The second book I read over the holidays is Caro Feely's highly entertaining Saving Our Skins, the second in her series about becoming a grower and vintner in the Dordogne.
From South Africa by way of Ireland, she's got the Irish gift of gab, and her everyday chronicles of the ups and downs of starting a vineyard and a wine label in a country not your own is filled with details about class, money, viticulture and entrepreneurship that any one - not just the wine cognoscenti - can enjoy.
At the beginning of the book (which follows on the heels of her first book Grape Expectations), Caro explains she and her husband can't afford to buy shoes for their children, and the cost of a new tractor sends her over the moon. But strange angels appear - an entrepreneur from America wants her biodynamic grape skins for a new nutritional supplement product; a government assistance program makes up for some of the losses an early frost has inflicted on the vines; and Caro manages to give the odd wine tour of organic and Biodynamic wineries in Bordeaux and her region to make a few extra bucks.
Today her family winery manages two holiday vacation homes on their property (gites, as they are known in France) welcoming tourists to come and stay awhile. She also offers wine tours to organic vineyards in St. Emilion and Bordeaux as well as Dordogne.
Her style is warm and personal and you may find yourself booking a trip to France to explore the terroir, bicycling and foie gras of the region. Or just armchair traveling while you sit by the fire.
This book will appeal to wine lovers as well as those who prefer other libations. It's strong on story and not in the least technical, although you may find yourself learning new things along the way.
The best thing about the book is that it is written by someone who has a deep passion for organic and Biodynamic vineyards.
I had not known, but according to Feely, "Saussignac, our commune appellation, had one of the highest percentages of all the appellation wine ares, in France," a fact she and her husband had not known when they settled in the area. [In a 2013 podcast, Feely says that 60% of Saussignac is organic, compared to 4 percent across all of France; those nationwide statistics have grown now]. Their 30 acre estate has 25 acres of vineyards.
Like Randall Grahm's Biodynamic vintages, Terroir Feely put sensitive crystallization images on their Merlot wine bottles at one point (Grahm stopped using them, too), but Feely worries that they're going to be thought of "as insane treehuggers."
Her transition from organic to Biodynamic farming at first involved stinging nettles, used as a mildew suppressant. "We use stinging nettles as a soil fertilizer, or dried and made into tea, as a leaf spray to help keep the mildew where it should be - on the ground rather than on her leaves." That was her gateway drug to Biodynamics.
The book should help readers understand the critical role direct wine sales make for small vintners and why they cannot live without them. By 2014, Feely was selling 80 percent of their wines direct to consumers.
Her wine research on where to take visitors involves meeting other vintners - including Jean-Michel Comme, proprietor and technical director of the 200 acre Chateau Pontet-Carnet, the only certified organic and Biodynamic Grand Cru vineyard in Paulliac. The Comme family also has 10 acres of organic vineyards just ten minutes away from Chateau Feely, at Champ des Treilles. The family's roots, surprisingly, are Italian. They came to France in the 1920's. But it wasn't until the generation of Jean-Michel and his wife Corinne that their vineyards became organic.
Writes Feely, "their conviction to work organically and biodynamically was solidified when Corinne became sick from pesticides used by farms neighboring their house. They had not been welcomed by the locals for their strange ways of natural farming, were even victims of tire-slashing on their car in the yard."
Feely draws inspiration from Corinne's stories of communing with her vines. "I pictured the scene, enchanted. She was like a wine sorceress - full of intuition and deep spiritual knowledge over her place and her wines."
In passing, Feely offers up small bits of organic viticulture and winemaking knowledge. "Organic practices also help reduce the need for SOs," she writes. "In the process of protecting themselves naturally through the season, the vines create additional elements that a chemically protected vine does not, like more reservatrol, the powerful antioxidant in grape skins..."
She goes on the explain more: "A key factor driving the SO2 level required to protect a wine is the level of acidity. Ironically," she writes, " chemical fertilizers used by conventional winegrowers contain a potassium dose that means the chemically farmed vines have lower natural acidity...so they need more sulfites."
I am grateful for this readable book not only for its portrait of life on a small winery, but also for Feely's heartfelt distress over the wine world's lack of appreciation for why organic vineyards matter - so much.
Towards the end of the book, she writes, "Often I feel the world is in a deep sleep, unaware or unwilling to face the dangers of pesticides, herbicides and systemic fungicides..." I, too, share that concern and am always bewildered by the lack of recognition of the importance of organic wine grape growing. In California, wine grapes are our biggest agriculture crop (in terms of revenue) and yet we pay so little attention to the organic choices available to us. "Organic" is almost a dirty word in the wine world - and why is that?
At one point in the book, Feely's husband Sean answers an aspiring winemaker guest who asks if the couple has found what they were looking for by settling in France and becoming winemakers.
Sean answers, "There's no question that being a winemaker is tough. You have to have a sacred fire for it, a passion, and ideally a bit of money put aside, since it always costs more than you expect and brings in less than you hoped. I think that if I hadn't pursued organic and biodynamic, I would not have had the will to persevere."
If you've ever thought the life of owning a vineyard and being a winemaker was for you, read this book. It doesn't make everything sound romantic - in fact, au contraire. But it will give you an honest look at the life of the daily struggles - and small triumphs - of a tiny, up and coming producer. And you'll spend a little bit of time - while you're reading - experiencing life in the Dordogne. Could that be so bad?
And a note for Caro Feely: if you read this, please know that yes, there are still plenty of cowboys in America (but they don't live in Paso Robles). And if you want to know which organic or Biodynamic producers to visit here, please get in touch with me next time you visit. I'll tell you the best places to go.
To listen to a podcast featuring Caro Feely, click here.