The latest episode of Levi Dalton’s “I’ll Drink to That!” podcast was released this week, and it features owner and winegrower Mimi Casteel. “Mimi sees a through line between viticulture as agriculture, and agriculture as an engagement with the natural world. How do you see that line? After listening to Mimi Casteel, your perspective might well change.”
Letters from the Edge
Last month I had the honor of participating in this public seminar with three of my intellectual heroes, sponsored by my far-sighted and generous New York distributor, Polaner Selections. The entire seminar, including audience participation, was recorded and is here presented in its entirety. Please join us!
– Mimi Casteel
“Please join carbon farming ‘bioneers’ Mimi Casteel and François Chidaine, energy entrepreneur Russ Conser, and bestselling author David Wallace-Wells for a conversation about the healing powers of working lands and their role in our collective future. In this crucial moment in human history, facing the most devastating consequences of climate change, we invite you to join our panel of ‘bioneers’ in carbon farming as they introduce the concepts behind regenerative agriculture and its promises in the battle against climate change.”
My Comrades and Kin,
As we revel in the gifts of spring, watching the vineyards push first growth, I beg your attention for a moment of community around our shared love for this land, for this earth.
Many of you pledged your name to an agreement we have named The Oak Accord. The nature of this document aligns tightly with the grassroots spirit of how the first winegrowers built the foundations of the tradition of Oregon wine. A document outside of the law, The Accord is a covenant, our names as our words, our promise.
As stewards we pledged to protect and restore oak woodlands and savannah to establish a vision of vineyard management in which healthy, perpetual habitat coexists with, and is supported by, working lands.
For the Accord to live, we must focus on the fine detail of this agreement. Titles must be short and iconic. Our promise, and our great challenge, lies in the word habitat, which encompasses much more than avoiding harming oak.
These habitats, which include woodland, prairie, and everything in between, are the ecological frameworks, the rough-in of our terroir. How these habitats formed and the subtle differences between them are the visual signs of nuance in place. Oaks, alone, can only stand in stoic despair as these nuances are stripped away by our farming. Their lives will be shorter, lacking the layers of supporting characters, unable to connect and communicate. Regeneration of a system that has health, beauty and permanence requires participation at every biological level.
It would certainly be easier to take a single species approach to conservation. We do not have this luxury. We must not shrink from this challenge, if we care for the generations who will follow in our footprints, be they deep and lasting, or light and nurturing. We make this choice. Doing nothing is an action and a choice.
Between 2012 and 2017, Oregon lost 340,000 acres of farmland to other uses. In spite of farmland being abandoned to other uses, habitat continues to fall in the name of more Oregon wine. Where land is taken down past its very bones, the boulders lining the low trenches, for more acres of grapes, is this just? In our hearts, do we believe this industry must expand unchecked at the exclusion of all else?
Name. Promise. Alone, these words are some of the most powerful in our language. Together, they should be sacrosanct. These pictures represent how we are, how we may, live our promises, by our very names.
Your wines can tell any story. Your roots can learn secrets untold and spin them out in vinous ecstasy. Oak, maple, madrone, rose, ocean spray, serviceberry, piggyback plant, strawberry. What lived where you live? How many layers supported how many layers?
So, what’s in a name? As a species (our own) that has stepped conspicuously ouside of its place in the food chain, what’s in a name may be meaning. Using one’s name is as powerful as learning a name. My life was permanently changed the first time I learned the name of a plant. Quercus, Acer, Arbutus, Rosa, Holodiscus, Amelanchier, Tellima, Fragaria. I had to learn them all. I had to learn the insects, the rotifers, the fungi.
Honor thy name. Go learn the names of those in your care.
Kelli White for GuildSomm
March 15, 2019
“Mimi’s personal flavor of biodynamics—now practiced at her own project, Hope Well Vineyard—is actually quite close to the original recipe, with certain key deviations. ‘There’s a whole new category of farmers who probably would have been categorized under organic, but now we call ourselves ‘regenerative agriculture.’ It is not enough to simply exclude chemical fertilizers, or even to say, ‘I’m organic’ or ‘I’m biodynamic.’ The proof is what you leave behind.’ By which she means: topsoil.”
Read the full article at GuildSomm
Juxtaposed with the exuberance of spring, and the languidly long, warm, caramel colored summer nights that barely dip a toe in darkness before light brushes the mountains, and the frenetic energy and furious productivity of the harvest, winter can appear a hard stop. Amongst the seasons it is the metaphor for death, impenetrable, a mosaic of greys, stealing the last heat from our fevered harvest fingers, leaving them brittle and cracking. Even the second law of thermodynamics points toward a certain, cold end to the disequilibrium of energies that sustains life. We are therefore excused momentarily if we allow ourselves to pin the rap for all our dark reflections on the stoic season.
However understandable, this view of winter blinds us to her critical gifts. The promise of vitality and nourishment, of warm blood, the rebirth of the landscape, begins even as the previous year leans slowly and heavily into the arms of the earth. Winter gently receives and honors the dead and the dying, unraveling the stories of their lives into the letters that will be repurposed, rearranged and reread by every generation of every organism until our world itself gets recycled as our sun dies.
Step outside for a turn about the winter landscape with fresh eyes and within moments you will be humbled by the worlds contained within, beneath, and above our own limited perspective. However grey the ground may appear as the previous summer’s plants break down, upon closer inspection you see it is teeming with the organisms that hasten these processes, the detrital feeders, saprophytic fungi, and slime molds.
If you’re looking that close, you will see the very earth rising up, pushed heavenward by the fruiting bodies of thousands of fungi, their underground networks recycling the minerals that will feed the roots of all the plants they colonize. Even the most unsuitable, the most forbidding substrate becomes the purchase of some new life.
Amongst the Seussian fungal forms you will see, where the detritus meets the rich and fragrant earth, the layer of green that is making the most of the brief sunlight. Even the most compacted ground cannot resist the relentless effervescence that emerges beneath.
The brief fluctuations of winter sun and precipitation even allow a few flowers to bloom here and there, and if you find some and look closely you will see that in winter these are universes unto themselves, sustaining any number of organisms with everything they need to stay alive for just a few more weeks. A spider need only bide her time in one of these oases, her world complete with buffet and tuffet alike.
And on this optimistic carpet of green beneath grey? An attentive and cautious walker may cross the path of a purposeful newt, having just deposited a blob of eggs in a wet puddle or gravelly stream bed. She has to pick her way amongst the dead blades of grass, where the alien-like egg case of a praying mantis awaits the signal for emergence.
Winter. Not so bleak after all, is it?
Even as we spin out our own demise in our poignantly self-interested pursuit of growth, our justification for ruination being our innate ‘specialness’ and our unwavering confidence in our future boot-strapping ingenuity to ‘figure it out,’ even now beneath our feet, in the polluted waters, in the abused soils, in our violent climate, nature tirelessly spins out the mechanisms of repair. For all our wanton destruction, in the rearview our time ends with just another collapse of biological diversity, as has occurred before, history repeating. Even the blockbuster extinction of the dinosaurs pales in comparison to the great extinction event of the Permian-Triassic, when nearly 90% of species went extinct.
Each collapse is a question posed, creating the opportunity for a magnificent and triumphant radiation of biological answers, as has occurred before, history repeating. Even this present collapse that we are witnessing daily, the most rapid extinction event in the history of our world, will not be a hard stop. The substrate that remains, however forbidding, will be the starting ground for another great rebuilding.
With any imagination, one can see the future on a random walk through the winter landscape. You can almost push your finger through the membrane of time and touch it. The bacteria and phage that have persisted through every challenge for thousands of millions of years, may well be the only life left to carry on the business of taking the building blocks of air and rock and carving out new niches, swapping genetic information, generating organic molecules.
And if, somehow, any seeds or spores are conserved in the wreckage, the weeds we scorn for resisting our most powerful chemistries may in fact be the first to colonize the scarred crust, their tenacity and strategies honed by the war we waged against them. They will make hay on the landscape as they did behind the plow, after the excavator and the chemical cocktails we layered upon them. They will cycle nutrients and die, leaving new substrates and more niches in which sex and circumstance will generate more and less successful organisms to be selected through survival, and so on.
The beauty of this is the certainty that life cannot help but raise its hand in answer to even the most impossible and unlikely scenarios posed by the physical and the chemical. Winter is just the forced slowing down that gives us the opportunity to give thanks for and take lessons from it.
Winter. When else can we see more clearly the overlapping cycles of matter, of energy, of life? When else can we observe with crystal clarity the fact that there are no hard stops, that since the very first life on earth emerged, the energetic disparities that turn our globe, that move the earth, that drive our seasons, have created every opportunity that life has exploited, and that the conversation between the physical and the biological has taken us from a prebiotic maelstrom to an eden of infinite promise.
Winter can frame every painful human reality of the moment, or it can fold us back into the web of life from whence we sprang. Winter makes room for reflection, and the challenge is to overcome our human perspective, and humbly attempt to rediscover our true natures.
Participate! Hope Well, And Happy New Year All.
August 24, 2018
Kelli White for GuildSomm interviews Mimi Casteel and a handful of other growers around the globe
While I use several of the biodynamic preps, I diverge a little in philosophy particularly with respect to tillage, which I do not practice. I have a very strong philosophy about building soil that is not compatible with repeated cultivation, plowing, etc., so while I like some of what I have taken from biodynamics, I especially like to be adventurous with compost and teas and don’t like prescriptions, so I’m constantly tweaking what I do based on what I observe. I’m trying to facilitate the recovery of lost layers of a very complex and interconnected system, providing food, forage, and safe harbor for members of the food web that agriculture tends to view as the enemy.
The vineyard is practically vibrating with the energy of spring. We are embarking on a very ambitious goal of adding 50 species to the existing cover on the vineyard floor. I hope to achieve a diversity of perennial and annual grass, flower and (even some vegetable) species to have close to 100 species growing year-round green.
This strategy of maximizing the diversity that grows within the vineyard system is a major tenet of my philosophy of farming. We are responsible, first and foremost, for building healthy soil. To be clear, this doesn’t mean ‘not losing soil’; we mean to build soil here at Hope Well. This is the covenant we have with the land. Green plants use the sugars from photosynthesis to feed the microbial life in the soil that creates structure, breaks down minerals, fixes atmospheric Nitrogen, and build complex forms of stable Carbon from CO2, and puts it deep in the soil. This form of Carbon sequestration is only possible when the soil is left unbroken, or uncultivated and green plants are growing year-round to support the microorganisms that build the stable forms of Carbon so that it can truly be sequestered, and not lost in the cycle of decomposition that occurs when soils are continuously disturbed.
Different species of plants also support different species of insects and soil microorganisms. By increasing the diversity, we increase the number of natural ‘good’ predators, pollinators, and microbes that perform all of the most critical functions of biology. It creates stability in the system because in nature, complexity is stability.
And lastly, but certainly not ‘least’, by putting this responsibility of building soil and diversity first, the vines naturally have access to a broader suite of micronutrients that create the detail in wine. The vines also have access to a longer, and more stable water source as the plants on the floor, with their roots, hold water and store it in the deeper soil layers for later in the season. This all helps us to have a more gradual accumulation of sugars that allows for full development of flavor, which can be difficult in our warmer growing seasons. Sure, we could add water and spray foliar forms of these micronutrients, but plants evolved with soil microorganisms an elegant arrangement of ‘I feed that which feeds me’, and our best and most informed attempts to replicate that exchange are clumsy at best. Building soil: one goal, with infinite rewards.
Mimi Casteel, Invitation to join the Willamette Valley Oak Accord
At the Annual Meeting of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association, February 2017
Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today about the movement we are now calling the Oak Accord. This movement sprung organically from conversations about the relationship between biodiversity and agriculture. Most if not all of us are familiar with the term biodiversity and have a general sense of its literal meaning, but less of a grip on why, as farmers, winegrowers, and winemakers, we should care.