Meet the red-wine-swilling cows

In the quest for better tasting beef, one farmer pours 1,000 gallons of vino every few weeks
Photo Illustration by Bradley Reinhardt

When Bill Freding’s cows unwind over a litre of red wine, they tend to loosen up and get a little chatty, mooing more at each other. Although he serves plonk—the blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and shiraz wine cellared in the Okanagan Valley isn’t fit for human consumption—the cows are fond of it.

Pleasure, however, isn’t the point: Freding, who has been in the feedlot business for 23 years, believes wine-drinking cows make tastier steaks. Typically, at the age of 12 months, a cow is finished—a more genteel way of saying fattened for the kill three months away from the slaughterhouse—on grain feed, although grass works as well. But Freding also pours each of his cattle a bottle a day during that final process, something he started doing in 2009 at the suggestion of entrepreneur Janice Ravndahl. “It is probably our only hope for survival in the beef industry in B.C., to get some of the unique markets so we can command [higher] prices,” he explains.

Ravndahl grew up on a cattle farm in Kinistino, Sask., but was working in the automotive industry in Alberta. In 2007, she moved to Kelowna, B.C., and has worked in the cattle industry ever since. One night, watching Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word with her brother Darrel, she learned that the chef finished his pigs with beer. After Darrel pointed out that beer would bloat cows, the siblings decided to try wine. The cows became a little more sociable, “like a kitchen party,” says Janice, adding that they don’t consume enough to get drunk: “It’s the same as you having a glass of wine at the end of the day.”

A couple of test animals later, the Ravndahls had their new product: Sezmu Meats—named after the Egyptian god of wine. Freding is contracted by Sezmu Meats to finish the cattle. And after a slow start, demand is picking up. In early June, their wine-fed beef was featured at Beef in B.C. Day, and in August, it was cooked up at the Canadian National BBQ Championship in Whistler. This fall, Sezmu will be sold by Vancouver retailers.

Getting publicity for such an unusual product has been the easy part. “The story is nice and cute, but if the beef tastes like a single A or something substandard, then the story is only going to get so far,” points out Matthew Batey, chef at the Mission Hill Family Estate Terrace in the Okanagan Valley, who helped develop the beef and has featured it on his menu.

So how does it taste? Pretty good, according to Mark Schatzker, author of Steak, who travelled to seven countries in pursuit of the “world’s tastiest piece of beef.” After taste-testing a strip and rib-eye for Maclean’s, he noted, “Unlike most commodity beef coming out of the beef lots, this has a finish, a beefiness.” Beefiness loosely translates as “nice, sweet and fatty,” with a long-lasting flavour. But, Schatzker added, “It would be nicer if they were letting the cattle get older.” In his opinion, beef finished around 35 months has more flavour.

Sezmu’s strongest selling point, however, may not be taste but political correctness. “Consumers out here are looking for a naturally raised product,” says Kevin Boon, general manager of the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association. “They are very much supporters of the 100-mile diet.” And compared to hormone and antibiotic-infused cattle raised in overcrowded feedlots, Freding’s cows have a good life: hormone-free, they eat all-natural feed and roam in large open lots with 150 sq. feet per animal.

The only reason his beef isn’t fully organic is because giving them organic wine would be too expensive; Freding needs 1,000 gallons every couple of weeks. Sezmu doesn’t want to drive up the price of its product, which is already 10 to 15 per cent higher than conventionally finished beef: a rib-eye goes for about $35 a kilogram.

John Church, chair of cattle industry sustainability at Thompson Rivers University, plans to start tests this fall on the wine-fed cows’ temperament and methane emissions—as well as the effect of resveratrol, a compound found in red wine, which may reduce an E. coli strain that is the No. 1 safety concern in beef cattle. If wine improves food safety, more farmers may turn to it. For their cows, of course.