These images (below) show some of the suspects, captured by a trail camera at Wofford Acres Vineyards in California’s El Dorado AVA – about 30 metres from the winemaker’s home.
“The bears use our vineyards as a thoroughfare from the river canyon below our vineyard to the Apple Hill ranches and other properties near us,” co-owner Mike Wofford said. “While passing through, they will strip the vines of the grapes, breaking vine arms and destroying vines and fruit trees on our property.
“There have been some years when we had no Merlot harvest as the bears and birds have eaten the Merlot grapes. Our late harvest Viognier has also been affected since these grapes are the last we harvest and is reduced again by the bears as they fatten up for hibernation.”
Wofford Acres Vineyards was set up in 2003 by Mike, brother Paul and sister-in-law Ann. The winery’s annual output is about 1,200 cases.
'We knew there was a bear around our winery as there were some large footprints in the area'Paul, the winemaker, specialises in red blends, but also makes a rosé from Syrah and the Aldonza, a late harvest Viognier produced when he gets to the grapes first.
Fortunately, the Woffords had harvested their red grapes ten days earlier than usual. Apart from the lack of the Aldonza, Paul believes 2018 is “shaping up to be a great vintage”.
He added: “At least we got our ‘Bearly There Merlot’ in again this year and it’s going to be outstanding.”
The ‘Bearly There Merlot’ got its name from another encounter of the hairy kind.
Mike told Canopy: “I believe our first release of a Merlot (varietal) was due to a bear. In 2008, we had two polyurethane tanks setting in our processing area outside prior to moving into our barrels, one of Merlot and the other Cabernet Sauvignon. We knew there was a bear around our winery as there were some large footprints in the area.
“The day before being able to move the wine into the cellars, we found the tank of Cab had toppled over. I figured the only way this could have happened was because of the bear trying to get to the fermenting juice. We later released the Merlot as our first vintage of Merlot, which we call Bearly There Merlot.”
This year, the vineyard joined the El Dorado County Farm Trails’ quilt trail project, which links historic buildings and gardens through a series of hand-painted artworks.
The Wofford quilt block (above), by local artist Jane Harris, is called ‘Mother Nature’s Bear Paw’ and features a grape-stealing bear in the centre, with bear paw blocks in the corners that also depict the four seasons.
The quilt block was unveiled at the vineyard’s new event, a ‘Mini Jazz Jubilee’ held on Memorial Day Weekend (at the end of May). Jazz fan Mike hopes the Mini Jazz Jubilee will become an annual event.
Bears are not the only beasts to cause problems in the vineyard. Mike told Canopy: “We also have to deal with deer, foxes and rabbits. The birds also affect our late harvest Viognier.”
The deer cause problems in the spring “by eating the flowering vines,” said Mike. “They usually hit the vines at the end of rows. Once the grapes have set, they continue to eat the fresh vines but no longer affect the harvest volumes.
“We understand that Mother Nature plays a major role in our annual harvests. This includes all of the wild critters that live in the area around us.”
How we deal with the problem
“On our 5 acres, 3.5 acres is fenced with 8ft deer fencing. While it stops the deer from entry, the bears just rip a hole in it and continue on their way. This opening then allows the deer to enter,” Mike explained. “We have tried a variety of different methods that are less invasive than the fencing such as human and mountain lion scents, ammonia aroma and a motion detection barking dog system. The most effective way to deal with all the animals is to accept that they are part of our adventure in owing a winery.”