Shannon Ridge Wines and Shannon Ranch Lamb
When I first saw a video of how Shannon Ridge Wines raises sheep to sustainably manage their vineyards I was intrigued. Located in Northern California, Shannon Ridge Wines rotates the sheep from vineyard to vineyard in order to control cover crop growth and naturally fertilize the land. Visiting the Lake County winery and meeting vintner and rancher Clay Shannon underscored the responsibility he feels to protect and maintain the historical vineyard hills of Shannon Ranch planted to Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel.
On the main Shannon Ranch, where Eastern European immigrants planted grapes over 100 years ago, Clay was prepping for harvest so the sheep grazed on a recently picked vineyard a few miles away. You see, the sheep love grapes so can’t graze near ripe fruit because they’d simply eat the crop. But, bring them in while grapes are ripening and they’ll happily eat grape leaves and thin the canopy for better sun exposure.
Clay Shannon has trademarked his approach as the Ovis Cycle, The Ultimate Sustainable Farming System. After harvest, the sheep clean up the fallen grapes and other growth known as “MOG” (material other than grapes) and fertilize as they roam, all naturally. The sheep leave the vineyards spotless and the they are fat and woolly.
In winter, vines may be dormant but the sheep are busy lambing. They are kept warm and protected by vigilant sheep dogs. In Spring, when the wines are budding, the sheep are sheared and the lambs are weaning. These sheep graze well, live freely, enjoy life and, eventually are consumed as the cycle of life completes.
Shannon Ranch is known for its spectacular naturally-raised lamb, which pairs beautifully with many of the Shannon Ridge wines like the ever popular and well-priced High Elevation Wrangler Red. Grown at 1200-1400 feet is a staple on many restaurant lists. Also in the High Elevation Brand family is a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Restaurants in the know serve the Shannon Ranch lamb right along with the wines for a perfect farm to table experience.
As Clay Shannon was discovering the ranch he now calls Shannon Ridge, he found a lot of history both in the winegrowing and in the ranch structures. He unearthed the old winery, complete with old crusher and press, an unknown and still-producing well, a skinning shack and a hand-built stone fence that runs for over a mile.
In the process of unveiling all the ranch’s secrets, Shannon’s greatest discovery was a century-old “Mother Vine” that is still strong today. The many offshoots of this old vine Cinsault, probably brought from the Eastern Europe, are the base of the oldest part of the dry-farmed ranch.
The old skinning shed is now preserved as the Buck Shack Bar for entertaining customers and trade. “Buck Shack” also happens to be the name of Shannon Ridge’s small batch red blend that reflects the finest fruit from Shannon Ranch.
Shannon Ridge farms over 991 planted acres Lake County AVA and the smaller Lake County AVAs of Red Hills, High Valley and Big Valley. Clay Shannon discovered early the beauty of Lake County wines and their potential quality and affordability and steadily acquired vineyards to become the prominent Lake County winery they are today. Nationally distributed, all estate-grown and sustainably farmed by a true caretaker of the land, Shannon Ridge and its family of wines represent excellent value in the market today.
Oso Libre, the Free Bear
In Paso Robles west of Coastal Route 101 in California, Oso Libre Winery, raises cattle alongside their Rhone and Bordeaux varietals. “Free Bear” in Spanish, Oso Libre grows Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Primitivo, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel on its Adelaida region vineyards. Oso Libre winery source a small amount of fruit from vineyard neighbors for their GSM blends. But grapes are not the only crop raised on the massive ranch only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.
Family-run Oso Libre considers itself a winery and traditional San Luis Obispo cattle ranch, pasture-raising estate beef for a ‘whole farm', sustainable family business. Family for Oso Libre is founding vintner and ranchers Chris and Linda Behr, who bought the initial 90 acres in 1996. Son Jeff Freeland and his family joined them in 2006 and the family released their initial vintage in 2009 after years of planting, study and winemaking experience.
Now expanded to over 350 acres, Oso Libre has plenty of available pasture allowing the ranch to harvest between 8 and 12 steers per year and offer an Angus beef club in addition to their popular wine clubs which are presently waiting list only.
Oso Libre beef is raised with exacting standards: no hormones, no feedlot, no corn and no stress. Their steer are grass fed in open pastures and vineyards enjoying free-range grasses, legumes and water from flowing creeks. Beef from the ranch exceeds USDA standards and can be purchased in the tasting room as well as ordered in a variety of packs for home delivery.
Many weekends Oso Libre also grills up Angus burgers from their own steers for visiting wine tasters. The burgers are perfectly paired with Oso Libre’s variety of wines. With close proximity to the sea, fog keeps the vines cool and grapes have time to hang to ripen for maximum fruit concentration.
Oso Libre’s exceptionally fruit-forward Vino d’Oro Chardonnay benefits from this cool climate Adelaida region for a Burgundian style balance between stone fruit, vanilla and oak. A perfect food wine for California seafood. The winery’s powerful and aptly named “Carnal” is a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah, each year a bit different, and essentially non-vintage is the wine I would grab to go with a juicy Angus burger on the terrace that overlooks the Oso Libre vineyards.
The winery also makes a Mourvedre, several Cabernet Sauvignons and a Bordeaux blend called Reserva. The Cabernet I like for its balance, elegance and name is the Quixotic Cab, named after Don Quixote and his quest for perfection. A wine embodying cherry, plum and vanilla with a complex finish of licorice and chocolate.
Plan to visit Oso Libre on a burger day and explore their “whole” approach to farming, maybe taking home both their award-winning wines and outstanding Angus beef. Not many wineries can offer that.