A menagerie of vineyard delights

My cat often looks at me funny. I might just be sitting here, chomping on Kit Kat bars and wondering how Squawky would look with a Mohawk, when she suddenly shoots me the "you're-nuts" glare from across the zebra rug.

Don't get excited. This is not a story about cats. Or zebras. It's about alpacas with punk haircuts who live near picturesque grape vines. I don't just write about the humdrum stuff.

Jeanne and Jim Davidian of Caprice Vineyards have 24 alpacas on their property just outside of Jacksonville. The male alpacas are separated from the females by cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay vines, so everyone has a view.

The females have faces that are more delicate than the males, though they still weigh about 150 pounds and could bully you if they wanted to. They have thick lips, bumper-car-like noses and long, spear-shaped ears.

They are weird. They look like elongated lambs or shaggy unicorns or a cross between a centaur and Chewbacca. In fact, one of the alpacas here is named Chewie. Maybe that's because he looks like the famous Wookiee or because alpacas move their mouths in figure eights when they chew their cud.

In the ladies' pen, the alpacas pamper themselves by rubbing their coats against a huge street-sweeper brush. Over at the guys' turf, they force their heads underneath the fence to pull at the grass on the other side because, you know, the grass is always greener there.

Most of the time they eat hay or alfalfa kibble and snack on fruitless mulberry tree leaves, and I think Jeanne mentioned something about a Toblerone bar, but maybe that was just in my head.

Jeanne used to drive the alpacas to shows as far away as Kentucky. But now she's too busy, talking to tasting room visitors about Caprice Vineyards' wine and crafting hats, shawls and mittens made from hypoallergenic alpaca fiber.

She also sells alpaca manure. It cost $20 to fill a pickup bed. "It's weed-free and full of phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium," says Jeanne, who then offers me a bucket to take home, but I remind her that journalists can't accept bribes.

Jeanne says alpacas are shy and paradoxically, confident and curious. "They are so sweet," she says. Of course, she has personified them or maybe she alpacafies people.

No matter. She says it's relaxing to sit in the paddock in the last light of the day, sip a glass of her homegrown Caprice Vineyards 2008 cabernet ($25 a bottle) or a 2011 viognier ($21) and let alpacas slowly surround her. "They give me kisses," says Jeanne, her blue eyes twinkling.

I shudder at the thought, but schoolchildren are delighted to roll in to Caprice, at 970 Old Stage Road in Central Point (www.capricevineyards.com), to meet the alpacas and learn that sweaters aren't born in Macy's.

On Saturday, June 1, everyone's invited to watch as these four-legged, fuzzy weirdos are shorn of their valuable coats. There will be wine, music and Italian food, too.

Come to think about it, creatures in vineyards are about as common as candy wrappers and empty wine bottles in my kitchen.

Southern Oregon grape growers who want to minimize chemical-laden insecticides, weed killers and fertilizers put animals to work in vineyards. Raptors and owls ward off rodents. Bats and swallows pluck off pesky insects. Goats and sheep mow down grasses.

Abacela's vineyards get piles of organic, composting "zoo do" from its Roseburg neighbor, the Wildlife Safari animal park.

Vineyard dogs are so popular that there are books written about them. "Winery Dogs of Oregon" puts the spotlight on an obedient golden retriever named Magnum.

Oh, sheesh. Squawky is scowling at me. She's telling me to move away from the dog talk.

But before I do, I want to say that Paula Sendar of Philanthropie Wine (www.philanthropiewine.com) in Ashland donates 10 percent of sales from her 2010 Tempranillo ($22) to C.A.T.S. (Committed Alliance to Strays), Dogs for the Deaf, Friends of the Animal Shelter, SNYP (Spay/Neuter Your Pet), Sanctuary One and the Southern Oregon Humane Society.

"Animals and animal welfare are my passion," says Sendar, whose wine is being poured during intermission of the Cabaret Theatre's production of "Dogpark: The Musical" through Sunday, May 26.

Maybe Paula would like to pet a pack of alpacas?

Event: Memorial Day weekend is the time to honor veterans by taking them on long, scenic drives across this land that they fought to protect. While you're at it, stop at tasting rooms and toast them with local wine.

The Roam the Rogue self-guided tour will showcase seven wineries from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, May 25 ($29 tickets are available at www.roamtherogue.com).

And Ledger David Cellars' tasting room in Central Point is pouring sparkling wine and mimosas with Champagne-infused cupcakes from the Cupcake Daily from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday through Monday, May 25-27 (ledgerdavid.com).

See what your favorite tasting room is up to this weekend.

Tasted: Cleve Twitchell, the heralded wine columnist for the Mail Tribune and my predecessor, loves value wines. In his honor, my house wine is now winemaker Linda Donovan's 2011 Late Bloomer dry Gewurztraminer ($9) and just-released 2010 Late Bloomer Red ($10, www.latebloomerwine.com),a blend of cabernet sauvignon and grenache.

Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com

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