I’m an avid dog lover so those vineyard visits where the shaggy, lovable canine comes to meet you in the vineyard are some of my favorites. Dogs have long been part of some vineyards’ operations — some so much they’ve been immortalized in glossy photograph-filled coffee table books boasting the warm smile of the vineyard’s loyal canine.
There are many benefits of the vineyard dogs you may have not considered. In addition to their companionship, their keen sense of smell and protection instincts make them invaluable vineyard workers. For centuries, growers have boasted of their trusted companions’ ability to determine a grape’s readiness for harvest based on sniffing out the sugar levels. And dogs are trusted with keeping the leaf-eating and trampling invaders, namely deer, at bay from the vineyard. These hardworking wine dogs patrol the fields deterring other pests such as gophers and squirrels and chasing away hungry birds.
But there is a new mission for the vineyard dog. Recently, Bergin University of Canine Studies in California began working with and training dogs to sniff out a wide-spread nuisance constantly plaguing grapes, the mealybug. This pesky little creature feeds on the base of the vine shoot, preventing the plant from producing fruit. If you are a sustainable or organic wine producer these tiny bugs can be a colossal problem. Pesticides are needed to kill the bugs, forcing many grape growers away from all-natural methods. Dogs are being trained to identify the scent of the female vine mealybug and then pinpoint its location, even to the specific vine. It’s the same method trainers have used for search and rescue missions. Why is this so important? This canine super-smeller can find a single vine infected with the pest, eliminating the need for broad use of pesticides.
Michael Honig of Honig Vineyards has been working with these select trained dogs since 2007. The winery dog (aka Honey) was one of the first in the pilot program training golden retrievers to detect the pest. This has been crucial for keeping their respected and diligent sustainable measures.
So, the next time you see that wine label, glossy calendar or celebrity wine dog book just remember these stars are more than just a fluffy, playful addition to the already exceptional vineyard visits.
- 2018 Honig Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, California (about $19 retail)
- 2017 Honig Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, California (about $49 retail)