Califonia Bountiful

Rancher finds niche in Napa

The Napa Valley is synonymous with premium grapes and the best wines in the world.

The Napa Valley is synonymous with premium grapes and the best wines in the world. It's also where you'll find some pretty serious multi-tasking going on at Don Watson's sheep ranch. Don has been raising sheep and cattle for nearly 20 years in the Napa Valley and elsewhere in California. But it wasn't exactly what he set out to do. In 1986, he and his wife Carolyn ditched their high-paced city life in San Francisco for a life on the farm. After spending some time on sheep ranches in Australia, Don started his own.

Now the Watsons are respected suppliers of top lamb for upscale Bay Area restaurants including Chez Panisee in Berekley and Oliveto in Oakland. Don also works closely with Victor Scargle, a chef at Julia's Kitchen, inside the world-famous American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts, Copia, in Napa. Victor says he loves working with fresh products, so having Don and his sheep so close is perfect for him. Because of the close proximity of Don's ranch to Copia, Victor tries to put lamb on his menu as often as he can and he says the feedback customers have given him has been tremendous. You will often find Don's sheep and lambs grazing in vineyards, including pioneer vintner Robert Mondavi's. The animals provide effective, low-cost weed control, eliminating the need to spray herbicides and providing extra income for Watson.

While most people think of lamb mainly at Easter, California lamb is available all year long. In fact, California ranks among the nation's top lamb states, although the entire business has taken a hit in recent years. To survive, many ranchers rely on niches and Don Watson is one of them. His animals are highly effective mowers, taking out weeds from places like Robert Mondavi's prized vineyards. This system is not only extremely effective for the farmers, but for the vineyards as well. The "four-legged mowers" cost less than spraying chemicals in the vineyards and provides an excellent feed source for the animals, making it a "win-win" for everybody involved.

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