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Falcons are for the Birds - Of Falcons, 49ers and Vineyard Bird Abatement

This weekend, the San Francisco 49ers face Atlanta for the NFC Championship. Northern Californians are normally both good-natured and nature-loving. At the moment though, we are decidedly hostile toward Falcons. We don’t like their uniforms or the way they fly across the field. We don’t want to see Matt Ryan air one out or their defense challenge our air superiority. We’ll cheer for the 49ers to ruffle, perhaps pluck, their feathers. Falcons, boo!

But, after this week, we should go back to liking falcons. And not just for their handsome profiles and breath-taking aerobatics. Trained falcons protect vineyards from grape-stealing birds.

Falconry experts Jim and Kathleen Tigan operate Tactical Avian Predators. For ten years, Jim has used his trained raptors to rid clients of troublesome starlings. The service is used by pet food manufacturers and oil companies, blueberry farmers and golf courses, car builders and even the city of San Francisco.

The customer closest to the Tigan’s heart is Hahn Family Wines in the Santa Lucia Highlands. After nearly a decade working with them, Jim Tigan says it feels like family. The feeling is mutual. “I think the world of Jim Tigan and his falcons," Bill Leigon, president of Hahn Family Wines, told me.

jimTiganTacticalAvianPredators
Jim Tigan releases a falcon at Hahn Family Vineyards.
Photo: Tactical Avian Predators

During the most crucial part of the year — a six week or longer period beginning just before veraison — the Tigan’s essentially move their household from Reno, Nevada to the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA vineyard. “We pack up the trailer, the dogs and the cats and work the thousand-acre vineyard seven days a week, sun up to sundown,” Kathleen tells me. The Tigans keep in close touch with Hahn director of vineyard operations Andy Mitchell. He tells them when and where there will be green drops or other harvest activities and where the grapes are becoming ripe. The Tigans target falcons on those areas to ensure there are no easy meals.

Starlings will rapidly devastate a vineyard. They are very intelligent and social birds, traveling in massive flocks. Starling scouts in squadrons of ten to forty birds go in all directions looking for those feeding grounds with the sweetest grapes. The scouts report back, then tens of thousands of shiny black fruit-eaters descend into the best vineyard. A single starling can eat a full bunch of grapes in just five minutes. When a starling gets full, almost spitefully, he’ll start peeling grapes and plucking out the crunchy, nutty seeds. If one bird can ravage a cluster in minutes, what will thousands of birds do to a vineyard’s yield?

Starlings aren’t the only birds that plunder vineyards. Finches and linnets are becoming an issue. They are still much less problematic though and are also protected species, so dealings with them need to be especially gentle.

Falcons hunt small birds by nature, zooming in and striking like an air-to-air missile. But the highly-trained falcons almost never injure or eat the enemy. They clear the skies through intimidation. Super-fast and maneuverable, they dive at a flock then bank and rise only to dive again. The starlings, not aware that these falcons don’t have murderous intent, head for a safer buffet. After several days of nerve-wracking fly-bys, the grape-burglars stop coming back. The falcons have established a no-fly zone.

There’s more to pest control falconry than wearing a cool leather gauntlet and watching your birds do their thing. The hours are long and physical. Jim starts at the crack of dawn with three birds and a dog. While his falcons circle, Jim and dog constantly walk the rows, looking for birds in the canopy and flushing them out. Eventually, it gets too hot for falcons, dog and falconer. They head back to the trailer until late afternoon when it’s cooler. Then, both Jim and Kathleen go out. They’ll take two dogs and six birds. Eventually, Jim heads in, leaving Kathleen and her team to take the late shift, working until dark.

565px-Peregrine Falcon 12
Peregrine Falcon. Photo: Ltshears

Jim Tigan uses four types of falcons to handle the various sizes of pests and different terrains. They also vary in their tolerance to heat. Peregrine falcons are astoundingly fast and can weigh up to three pounds. Saker falcons are a desert species renowned for their heat tolerance. Their size is, on average, similar to that of the largest Peregrines. Barbary Falcons, in the Peregrine family, are medium-sized with a very broad range of tolerated temperatures. They are fast but also highly maneuverable. They like high-altitude flying and love a good chase. Whereas the Peregrine and Barbary like to dive from great heights, the Lanner Falcon prefers low-altitude, horizontal pursuits.

The Grolier Encyclopedia tells us that Peregrine Falcons are the fastest living things on earth. In a dive, they can exceed 200 miles per hour.

Of course, most growers use other means to deal with thieving birds. Some cover vines with netting. Others tie shiny mylar strips to them. “Bird cannons” can be fired off periodically, frightening birds away with booming sound. In non-food businesses, such as oil fields, poison is sometimes used. Scarecrows don’t cut it. Strips and nets are practical and cost-effective in a small vineyard but become massively labor intensive and costly over large acreage. And you never know how much mylar is enough.

One year, driving back and forth to the vineyard each day, Jim saw a small boutique vineyard become an attraction to starlings. He’d honk his horn and try to scare them off, but had to get on with his own work. In the end, birds devastated that crop. “The next year when I came back to SLH,” Jim recalls, “there was at least one mylar strip on every single vine. The vineyard was so reflective, air traffic controllers might have had to re-route planes.”

Tactical Avian Predators’ fee works out to around 60 cents-per-acre for each day of work in big vineyards. Due to fixed costs of the business, price-per-acre would much higher for a small plot. “While a bit more expensive than netting or bird cannons, the use of falcons in the vineyard maintains our commitment to the environment and our commitment to a more humane treatment of the starlings. We see Tactical Avian Predators as an integral partner in our Sustainability program.” Bill Leigon explains. “Not only is bird netting a petroleum product, it can trap birds by the neck when they try to eat the grapes. A bird trapped in the netting can easily break its neck.” Tactical Avian Predators is a certified-green wildlife control company and Hahn Family Winery is SIP-certified.

Jim Tigan’s interest in falcons started during what he calls his “senior year of 4th grade,” (made necessary by dyslexia). He discovered My Side of the Mountain a book in which a teenage boy runs away to the Catskills, lives in the wilderness and, after reading up on falconry, captures and trains a peregrine. Jim captured his first falcon while in high school. After graduation, Tigan spent 13 years in the Coast Guard. While with the Coast Guard, he founded the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Sitka, Alaska. When an injury forced his retirement from the service, falconry became his primary focus. Falcons became his business when Pedigree Dog Food asked him to see if his birds could get starlings out of the factory.

Starling-abatement at big vineyards is all-consuming, but it’s seasonal. Companies like Tactical Avian Predators look to work for a variety of businesses with different seasons. For example, Pacific Northwest blueberry farms and Lodi grape growers would likely see peak starling activity at different times than the Santa Lucia Highlands. And not every gig is starling abatement. Tactical Avian Predators also does educational demonstrations. One of their competitors works for the Seattle Seahawks, his trained falcon serving as their mascot.

A study, reported in Science, found a falcon’s visual acuity is 2.67 times better than a human’s. We should train falcons to be referees!

That brings us back to this weekend. Who will falconers Jim and Kathleen Tigan be rooting for? The 49ers! As Reno-residents with ties to wine country, they see San Francisco as the home team.

Colin-KaepernickThey are also hugely enthusiastic fans of 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The run or gun phenom was born in Milwaukee, but his family moved to Turlock when he was four years old. He went to college at the University of Nevada, Reno and was very popular there for both his multi-sport skills and his personality. Reno residents consider him a hometown hero.

If there had been the slightest chance of the Tigan’s pulling for Atlanta due to their falcon affinity, marketers blew that. “Their mascot isn’t even a real falcon,” Kathleen exclaims in disbelief. “They’ve got some guy walking around in a stupid stuffed-bird costume.” So, go Niners!

 

Freddie Falcons
An embarrassment to falconers.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on Facebook. Also check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Creating a New Wine Label

A wine bottle’s front label may be the most important tool a winery has for driving retail sales. Whether the bottle is in a supermarket, wine boutique or wine bar, the label needs to do the same things. It needs to stand out in a crowd and catch the attention of as many people as possible. Once that attention is captured, the label has about two seconds to communicate what kind of wine it is, whether its quality is appropriate for the price point and what kind of wine consumer it’s targeted at. And it has to do all of this from a distance of at least four feet.

Rain, Rain, Go Away!

Weathermen have delivered an unpleasant forecast for this Tuesday, rain and plenty of it. Northern California is due to get at least 2 - 3 inches of rain in one day. In some places, like the Sierras, as much as 8 inches may fall.

This is a bad time for a big rain in wine country. While many wineries have already harvested the majority of their grapes, some have not. The bulk of the white wine grapes and Pinot Noir are happily fermenting by now. Red varietals that take longer to ripen, especially those in cool climate areas, are still hanging on the vines though. Particularly at risk are Syrah, Zinfandel and, in some areas, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Quick Sip: Waterstone 2008 Pinot Gris Napa Valley

Pinot Gris is a grape, descended from Pinot Noir, that is used to make white wines. The varietal is often called by other names, depending on where it’s made. In Germany, it is typically called Grauburgunder. That’s just a direct translation of Pinot Gris, as is Italy’s Pinot Grigio. In Switzerland, and sometimes France’s Loire Valley, it’s called Malvoisie. There is more Pinot Gris grown in Italy and Germany than in France. However, it is one of the three “noble grapes” of France’s Alsace and some of the very best versions come from that area.

My Top Picks from the 2011 Pinot Noir Shootout

Saturday, I served as one of the judges for the 10th annual Pinot Noir Shootout finals put on by Affairs of the Vine. There were three panels of judges, each evaluating 32 wines over four flights. There were 96 wines in all. Most of the wines were from California, but not all. Theoretically, they could be from anywhere.

The Shootout is a well-organized, multi-stage evaluation of wines. A very large number of wines are submitted but, unlike most wine fair situations, the wines go through several judging stages over two or more months. This means judges don’t have to wade through hundreds of wines in just one or two days. Every wine that makes the finals has successfully passed at least two prior evaluations.

My personal experience in the finals suggests that this vetting was successful. From a qualitative standpoint, the wines fell into a narrow band in my view; roughlty 87 to 93 points. There was only one wine in the 32 that I rated significantly lower. That could well have been an issue with the particular bottle. (It definitely wasn’t corked though.)

One of the nice things about the Pinot Noir Shootout is that many of the wines involved are not regularly reviewed by mainstream wine magazines. Some are only available winery-direct, in person of through the online stores.

Below are the 12 wines I rated most highly from my group of 32, in alphabetical order by winery. The overall winners from the 96 wines will be published at Affairs of the Vines when all results have been tabulated. But, if you’re looking for a new Pinot Noir to try for a holiday meal, consider those I’ve listed here.

2007 Anderson Oaks Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, $30
Speaking of small wineries, Lee Anderson's primary business is real estate as you'll see from the website. But he also has a listing for this pretty wine with delicate flavors and a lightly creamy texture. Notes of rose, dark flowers, cocoa, cedar and red cherry. Charming, ready for immediate move in.

2009 Bargetto Reserve Pinot Noir Regan Estate Vineyards, Santa Cruz Mountains, $40
A very good wine with exotic aromas and flavors pine forest, mandarin orange and tea mixed with attractive red cherry, vanilla and marshmallow. Well-balanced, good concentration.

2007 Barney & Kel (KB Cellars) Pinot Noir Russian River, $28
Cherry, dill frond, citrus zest, berries and spice on aromas are followed by a richly-bodied and supple palate. Black cherry, dark spice and oak flavors. A pleasure to drink, seemingly impossible to find. If you're in Santa Rosa, ask around.

2009 Cubanismo Vineyards “Rumba” Pinot Noir Amity-Eola Hills, Willamette Valley, $21
Rose petal, tea and strawberry aromas. Medium body and well-balanced acidity, alcohol and intensity. Flavors of tea, orange and cranberry. Medium-plus length.

2009 Davis Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Soul Patch Vineyard, Russian River, $42
Ripe cherry, berries, vanilla and oak aromatics and long, very attractive flavors of dark flowers, raspberry cream soda and sweet spice. Medium tannins contribute a gentle but interesting texture.

2008 Elkhorn Peak Pinot Noir Elkhorn Peak Estate Vineyard, Napa Valley, $34
The vineyard is in Jamieson Canyon, due north (across the highway and well up the hill from) the Chardonnay Golf Club. Spicy berries and slightly jammy red cherry with vanilla, oak and chocolate accents. A good drink with prominent tannins that will match up well with a juicy duck breast or beef filet.

2008 Estancia Estates Reserve Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands, $31
Pretty aromas of strawberry, vanilla, cherry and pot pourri spice. Satisfying palate weight and flavors of cherry and cedar.

2009 Ferrari-Carano Pinot Noir Sky High Ranch, Mendocino Ridge
Very long and juicy, with chewy tannins and a plethora of red fruit flavors. Pine, herb and dust add interest.

2008 Heart O’ The Mountain Pinot Noir 667 Clone, Single Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains, $52
A friendly, lightly sweet wine with maraschino cherry, vanilla, fennel and fig on the nose and raspberry jam with cocoa on the palate. A crowd-pleaser from this small, Santa Cruz Mountains winery.

2009 Hearthstone Vineyard and Winery Pinot Noir Hearthstone Estate Vineyard, Paso Robles, $38
Yes, Pinot Noir from Paso Robles. It's been grown in the Adelaida District since 1964. This one has a very dark Pinot nose: black cherry, cola and dusty earth. Grippy tannins lead to restrained flavors, mostly cherry, vanilla, cocoa and toasty oak. A good wine for seared pork belly.

2009 Sharp Cellars Pinot Noir Keenan’s Cove, Sonoma Coast, $48
Toasted oak, toasted marshmallow, black cherry and dried orange peel on the nose. Rich, almost creamy body, with concentrated flavors of cherry, raspberry, oak and caramel. Very long finish. A decadent Pinot.

2009 Ventana Pinot Noir Ventana Vineyard, Arroyo Seco, $29
Garnet tones made this wine look older than it is. The delicate aromatics also showed development: dried fruit, cola, driftwood and sarsparilla. Medium body with good acidity and balance. Light, jammy red fruit, vanilla, cocoa and dusty wood on the palate.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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