John Hawley, winemaker, falconer and founder of Hawley Cellars in Healdsburg, sits on the deck of his home overlooking Dry Creek Valley. A goshawk perches on his gloved fist. Still young, the bird’s black eyes will eventually turn a piercing red, its wings shades of blue and gray. Goshawks fly silently though the forest pursuing smaller birds or mammal prey. “They are aggressive. Falconers tend to give them names like Godzilla,” John says. “I call my bird Happy. That’s how he makes me feel.” John takes a sliver of meat from a cloth bag and places it next to the bird. Happy rips it to shreds, and consumes it.
“When I was a teenager my mother gave me an Audubon book. I was captivated by the birds of prey and got my falconry license from California Fish and Game,” John says. “But college and my winemaking career didn’t allow the time the sport requires so I set it aside for awhile. Now my sons have taken over the business. Paul is general manager and Austin’s the winemaker. So I’m back with the birds.” John’s mornings are spent training; evenings the hawk is taken to an open field and flown free. John has worked with different types of raptors—a kestrel, red-tailed hawk and a cooper’s hawk. Prior to Happy the goshawk, he spent three years rehabilitating a peregrine with a broken wing.
Falconry is an ancient art that originated in the Far East thousands of years ago. In medieval times it made its way to the Middle East and Europe. Falconry is hunting with a trained bird of prey—hawks, falcons and even owls. “It’s a close partnership between bird and man,” John explains. The key to success is the feeding and careful management of the bird’s flight weight measured in grams. Too heavy and the bird won’t return to the fist. “For many, falconry seems like a glamorous sport,” John says. “But it’s time consuming and highly regulated by US Fish and Game. A two-year apprenticeship is required. And it takes seven years to become a master falconer.”
Throughout the 20th century, peregrine falcons verged on extinction. East of the Mississippi the falcon vanished entirely and only 39 pairs remained in the West. The cause of their demise was the widely used pesticide DDT. Peregrines absorbed the poison through their food chain causing eggshells to thin. In 1972, DDT was banned in the US. Two years later The Peregrine Fund was formed. The first two dollars came from two young supporters in California who wanted “to help save the falcon.” Thereafter donations poured in and the arduous task of captive breeding and reintroduction to the wild began. In 1999 the peregrine was removed from the Endangered Species List. And now, symbolic of an amazing conservation success story, these iconic creatures can be seen in skies throughout the country.
In the vineyards falcons are an effective means of bird abatement. Sweet, ripening grapes draw hordes of starlings that descend in mass. The loss of fruit can be significant. The European Starling is not indigenous to the US. Eugene Schieffelin introduced the black-colored bird with iridescent wings into North America in 1890. A man on a mission, he wanted the US to have all the birds mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare. Starlings are prolific breeders. They nest 2-3 times per year with about five eggs per clutch. From the original hundred Schieffelin released in Central Park, there are now over 200 million in the US. They can cause problems for agriculture, airports and deprive less aggressive native birds of nesting sites. “Our vineyards are at elevation,” John says. “Up here starlings eat the insects. They go to the valley floor for grapes.”
Keeping hungry birds from devouring the grapes is a big issue. Mylar tinsel, noisemakers and predator birdcalls are some of the techniques tried. But the birds are smart and quickly become habituated. Netting is used on larger properties. It’s an expensive proposition, difficult to install and even more difficult to remove. At the end of the season the netting has to be stored. Sun and the elements take their toll and the nets require replacement every 3-5 years. “As an alternative many vineyard managers use falcons for abatement. The birds tend to be more efficient and cost effective,” John explains. “And falcons are a sustainable humane solution.”
The mere presence of a raptor overhead is enough to send flocks of starlings fleeing. Soaring to heights of 1,500 feet, the falcon streaks down at speeds of over 200 miles per hour. It’s no wonder the starlings take off. And they never become habituated to their fierce natural predator.
In addition to being a licensed falconer, those who provide falcon abatement services are licensed by the federal government. Four or more falcons are usually required to do the job. The raptors are in the air for 4-6 hours. When one comes down, another goes up. Abatement contracts typically go from veraison, when the grapes turn color, to harvest, a period of about 70 days.
Barn owls are another vineyard-friendly raptor. But unlike starlings their population is on the decline, mainly due to lack of habitat. Fortunately, barn owls like cozy cavities, and nesting boxes in a vineyard can help control rodent population—pocket gophers and voles in particular. Owls are nocturnal and fly quietly through the night, their highly tuned hearing guiding them to the prey. A single family can devour up to 3,000 rodents over a four-month breeding cycle. Red tail hawks take over during the day. For them, ground squirrels make a tasty treat. Installation of a perch at a height of 20-25 feet can attract a hawk and help control a pesky squirrel population.
In 1977 John and his wife Dana, a local artist, purchased their 18-acre property from her uncle. Five years prior a fire ravaged parts of upper Dry Creek Valley. The uncle couldn’t imagine the area would ever return to its former glory. John was completing his studies in fermentation science at UC Davis and envisioned vineyards and a winery rising from the ashes. But that dream would have to wait. He joined Clos du Bois as their first winemaker. A small operation, the winery offered an opportunity to try novel winemaking techniques
Back then not many producers used barrels for fermenting. John was convinced that barrel fermentation would produce a richer Chardonnay. And he was right. Ten years later the California wine industry adopted the age-old tradition of fermenting in barrels. In 1990 Kendall-Jackson hired John to be their chief winemaker. The 600,000-bottle production was mainly Chardonnay. John improved and expanded the red wine output, as well as the white. By 1995 the winery was producing more than 2.5 million cases of wine annually from six locations. A year later John left to start Hawley Cellars. He has never looked back.
John’s love of nature and birds is reflected in the vineyards and in the Hawley Cellars wine. In 2006 he transitioned the vineyards from conventional to organic. “Since then we’ve noticed a shift in the ecosystem. Lizards take care of the not-so-good insects, wild strawberries grow under the vines, and a pair of red-shouldered hawks nest nearby. We’re convinced that organic grapes make better wine.”
Paul and Austin took over from their dad in 2015. Having grown up in wine country and working with John for 10 years to learn the business, it was a seamless transition. On graduation from college, the brothers spent time in New Zealand and Australia working a harvest and researching winemaking techniques. Attracted to these countries’ renowned Sauvignon Blanc, their first vintage as winemakers was a gold medal-winning Sauvignon Blanc. When not in the cellar or vineyard, Austin runs the Wine Barrel Workshop crafting furniture from used wine barrels. Paul’s other passion is photography and film. He co-wrote and co-produced a full-length spoof about the Sonoma County wine industry called “Corked!” It was released in 2009 to favorable reviews. A moving video by Paul of his dad rehabilitating an injured peregrine can be viewed on the winery website hawleywine.com.
The winery tasting room, opened six years ago, is located off the plaza at 36 North Street in Healdsburg. It is a relaxing welcoming place to try the Hawley Cellars full range of wines—Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Viognier, Chardonnay and Merlot. Artworks by Dana Hawley hang on the walls. Dana trained as a biological illustrator at UC Davis. Her style is impressionistic with paintings in vivid colors. “My lifetime of painting evolves from a foundation of drawing, discipline and a love of my subject matter—the redwoods, the vineyards and rural Dry Creek Valley scenes,” says Dana.
Symbolic of John’s passion for birds, the Hawley winery crest depicts a red, blue and gold emblem with one of the smallest falcons, the merlin, on either side. It is prominently featured on the wine labels. A visitor favorite is the 2013 Zinfandel, Raptor Rescue, Russian River Valley. The wine has tastes of black cherry, wild strawberries and hints of caramel. The elegant berry aroma and lingering acidity make this zin the perfect food compliment. A portion of sale proceeds of the wine go to the California Raptor Rescue Center.
Stop by the tasting room and enjoy the nature-inspired wine and art. You won’t be disappointed. SD