George the elephant made a great impression crushing Riesling grapes for southern Oregon's Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards during harvest this year. Winery owner Stephen Reustle partnered with nearby Wildlife Safari for the United States' first-ever elephant grape stomp, conceived as a way to raise funds for the zoological park.
Initially he was dubious of the scheme, worried that the elephant's weighty step would pulverize the grapes, break the seeds inside and release harsh tannins. He gained some confidence after George lifted one huge foot and Reustle felt its soft, fleshy pads.
Still, the 29-year-old pachyderm wasn't exactly a grape-pressing natural. Wildlife Safari's general curator Dan Brands explains that the staff spent two months training him and back-up elephant Alice. Both learned in 30 minutes to step into an empty crushing bin and do a little leg-lifting dance. Since they'd been trained long before to be cautious about what they step on, it took plenty of positive reinforcement to convince them to tromp on slippery grapes.
Though it was billed as a one-time event -- 750 bottles of the wine go on sale in February -- the winery plans to repeat the fundraiser next year.
Elephants aren't the only quadrupeds to figure prominently in this year's wackiest wine stories.
In British Columbia's vineyard-laden Okanagan Valley, wine- drinking cows are opening up a whole new consumer category. Sadly, they only get to guzzle their daily liter of red for the last 60 days of their lives.
"This gives the beef a unique, more beefy flavor, a very red color and the fat tastes sweeter," says Janice Ravndahl of Sezmu Meats, a business started a year ago in West Kelowna, B.C. "It really has this umami thing." (Umami is a Japanese term for the "fifth" taste, a kind of savory flavor.)
For the first cow wine-sipping experiment, she let one drink its daily ration from a pail. It eagerly lapped up the red blend, but that method proved too time-consuming for 8,000 head of cattle. She now mixes wine with feed in a food-and-wine pairing for bovines and says the cows prefer cabernet and pinot noir to shiraz, even though the reds she uses are price-driven plonk.
According to Ravndahl, wine-fed cows moo more to one another and are much more relaxed, so their meat is more tender.
The one-liter-per day regimen for a 1,000-pound cow is about the equivalent of a glass a day for a human. "That's what doctors order for health," says Ravndahl. She reports that thanks to wine-feeding, her beef is in big demand from local chefs and has ignited interest from researchers at Thompson Rivers University.
In South Africa, wine grapes, not the finished product, attract the animals. Hundreds of wild Chacma baboons descended on vineyards in the Cape's Franschhoek Valley to feast on lusciously ripe chardonnay and pinot noir, apparently their favorites. Growers say this year was especially bad because wild fires destroyed the baboons' usual foraging areas. The stakes are high. One winery reported losing 40 percent of its crop.
According to researchers at the University of Cape Town's Baboon Unit, it's the sugar in the grapes they're after, not the subtler taste elements.Determined baboons dig underneath electrified fences. Some winemakers swear the primates are scared off by rubber snakes among the vines; others trumpet the virtues of loud noises. But regardless, the baboons sneak in, even scarfing up fallen grapes fermenting in the sun, and sleep off the effects of alcohol right under the vines.