of bird is flown at different times to avoid predator-on-predator attacks.
“During harvest you really have to put the pressure on, sunrise to sunset. We patrol, and as soon as the starlings show up, we fly,” Barkley says, adding that she remains in the vineyards with her birds and dog for the duration of the season. “We live like gypsies, in a trailer. My birds are my family.”
The birds get breaks during the hottest part of the afternoon, when starlings are less active. Barkley is able to call the birds back to her arm on command: “It’s all about the food,” she explains.
Because Barkley likes to “keep things intimate,” she says Wente Vineyards provides “the ideal-size vineyard. The welcoming family environment at the company is also appealing to the master falconer, who eagerly looks forward to returning for the next harvest season.
The Wentes, meanwhile, are equally appreciative of Barkley. “We’ve been very happy with the falconry project,” says Niki, who, coincidentally, is also an animal lover. While working in the vineyards, she’s rescued stray cats, lost dogs, and even two kestrels she turned over to a falconer for adoption after they fell from their nest.