It’s the impressive rush of air that you feel first, as the hawk’s four foot flapping wings create enough back force to allow three inch razor sharp talons to land first. Death is supposed to happen upon impact, often in mid-flight, and that impact arrives faster and quieter than one might suspect of a bird so large.
“Don’t turn away,” commands Master Falconer Kate Marden.
Don’t turn away? Is she kidding? Ingrained in all of us is the fight or flight mechanism, and when a bird of prey as large as a medium sized-dog is swooping down on you, obsidian eyes gleaming, wings unfurled and talons extended, your primal mind literally screams “turn away,” if not “run away.”
But people are not pigeons or rabbits. And so, I stand firm and hold my leather gloved arm extended as instructed. Diego, a Sonoran hawk, pulls up ever so slightly and alights gently on the rigid leather glove, taking the snack of pâté, smeared there by Marden. To say holding a live hawk on ones’ arm, less than a foot away from one’s face is exhilarating is an understatement to be sure.
Our circle of “prey” is spread out in a garden setting and the eight of us are all masked, sanitized, and vaccinated.
“There’s always social distancing in Falconry,” says Marden. Her good humor and excellent instruction puts us all at ease. And both ease and instruction are necessities when handling apex predators.
Winemaking is about 8,000 years old. In the greater scheme of things, the sport of Falconry is a bit of a newcomer, at only 4,000 years old. But leave it to good old northern California to finally combine the two.
“Falconry helps us maintain our commitment to sustainable farming, but it’s also just an amazing thing to witness,” says Bouchaine Vineyards General Manager and Winemaker Chris Kajani.”
Bouchaine Vineyards is located in Carneros (and in direct sight of Novato’s Hamilton Field across San Pablo Bay) and has begun to welcome back visitors to its 104-acre estate in the Carneros AVA of Napa Valley since entering the Orange Tier of Covid 19 restrictions about a month ago.
Master Falconer Kate Marden (and native Lagunitian) is onsite for demonstrations for small groups on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays beginning at 9:30 a.m. Reservations are a must and bookings for private events are also available. The Falconry Experience is $75 per person, lasts about two hours and includes a “survival” glass of wine at the end (for those over 21).
Many Napa/Sonoma wineries are offering unique experiences beyond typical wine tastings and tours as a way to entice people to return after a yearlong Covid slump. Some of the more interesting experiences are balloon rides, vegan-centric tours, classic car tours, and, of course, Falconry.
Marden, 62, owned Planet Canine (an animal daycare and boarding facility) in San Rafael for over twenty years before selling it in 2016 to pursue her passion of Falconry full-time. Her family had lived in Lagunitas since building a summer home there in 1905. That summer home became permanent after their San Francisco home was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Marden has since moved to Yuba County where she now operates West Coast Falconry, combining education (with native birds of prey) and use (with non-native species) of these majestic creatures.
Bouchaine is well known for their estate pinot noirs and chardonnay, producing at least 16 Wine Advocate sanctioned 90+ point wines including their 94 point 2016 Hyde Vineyard chardonnay. They also produce sparkling wine, merlot, gewurztraminer and a Riesling. The property is tucked in along San Pablo Bay over the hill from Domaine Carneros and their commitment to sustainability is reflected not only in this Falconry experience but also in their “Napa Green” and “Fish Friendly” certifications as well as their sustainable farming methods.
“We live and breathe grapes and wine,” says Kajani. “But we also live on this dirt, breathe this air, and drink this water. We are dedicated to leaving a gentle imprint, so that this land can be enjoyed for generations.”
Bouchaine’s site is a bit off the typical Napa tourist path. In addition to the Falconry Experience, Bouchaine is also offering a “Bring-Your-Own-Picnic” option. For $150 per couple (which includes a goodie bag as well as two monogrammed crystal wine tumblers and a bottle each of their Estate Pinot Noir and Estate Chardonnay), guests can sit at socially distanced picnic tables scattered throughout the flower-filled garden. Combining the two might be one of the most unique experiences the Napa Valley has to offer.
More information about West Coast Falconry can be found here: West Coast Falconry. To book a picnic package or sign up for the Falconry Experience at Bouchaine, call the winery at (707) 252-9065 or go here: Bouchaine Vineyards.