The touching story of one couple's decision to start a vineyard in France, where they fear nothing more than the destruction of a sudden cold snapFrost can be fatal to a fledgling wine business. . . it's a gorgeous glitter with a high price tag. On a winter’s day it is beautiful, but on a spring day after bud burst it spells devastation. For Sean and Caro Feely, a couple whose love affair with wine and France has taken them through financial and physical struggle to create their organic vineyard, it could spell the end. Until they receive an unexpected call that could save their skins. . . This book is about life, love, and taking risks, while transforming a piece of land into a flourishing vineyard and making a new life in France.
About the Author
Caro Feely worked as a project manager and IT strategy consultant, and now runs a successful organic wine estate with wine school and gîte rental business.
Read an Excerpt
Saving Our Skins
Building a Vineyard Dream in France
By Caro Feely
Summersdale Publishers LtdCopyright © 2014 Caro Feely
All rights reserved.
Diamonds of Destruction
The vineyard was dressed in shimmering diamonds; delicate buds perfectly highlighted with bling. From the window the vines looked like emerald clusters trellised on silver cords. It was silent, almost as if it had snowed: even the birds were in shock.
Seán and I walked from the eighteenth-century stone farmhouse to the first vineyard a few metres away, our footsteps crunching ominously. Up close, the buds were like fairies dressed in pink and lime cotton wool, then wrapped with silver spun sugar. My stomach cramped with fear.
We had been in the vineyard business long enough to know that the glitter came at a high price. On a winter's day it was beautiful; on a spring day after 'bud burst' it was devastating, fatal to the young shoots. Friends often spoke of a late spring frost fifteen years before that had destroyed ninety per cent of the region's harvest. My mind scrambled to the implications as I gazed at the scene.
Since moving to France three years previously our lives had been on a roller coaster. Renovating our property, converting the vineyard to organic agriculture and making our own wines were at times terrifying. Fear of the unknown, two farm accidents in our first year and constant financial worry had not put us off. We found our new life strangely fulfilling, though I often wished for a stable job with some certainty. Seán, the love of my life, and I worked all hours and we were still far from finding equilibrium. We exchanged a glance. The anxiety in his eyes made my stomach churn.
The valley below was all blossoms and bright green, the odd strip of icy white showing on farm roads and ploughed fields. A ribbon of blue, the Dordogne, wound its way from Bordeaux to Bergerac in the middle distance. I drank in the beauty, wondering how much of the vibrant lime foliage would be left the following day once the frost had taken its toll.
Down the hill it was worse: we estimated more than half was lost. Seán tried to calm my panic but I knew he was worried. From the tall, long-haired, clean-shaven journalist I had met fifteen years before he had transformed into a rugged farmer, still sporting long hair but with the winter beard necessary to protect his face from the harsh conditions in which he pruned the vines. It was a hard slog through the three coldest months of the year but one of the tasks he enjoyed; an opportunity to be calm and quiet, to listen to the vines and the land with no interference except the rhythmic snip of his secateurs.
We had had our confidence shaken by the massive life change we had made – city professionals to farmers. At times I felt we were astronauts going through g-force into outer space rather than merely changing country, job and language. This latest setback was another chip in our security.
I told myself there was no point in worrying about things we couldn't control. We just had to get on and deal with it. We walked back up to the house, the frost crunching menacingly.
Seán reached into a filing box on the mantelpiece in the kitchen, then sat down heavily at the pine dining table worn with years of use. This was his makeshift office, the place where he kept track of mountains of paperwork related to vineyard and wine, overlooked as he worked by two paintings, a still life of fruit and flowers by my grandmother and one of sunflowers by me. He made observation notes in his vineyard file, detailing the estimations we had made. He looked resigned and tired. I plodded to my office to work on the quarterly accounts. A few minutes later I heard the kitchen door close then saw him trudge past my office window, down to the vineyard where he was finishing the tying down, the last step in the pruning process.
Our method of pruning was the Guyot system, the most widespread pruning and trellising system in Aquitaine, where one or two canes are tied onto the bottom wire of the trellis. In other regions different pruning and trellising methods are used depending on the climate. I needed to stop thinking about climate; it reminded me of frost. I turned to the accounts. Usually I avoided office work like the plague, but now it offered an escape from what was outside.
* * *
By the afternoon it was so hot it was difficult to believe there had been frost. The silver was gone, leaving a browning as if the buds had been burnt. As I kneaded a batch of dough, my thoughts were consumed by where we might be by the end of the year. Bread-making was part of my 'become the self-sufficient wife my husband dreams of' programme. I didn't expect to enjoy it but I did. There was something meditative and therapeutic about the process.
Throwing and kneading – somewhat more aggressively than necessary – I reminded myself that it was not the situation we were in that mattered, but how we handled it. I was repeating that rather frequently. After ten minutes the dough was perfect, like plastic clay, and I was serene. We were healthy, we had an admittedly leaky roof over our heads and food on the table. We would find a way out of this new hole.
A couple of hours and many invoices later, the sound of tyres on the limestone outside announced the arrival of our daughters with Sonia, our neighbour, who took the afternoon school run. I waved and opened the door for the girls then whisked the bread out of the oven, poured elderflower cordial in recycled glass yoghurt pots and sliced into the bread. A delicious yeasty smell wafted through the air as I spread a layer of home-grown fig jam onto the slices.
We were into 'reduce, reuse and recycle' mode, gratefully dependent on gifts from friends and donations and hand-me-downs for our daughters' gear. I had put off buying new shoes for them for ages, hoping some would miraculously appear, but they both needed shoes badly now.
I had learned to offer food immediately they got home; otherwise things went downhill fast. Ellie at three and a half could play the tough guy. Her pretty blonde curls and glasses were misleading. She would stare and say 'donne-moi des bonbons!' (give me sweets!) – with 'or you'll regret it' implied. Seán assured me she was sensitive inside.
Sophia at five was already a sophisticated young lady rather than a little girl. Following a bumpy start after we arrived with her not speaking French, on my recent visit to school her new teacher had exclaimed: 'I knew Sophia was born in Dublin but I thought her parents were French! Her French is better than most of the class.' My accent was still so bad it was clear there was no French family involved. I felt very proud of her.
As the girls chatted about their day and ate wedges of bread, another car turned up our road and parked outside the tasting room. I reminded Sophia to do her homework when she had finished her goûter, her afternoon snack, asked Ellie to draw a picture, and walked out into the glorious afternoon sun, across the courtyard to the tasting room.
Ashley and Rob Lamb stepped out of a smart 4x4 and we exchanged kisses à la française. They had discovered our wines the previous year and were back in the region for a quick visit. Ashley's mother and father breezed in with them, dressed in stylish linen, he as dark-tanned as a Sicilian and wearing a striking Havana hat. We chatted as I fetched the samples from the stockroom, exchanging ideas of places to visit in the area: les Jardins de Marqueyssac, Renaissance-style gardens offering majestic views of the Dordogne; the market at Issigeac; the Château de Beynac where Richard the Lionheart lived for many years.
As they settled into the rickety garden furniture that sufficed for our furnishings, I poured taster samples of our latest sauvignon blanc vintage. We sipped. I swirled the wine around my mouth, enjoying the acidity and flavour, then spat into the crachoir, the spittoon, always set out on the table for myself and the driver. At the beginning of our adventure I had splashed myself liberally with wine and had to wear dark colours to tasting events. Now my white shirt was clear.
The wine was like diving into the sea: refreshing, mineral and zesty, like licking elderflower and gooseberry cordial straight off our fossil rock. The vineyard was on a limestone outcrop, a compressed seabed packed with million-year-old sea fossils. It seemed like decades since our first vintage release and a wine buyer's comment of 'thin, Italian style', although it was only two years. I was still sensitive to comments about our wines but now I had more confidence in them. I poured them with pride. It was a good feeling.
'I love your wines,' said Ashley. 'I never used to drink sauvignon blanc or sémillon. It's less than a year since we found you and I can't drink anything else. Others don't taste clean like yours. I never get a headache from your wines.'
I made a pretend grab for a microphone to record her comments. From the start we chose organic farming, something we felt strongly about, a motivation that went deeper than earning our daily crust; but we still needed to eat. After three years of organic conversion it was starting to pay off in the quality of the wines but we still had moments of doubt – not about organic, but about the economic viability of organic in the modern economy where most consumers chose on price and didn't really know what organic or chemical agriculture was or why they should bother.
'People at work can't believe we drink your wine during the week with no bad effects,' said Rob. 'We opened our last bottle of La Source red a few days ago. Delicious.'
I poured the new vintage La Source into their glasses. After taking a deep draught Ashley's father lifted his tanned hand.
'Please leave me with this wine for the afternoon,' he purred from under his Havana hat. 'A shady terrace, a cigar and I could contemplate life for hours.'
I felt like kissing them. It was the sort of encouragement I needed to lift me away from the worry about frost and our precarious future. We had good wines; it was no guarantee of making a living, but it was necessary to get back some of the confidence lost in our massive life change. 'What's the Irish connection?' he asked pointing to The Irish Times on the shelf.
'We lived in Ireland for eight years before coming to France,' I said. 'We were both born in South Africa, hence the accent, but we have Irish roots.'
I explained how Seán and I had dreamed of wine-farming for a decade before we had the opportunity and a moment of madness to leap in and buy our farm. We had roots deep in wine. His grandparents grew vines near Stellenbosch in South Africa's Western Cape after moving from Ireland in their youth – one of many Catholic – Protestant unions of the era that fled. Seán was bitten by the bug of winegrowing at an early age, helping them with work such as harvest as a schoolboy. My grandmother descended from the Frenches, a tribe that moved from Normandy to Galway to import wine in the 1300s. The Frenches were noted as significant wine traders in Bordeaux and Ireland in the golden era of the 1800s. 'So you know the Irish mafia?' he said, his eyes twinkling.
'Of course,' I said. I wasn't totally joking. We had rented an apartment in Dublin in the same block as a notorious drug lord; fortunately, the only time we saw him was the day of his arrest.
The Lambs were flying back the following day so they bought two bottles for the evening and promised to return with their car in summer to carry out the annual stocking of their cellar.
'I have a small gift for your two girls,' said Mr Havana holding out two five-euro notes. 'Tell them it's from the Irish mafia.' He winked.
Tears of gratitude pricked my eyes. His graceful gesture meant so much; but more than that, their comments had buoyed me up at a time when I was questioning our new lives, just as we had a year before when we almost sold the farm due to financial pressure. The frost had pushed my thoughts back down that road. I waved goodbye and ran inside to tell the girls. For years the only shopping I had done was for winery equipment and supplies. We piled into the car to go shoe shopping, Sophia and Ellie delighted by their good fortune.CHAPTER 2
Gifts and Grace
Notwithstanding the low volume we could expect from the frosted vintage, we still had wine stock from the previous two years. Wine was a buyer's market. No one was knocking on our door and the revenue we needed to keep the vineyard wouldn't be met by the odd tasting-room purchase. We needed serious trade sales but they took a year or more to cultivate. I had a few in the pipeline but it was a slow game. I was worried. One of these contacts was Jon, the wine buyer of a quirky online retailer in the USA. He loved the samples, the information about our organic practices and the tiny appellation of Saussignac, and requested the latest stock levels of two wines so he could profile them to his customer base. I sent them – then heard nothing.
Saussignac, our commune appellation, had one of the highest percentages of organic winegrowers of all the appellations, wine areas, in France. When we bought our farm we had no idea, but most of our neighbouring vineyards were or soon became organic, a boon since it meant less residual agricultural chemicals – herbicides, pesticides and systemic fungicides – from spray drift and run-off on our borders.
We sent Jon a new label for the merlot featuring a sensitive crystallisation image. Sensitive crystallisation is a process for creating an image and profile of a product that goes beyond its chemical analysis. A solution of copper chloride, or copper salts, is added to the product – in this case wine, but it can be anything – and the solution is left to dry in a glass Petri dish in a controlled laboratory with no external sounds, smells or other influences for twenty-four hours. With a healthy, good-quality product the copper chloride crystallises into a beautiful shape, creating an individual thumbprint like a snowflake. Many samples of the same product are taken to ensure the profile is accurate.
The new label clinched the deal and Jon profiled the merlot and the Saussignac dessert wine in his daily email. I was nervous, sure that the description of sensitive crystallisation would not come across well in a short missive. We would seem like insane tree-huggers. I had required a two-day course to be convinced. On the course we analysed sensitive crystallisation of a natural vitamin compared to a chemically produced vitamin; city water compared to rain water compared to water from a limestone source where the rock had filtered the water clean; and an organic wine compared to one farmed with chemicals. In the case of the chemical vitamin, it was blank with a few black dots, whereas the natural vitamin was a crystal of beauty. The well-water image was stunning, the city water deformed with black holes. The organic wines created symmetrical crystals, whereas the chemically farmed wines created a Frankenstein version with many centres and black holes.
Jon's emails to his customers were compelling. I had signed up for his mailing list and his descriptions made me want to buy everything he profiled. Luckily, we couldn't, since he didn't ship to Europe. When his confirmed order based on sales from the email arrived, a mix of relief and fear flooded through me. We did a panicked count. The merlot was fine but we couldn't fulfil the Saussignac order by a few cases. 'Why did you give them the wrong stock numbers?' asked Seán, exasperated.
'I didn't give the wrong stock level. I gave the right one but that was a few months ago and we've kept selling the wine in the meantime,' I said.
Seán dredged bottles from every corner of the property, the tasting-room fridge, the display cabinet – which we usually didn't sell, but this was an emergency – and all the wines we had put aside for our wine library. With every last bottle, including one without a label – don't tell Jon – we just made the numbers.
Excerpted from Saving Our Skins by Caro Feely. Copyright © 2014 Caro Feely. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsPart One – Root,
Chapter 1: Diamonds of Destruction,
Chapter 2: Gifts and Grace,
Chapter 3: Ploucs, or Country Bumpkins,
Chapter 4: Grape Skin Magic,
Chapter 5: Inhaling Grapes,
Chapter 6: Vendanges!,
Chapter 7: Animal Activists and Amoureuses,
Part Two – Leaf,
Chapter 8: A Seed is Sown,
Chapter 9: Roller Coaster,
Chapter 10: The Last of the Summer Wine,
Chapter 11: Wine-tasting Boot Camp,
Chapter 12: Snowed-in in Alsace and Burgundy,
Chapter 13: A Taste of California,
Chapter 14: The American Dream,
Chapter 15: Fire!,
Part Three – Flower,
Chapter 16: The Gestation,
Chapter 17: Saint-Émilion Stories,
Chapter 18: The Imperfect Day,
Chapter 19: Volunteers and Red Tape,
Chapter 20: One Hundred Guests,
Chapter 21: Noël aux Chandelles,
Part Four – Fruit,
Chapter 22: Rose Hips and Risk,
Chapter 23: Killer Chemicals,
Chapter 24: Wine Adventure,
Chapter 25: A Shocking Death,
Chapter 26: Chasse au Trésor Périgord-style,
Chapter 27: Gold for Green,
What Can You Do to Ensure a Healthy Future?,