March 12th, 2014
04:00 PM ET
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The wine industry is in love with the word "terroir," but there's a note of ambiguity about what it actually means. Simply defined, it conveys a sense of place – the complete environment from the soil to the climate that gives each wine a distinct flavor. It’s the vines’ calling card.

In addition to the agricultural boundaries, many people broaden that landscape to include all the living creatures that exist within it. By that definition, a Labrador retriever named Willow has been a bedrock at Bedell Cellars.

She’s been riding shotgun in a pickup to the winery since she was 10 weeks old, alongside her owner Donna Rudolph. A dozen years later, she’s become the self-appointed patroller of the vines, chasing deer, groundhogs and rabbits.

“But mostly she’s for entertainment,” Rudolph says, lovingly rolling her eyes at Willow before throwing her a cane from a freshly pruned vine for a quick game of catch.

The winery is in Cutchogue, New York, a quaint, rural town along the North Fork Wine Trail about a two-hour drive from New York City.

Since Louisa and Alex Hargrave first planted wine grapes in Cutchogue in 1973, the region has seen a considerable amount of transformation. Today, more than 50 Long Island wineries produce about 1.2 million gallons of wine annually, according to industry group Long Island Wine Council.

Like her trusty, four-legged companion and the sunny stretch of island, Rudolph had an accidental entry to the wine business. After finishing college in Arizona, the restaurant where she waited tables closed for a two-month renovation, and she faced a typical post-grad query: What the hell do I do now?

Having grown up down the road from Cutchogue in Mattituck, Rudolph missed the maritime views and headed back east.

When she saw an ad in the local paper for picking grapes, she decided to give it a whirl for the harvest season.

“I said I’d do that for a little while,” Rudolph says. “That was 31 years ago.”

In 1996, she came to Bedell; she’s now the assistant vineyard manager. In its 30 years in business, the estate has consistently been named one of Long Island's top wineries; its 2009 Merlot was even chosen to be showcased at President Barack Obama’s inaugural luncheon in 2013.

Willow isn’t the first dog to roam the vines with Rudolph. Over the span of her career, she has had three that have joined her on the job, and that’s been a highlight for both woman and beasts.

“That was one of the points about me taking the job,” she says.

There’s the old cliché displayed on many veterinary office posters that “a tired dog is a happy dog.” Rudolph says, “All my dogs have been tired.”

Canines have been part of winemakers' packs since time immemorial. Some winery dogs are of the hardworking variety others are of the reclining kind. At the height of a mealybug infestation in Napa and Sonoma in California in the mid-2000s, a group of local vintners decided to train dogs at the nearby Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa to sniff out the bugs notorious for ruining a vintage.

There’s even a series of photographic books devoted to the pet-owner relationships, whether vermin hunter or tasting room companion, aptly called "Wine Dogs." While it started in Australia, the scope of the project has since expanded to other wine regions because of its success.

With either role, there’s a warm nuzzle waiting so long as the favor is returned with a belly rub.

To Rudolph, Willow is more of a pet than an employee, though Willow might think differently. On Rudolph’s occasional day off, the willful retriever still likes to be taken to the estate to roam the vines with the workers. Vacation is overrated as far as Willow is concerned especially when work and play are indistinguishable.

When Willow was a puppy, Rudolph would chase her around the truck at the end of the day for 15 minutes; Willow wanted to stay just a few minutes longer.

Most people in the neighborhood know the now gray-muzzled old girl, including local law enforcement.

One time a vermin scent led her to the main road. When Rudolph heard horns beeping and drove up to see sirens on a police car, she expected the worst. But there Willow was, sitting in the back of the squad car, tail wagging.

“Well, just don’t yell at her,” Rudolph remembers the officer saying.

“She’s just a knucklehead sometimes,” she admits.

Twelve years later, Rudolph says she doesn’t have to worry about Willow as much. She takes her time coming back, and with a slight limp.

There’s a point in life when everyone realizes a loved one is falling a few steps behind. Aging is a crucial component in wine, and inevitable in the people (and creatures) who produce it.

“I do miss the younger stuff. I feel like it’s getting more of a chore for her … and she doesn’t want to stay the whole day out,” she says.

Some days, Willow stays in her bed in the winery’s office after lunch, and Rudolph allows this without hesitation. If she wants to go back out, she’ll give one of the staffers a quick bark at the door and is off.

“If I believed in reincarnation, this is what I’d want to come back as,” Rudolph says: forever a part of the terroir.

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soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. TomGI

    I have a three year old Lab and I WISH he would chase the deer and rabbits away from our garden. He just lays there staring at them. If they look at him he will roll over on his back and twitch. I don't know what that means but it might be a signal to 'dig in, it's chow time'. Now our cat, on the other hand, is unpredictable. A solid muscle 16 lb Orange Tabby with needle claws might move to an observation perch and just watch OR he might stalk forward on his belly hoping to get into an ambush position. He never gets close enough to pounce because those animals have one eye on their lunch and the other on him. If he bolts forward the whole group takes off in a dozen directions swerving and zig-zagging to get out of there ASAP.

    March 26, 2014 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  2. JGN

    Too many experts here and not enough people who enjoy reading a simple story about a good old dog and her owner, both of whom have found a good life.

    March 14, 2014 at 12:55 am | Reply
  3. ORChuck

    "Vacation is overrated as far as Willow is concerned – especially when work and play are indistinguishable."

    We people can learn a lot from dogs.

    March 13, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Reply
  4. ORChuck

    Most every winery in Oregon has dogs. Some of our vineyard dogs have become minor celebrities themselves.

    March 13, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  5. JellyBean

    What a wonderful read. Thank you. I have an 18 year old terrier that still likes to walk the property line with me.

    March 13, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  6. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    Lions work well to keep my Herb Garden free of DEA

    March 13, 2014 at 11:17 am | Reply
  7. Rob

    This dog had been living at this winery her whole life. If something bad was going to happen it would have a long time ago. So lay off the stupid advice about 'leashes' and how the dog 'might eat the grapes and DIE'.

    March 13, 2014 at 1:31 am | Reply
    • joeaverager

      BINGO! Leashes are for the city. I live "beside the county" and I only use a leash when we go to town. Side bonus – the dog is smart enough thanks to life's experiences to stay close when she is off the leash when we go hiking or walking and doesn't act like a ding-dong aka – a dog tied up for too much of it's life.

      Take me back to the 70s and 80s when the neighborhood was populated by free range kids and (fixed) pets. Back then everyone knew the kids and the dogs by name.

      March 13, 2014 at 9:12 am | Reply
      • joeaverager

        Where is edit? "Beside the country" it should read.

        March 13, 2014 at 9:13 am | Reply
  8. Fiona

    Two words: leash (to keep the dog safe) and pesticides (which the dog should be protected from).

    March 12, 2014 at 10:47 pm | Reply
    • omemario

      Fiona ?? leash it's a farm so no need and who say they use pesticides . gues you live in a city.

      March 12, 2014 at 11:00 pm | Reply
      • Fiona

        Actually, you ride and uninformed person, I live NEXT to a vineyard.

        Pesticides...yes.

        March 13, 2014 at 3:27 pm | Reply
        • Fiona

          SB "rude"... and did your read where the dog chases an animal into the road and nearly got run over?

          Reading the article before posting is a good thing.

          March 13, 2014 at 3:31 pm |
        • Apple

          People, listen to Fiona. She is an expert. She lives by a vineyard. Expert.

          March 13, 2014 at 9:15 pm |
    • ORChuck

      Very few wineries use pesticides.

      March 13, 2014 at 2:45 pm | Reply
      • Fiona

        Oh, please. Would you be interested in purchasing a bridge, chuck?

        I LIVE NEXT DOOR to a vineyard. They ies plenty of pesticide, fungicide, and even herbicide.

        March 13, 2014 at 3:29 pm | Reply
        • Fiona

          "Use plenty..."

          March 13, 2014 at 3:29 pm |
        • ORChuck

          I don't know where you live, but here in Oregon, most vineyards are certified organic. The organic certification dramatically increases the value of vineyard property and so vineyard owners are eager to get and maintain it.

          BTW, most Oregon wines are not certified organic because we use the traditional Burgundian winemaking process which adds sulfur and is thus ineligible for organic certification. Certified organic would actually be seen by many as a negative on an Oregon wine label because it would be a deviation from the Burgundian process.

          March 13, 2014 at 5:39 pm |
        • Apple

          Congrats to you.

          March 13, 2014 at 9:14 pm |
  9. cali girl

    as a farm girl, it always feels right to walk the property with your best bud right by your side.

    March 12, 2014 at 10:33 pm | Reply
    • ORChuck

      The dog thinks so too.

      March 13, 2014 at 5:35 pm | Reply
  10. J Nelson

    Grapes and raisins are extremely toxic to dogs. It takes only a few to ruin the kidneys of some dogs...I hope she never eats the grapes!

    March 12, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Reply
    • Fiona

      It's a fungus on the grapes, not the grapes themselves. But I don't think the dog should be in the vineyard either.

      March 12, 2014 at 10:49 pm | Reply
      • ORChuck

        She seems quite happy there. And she's been there for 18 years. Let her be happy.

        March 13, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  11. elvis costanza

    Pretty girl!

    March 12, 2014 at 5:37 pm | Reply
  12. save the animals

    I can't believe they make this poor creature drink wine!

    March 12, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Reply
    • Me

      Nowhere in the article is mention of this dog drinking wine.
      Try reading instead of firing of a dose of hate for everyone to see.

      March 12, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Reply
      • Fiona

        That...was...a...joke.

        March 13, 2014 at 3:32 pm | Reply
    • hawkechik

      I beg your pardon? Would you mind pointing out in the article where it says that? Bet you can't.

      March 12, 2014 at 6:28 pm | Reply
      • JellyBean

        L M F A O ! The troll got you guys!

        March 13, 2014 at 7:23 am | Reply
    • ORChuck

      Dogs aren't big wine drinkers. They instinctively recognize it as something they ought not over-indulge in.

      But most dogs love to smell and taste wine; it's full of complex smells and tastes that dogs just find fascinating.

      March 13, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Reply
      • Jerv

        But the question is, do dogs like to smell the cork?

        March 14, 2014 at 9:31 am | Reply
        • AleeD®

          Only dogs you can see thru. ^_^

          March 17, 2014 at 7:31 am |
  13. Arya Bagherpour

    Looks like a Terroirer to me.

    March 12, 2014 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  14. MANDY

    Love this story and the companionship that a pet brings. It's hard to see them age, and sucks that animals have a shorter life span than humans do. When an animals gets to live such a wonderful life, what more could they ask for.

    March 12, 2014 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  15. alr

    Such an awesome story!

    March 12, 2014 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  16. Turth™

    Willow looks like a great dog!
    I get the feeling I would rather spend a day with her than with a lot of people out there...

    March 12, 2014 at 4:25 pm | Reply
    • C

      "Turth", I live on Long Island and I can say without ANY doubt.......that you're right. 95% of the people here suck.

      March 12, 2014 at 6:35 pm | Reply
      • Karen

        Let me guess, you think you are in that 5% that don't suck. Cute.

        March 12, 2014 at 8:04 pm | Reply
        • Hi Karen

          Would you like to join my Lord Voldemort fan club? Only 95%ers are eligible.

          March 13, 2014 at 7:29 am |
      • Sir Biddle

        Considering a good amount of the Hamptons are weekend/summer transplants from NYC with spoon-fed dreams and attitudes to match, I have to agree with you C. Yes there are some nice people there, but generally a lot of people swim in "Lake Me" there.

        March 13, 2014 at 8:25 am | Reply
    • RC@ Turth™

      Amen to that Bro. There's a reason dogs are called mans best friend.

      March 13, 2014 at 10:51 am | Reply

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