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“Wine is sunlight, held together by water.” Galileo Galilei
So much of the joy of travel is eating and drinking and I certainly love to try local wines when I visit new places!
In this interview, Caro Feely talks about why she and her husband gave up successful careers to take on a rundown vineyard in a new country, the struggles they went through to build up the business — even down to their blood shed on the land itself. There are a surprising number of ways to die in a vineyard! We also talk about the importance of terroir — the unique taste of a place due to environmental factors — and the different wines they produce at Chateau Feely.
Caro Feely is a certified wine educator writing part-time from the organic biodynamic vineyard and wine school in Saussignac, France that she owns and runs with her husband, Sean. Part Irish, part South African, and now part French, she is passionate about wine and life. Her books include memoir About the Vineyard Life, and a nonfiction book, Wine: The Essential Guide to Tasting History, Culture, and More.
- Giving up the corporate life for a tumbledown French vineyard
- The challenges of starting a vineyard
- The surprising ways to die amongst the vines
- Terroir and the importance of the land
- The different wines of Chateau Feely
- Recommended books about vineyards
You can find Caro Feely at ChateauFeely.com
Transcript of the interview
Joanna: Caro Feely is a certified wine educator writing part-time from the organic biodynamic vineyard and wine school in Saussignac, France that she owns and runs with her husband, Sean. Part Irish, part South African, and now part French, she is passionate about wine and life. Her books include memoir About the Vineyard Life, and a nonfiction book, Wine: The Essential Guide to Tasting History, Culture, and More.
Caro: Thank you, Jo. It’s a pleasure to talk to you today.
Joanna: I’m so excited. As I said before recording, I wish I was there in your vineyard, and we were talking over a glass of wine.
Caro: For sure. That would be good.
Joanna: That would definitely be my favorite way of doing this. But we’re on Skype, so, for now, we’ll just get into it.
You and I share a background in business consulting, which is so interesting. I was also at Accenture and briefly IBM.
Tell me, why did you give up the corporate life for a French vineyard?
Caro: It’s quite a story. I guess it goes back pretty far. Sean and I met in Johannesburg back in 1993, and we pretty quickly said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to go wine farming?’ He had grandparents that were vine growers in Stellenbosch in South Africa near Cape Town.
I had shared a house with a guy that was a master of wine, so we both had this passion for wine. We were both in completely different careers at the time. Sean was a journalist, and I was an economist, but just starting work for IBM as a consultant.
We started to cook up this idea of going wine farming, following our passion, and we moved to Cape Town, and it was kind of a long shot. It was clear that we had to pay off our student loans before we had any chance of going wine farming. But work actually then took us to Dublin, and we both have Irish roots.
We visited France on a wine holiday, and we totally fell in love. And that was the start of, ‘Maybe, we’ll go to France to follow our vineyard dream and not back to South Africa.’
And, of course, at that stage, we were both still in other careers, Sean in finance and me still in consulting. But we had this dream, this idea that we wanted to pursue, and we kept our heads down, saved every penny that we had, and slowly moved towards our goal.
It was dream about it first, start think about, ‘Well, what can we do? We can’t do it right now, but what can we do to kind of prepare ourselves for this?’ And that was things like, you know, learning French, visiting France for research purposes to taste wine of course, and slowly bringing it together.
We were preparing ourselves doing things like learning French, learning about wine, visiting France to learn more about it, and slowly moving ourselves closer to the goal of moving to France and following this dream. But, of course, you don’t know that you’re going to do this until you actually do it. It’s one of those things.
I’m sure you had that feeling when you really jumped off with your writing business. There’s a point where you have to just jump off. And you can do preparation up to a certain point, and then you’ve just got to jump.
I think we were still in a rental apartment in Dublin, and I read in an ‘Oprah’ magazine that you should always have an idea of where you’d like to be in five years’ time. And I said to Sean, ‘Oh, this is what we must do, even though we’ve been talking vaguely about this vineyard in France.’ We had never actually put it down on paper and really said, ‘Look, where do we want to be in five years?’
I twisted his arm, and we did each of us a one-page about where ideally we’d like to be in five years. And they were both almost identical; on a vineyard in France, growing our own wine, growing our own foods, self-sufficient. And it was pretty amazing that almost five years to the day, we actually moved to France and did that very thing. So I think it’s a case of when you start to put it out there and you move towards it, it starts to happen for you.
Joanna: I’m totally a believer in that. And it’s interesting because it took a lot of years then for you to go from that initial thinking about it in South Africa through to that moment. And you mentioned jumping-off point, the moment when you knew.
Tell us about where you live in France and about the vineyard and the wine school. Give us a sense of Chateau Feely.
Caro: Chateau Feely is a 14 hectares farm so about 35 acres. Half of that is vineyard and the other half is forest. We’re on the edge of Saussignac village. So, actually, we’re kind of rural, but we’re also in walking distance to two restaurants and with a little bit of life nearby. So it’s not like we’re isolated rural.
That’s good because the girls could walk up to catch the bus to school. So things like that made life kind of easy in the early days when we really needed to work hard and long hours.
And even now, of course, we still do. The place itself is an old farm. You find it on the original maps made of the region Napoleonic times. It’s got a well that dates back to the Galo-Roman times. And the middle part of our house where our kitchen is, is a low couch that was built during the English rule, so around the 14th century. So it’s beautiful.
We’re on the top of a hill looking down onto the Dordogne Valley. It is a very beautiful place, and we’re in a very welcoming area with amazing wines. So it is without a clue but we landed in a pretty incredible spot.
Joanna: It just sounds fantastic. And the pictures on your website, I urge everyone to go to your website, which we’ll have links in the show notes and things. But, obviously, now it’s perfect and wonderful.
I’m sure it’s not perfect. There’s always things to do, right? But when you got there, it was not like this, was it?
I’ve read the books and seen the movies of the lovely sunlight on the vines and it just seems wonderfully romantic.
What was it like when you got there? What are some of the challenges?
Caro: I think that you’re totally right. We all have this idea of the beautiful vineyard and the kind of vines themselves and amazing wine just getting into barrel. But it’s definitely a lot of hard work.
I think that comes through pretty clearly in my books, in the first one Grape Expectations, which is the first three years. So essentially the move from city jobs in Dublin to rural France, and the challenges of also moving country, new language, new career, two kids that were very young. Sofia was two, and Ellie was only a few months old. So we made it harder for ourselves in many ways.
But it was also good timing because it was the time for them to be able to start their lives here without having the difficulty of moving later on in their lives for our two daughters.
In the first couple of chapters I talk about what it’s like when we first get here. It was extremely rundown. Part of why we could follow the dream was that this farm was in liquidation, so it was a real mess. And it had been lived in, but barely, and it needed a serious, serious amount of renovation.
Joanna: Wow. That sounds fantastic. I have seen the pictures on your website, and they’re absolutely beautiful. I urge everyone listening to go have a look.
It made me want to come on over. Obviously, now the vineyard is up. But these pictures of dappled sun on the vines seem very romantic, and your books make it clear that it wasn’t like that when you arrived.
What are some of the challenges that you and your family have had to face?
Caro: Well, you’re absolutely right, Jo. It was certainly not an easy ride. While the views were as beautiful as they are today, the rest of it will was in a pretty terrible state. It was in liquidation, the farm, so very rundown.
We really needed to start from ground zero in terms of renovating the buildings, and it felt pretty sad actually when we first arrived. It was incredibly dirty. There were mice everywhere, mouse infestation. It was pretty scary, but it has been a real adventure.
So each year we do a little bit more on the renovation because we couldn’t do everything all at once at the start, and our finances kept us from doing everything we wanted to do, which is probably a blessing because you learn so much as you got and you realize what you need to do and what you want to do, and understand better about the heritage of the environment as well and our natural environment.
Our renovations have improved with time because we have a better understanding of our place and of our natural environment in fact.
Joanna: Were there any particular moments where you and Sean went, ‘What have we done?’
Anything that stands out where you wondered if maybe you’d made a mistake?
Caro: Oh absolutely. In the first book, my first of the three in the memoir series, it’s called Grape Expectations. You could call it ‘The Valley of Despair,’ because there were definitely some moments there where we were really wondering what we had done.
Grape Expectations starts off with us leaving Dublin and our nice, safe, secure jobs, and leaping off and starting this completely new career in rural France with two young kids.
It was a great adventure as I already said, but probably the moments that stand out for me, one of them was in our first spring, Sean had an accident with the vine trimmer. If you know anything about vines, it’s an extremely scary piece of equipment. It’s a massive system of knives essentially that cuts the vines.
It’s like a big box that goes over the vines, and this box is just full of knives. So one false move and it’s all going to end very, very badly. And for Sean, one day, it kind of did, and he cut himself very badly on his arm, and there was blood everywhere.
I was half fainting because I can’t really take this. I kept having to sit down and put my head between my legs because I was going to pass out, and then I really wouldn’t have been any help to him. So I’d kind of get up, and I’d do something then I sit back down and put my head between my legs. And then I get up and do something else and then have to sit down again.
Luckily the emergency services came pretty quickly, and the service we got from the hospitals in Bergerac in that first year was exceptional. We’ve visited there more times than you’d want to.
And then the second incident was one of these moments where you never kind of forget the experience. It was harvest time, and it was our last harvest day. We were very tired. It was our first harvest, so we really didn’t know what we were doing. We were having to work double the amount that someone who knew what they were doing would have to do because we didn’t know the ropes.
We’d finished the morning’s harvest. Sean was kind of going, ‘Oh, I think I’ll go in and have some coffee.’ And then he was like, ‘Oh, no, I’ll just clean this harvest trailer before I go in.’
His brain went into neutral, and he went to clean it but he thought he hadn’t taken the cap off the back of the harvest trailer. And in the dark, he went to take it off, but actually the cap was already off and he chopped his finger off on the harvest trailer.
So truly, truly horrendous stuff. He ran and, again, it was like, ‘I’ve chopped my finger off and, oh dear.’
So that’s just a little taste of that first year, but it has been quite an adventure going forward from there. So the other books are probably not quite as frightening in terms of immediate accidental body harm, but just as exciting in many other ways.
Joanna: My thriller mind is going, ‘Oh, I could set a murder mystery on a vineyard.’
Caro: Oh I tell you.
Joanna: I clearly need to do more research. The other thing is, I don’t know that much, but the French folklore, the countryside, the vines, maybe needed a sacrifice in some form to the land to make it work.
Caro: Really, really. Sean is part of his Terroir. His finger is out there. It’s part of the land here. So for sure, there’s no question about that. He’s definitely part of his Terroir. It didn’t go into the wine, it went into the washing water. I looked for the finger, but a million grapes look just like a million fingers let me tell you.
Joanna: That was a brilliant story.
Caro: And for you with your murder mystery, there are four ways to die as a winegrower. And one is, in fact, probably the most prevalent is CO2 asphyxiation. And actually, in the 15 years that we’ve been here, these four ways to die have actually happened within like a 10-kilometer radius of us.
So it’s not just something that, ‘Oh, it might happen to you,’ it’s really something that actually happens on the ground all the time. And, of course, the more awareness there is, but usually around harvest time, people are tired because it’s their livelihood that’s depending on them kind of getting it in at the right moment and so on. I think it’s the same for all farmers.
You’re under extreme pressure, you’re dealing with heavy machinery, and you can easily just make a tiny mistake that can be fatal. And so CO2 asphyxiation is the first one, and the second one is machinery, so like falling into a harvest trailer, which happened to somebody. I can tell you that’s an even more horrendous thought than just the finger on the harvest trailer.
The third one is falling from the hut, so if you’re on top of that, and you’re working with it, you can overbalance, but also you might get a little bit of CO2 that would make you not necessarily asphyxiated but enough to make you fall off.
And then the fourth one is electrocution because you’re working with liquids and very high-powered equipment like presses and heat exchangers and so on. So it really is quite a scary thing.
Joanna: That’s so funny, but let’s be clear.
If people come and stay at your Chateau, they’re not going to be working on the land.
Caro: Oh, no, no. Absolutely not. No, they wouldn’t.
The first thing we did when we arrived was redo all electricity and put barriers on the wax that are at a height and things like that. You can make it safer, but you still need to be aware for sure. But absolutely no, guests are definitely not going to be exposed to that by any means. No, no.
Joanna: But I think it is clear that when you say the word farmer, it’s funny because I feel like we often don’t associate a vineyard as a farm. You think cows and animals and stuff like that whereas the vines obviously take a lot of work. But you mentioned the word, and I’m going to pronounce it wrong, but Terroir.
Joanna: And that word is often used in association with wine.
What does Terroir mean, and how is it related to the land?
Caro: So this Terroir word, yes, we love it in France. It’s a word that is about the taste of a place. When you say it’s a product of Terroir, it’s a product that tastes of where it’s from.
Essentially, we say the Terroir is the soil, the microclimate, the grape type, and how we farm. And for us, the soil part is all about limestone, which is ancient compressed seabed. And that gives us a real minerality in the wine.
And then the second is microclimate with things like the general climate of Akiten where we are. We’re about 20 minutes from Bergerac and an hour from Bordeaux. We’re in Southwest France, which is pretty warm, but not as hot as, say, Languedoc.
And then the micro parts or microclimate not just the general climate, the microclimate, things like which way is the slope facing? Is there a body of water nearby? What the soil type is as well because if its gravel, it’s going to be warmer than say if it’s limestone and clay like we have. So there are many factors that play into the microclimate.
And then the variety, or the grape type or what you’ve got growing. And then finally, the farmer, and what he’s doing not just in the farming but in the actual making of the product as well.
I think this is a very important point about that but it is farming and that quite often is forgotten. And whenever I speak at wine events or wine dinners and that sort of thing, people often say, ‘Wow, I’ve never really thought of it as farming,’ just as you did. And for me, that’s a really important aspect of wine is that really the quality in your glass is all about what we do as the farmer.
That’s so important for us, the organic and biodynamic, the way that we farm here is really dear to our heart, something we believe is super important to the quality in your glass and certainly to the taste that you’re going to get. So not just in terms of the quality, the depth of flavor and so on, but also to avoid the negative taste of potential pesticides that could be in the wine.
Joanna: I love all that. I think it’s so interesting that you’re obviously taking so much care of the land. Your adopted land really, and it’s wonderful that you’ve gone that deep because most of us don’t go that deep. I live in a house on a bit of land, and I don’t do much in the garden, to be honest. So I think it’s so interesting.
I want to ask you about the different wines that you produce because, again, I love wine, I buy wine. If I go to a restaurant, we always will ask the sommelier to recommend something, or if we do a matched wine pairing, we wait to see what the sommelier will do. So we always discover wine, but most people will default to what they know.
Tell us a bit about the different varietals that you produce and what moods or situations you might associate with them.
Caro: That’s a really great question actually, and it ties into two things. One is the names of our Cuvier’s of the wines that we make at Chateau Feely.
For example, we have Sincerité is our pure Sauvignon Blanc. And we called it Sancerre for a play on words for sunset because Sancerre is a Sauvignon from the Loire Valley that’s very mineral. And our first Sauvignon, we started to call it Sincere as kind of play on the words with Sancerre but also because, for us, the kind of wine that was like someone being Sancerre wasn’t that easy straight up because it’s very mineral and very fresh and got amazing length, but it’s a really beautiful wine.
Sincerité, it maybe not that easy on the first pass, but then it’s quite an amazing length behind it. So that was a little bit how Sincerité came about, so Feely Sincerité pure Sauvignon.
And actually, in the wine book that I wrote, The Essential Guide to Tasting, History, Culture and More, that book on page 64 has the mood that goes with certain wines. Sauvignon, I had sharp and witty. A sharp and witty moment would be like a dry white wine like Sauvignon Blanc.
And, for me, that’s also a little bit the Sauvignon that we make. Sincerité would be a real mineral and fresh zesty kind of wine.
We make a couple of other white wines, but the other one I’ll pick out is the Semillon that’s barrel-aged and that’s called Générosité, so generosity. And, again, the Générosité is a really lovely rich Semillon that’s barrel-aged, almost like a great barrel-aged Burgundy Chardonnay.
It’s got that lovely generous mouthfeel, lovely richness in the mid-palate, so kind of generous and loving feeling almost if you want to give it feelings. The name Générosité, so Feely Générosité, has that vibe about it.
And then I’ll pick two reds. Feely Résonance is a Merlot. And again, for us, the résonance part was because it’s not like a Merlot, from, say, Central Valley, California or hot climate, South Africa or Australia. It’s a Merlot with a lot of backbone and a resonance. It’s got that minerality that comes from our Terroir for the limestone and, yeah, it resonates. So for us, that was the Merlot.
And then the final one I’ll pick out as our Cabernet, which is called Vérité, so the truth, vérité, Feely Vérité. And so Cabernet Sauvignon, I guess, you can get very bold kind of drowsy Cabernet Sauvignons like something from, say California something really rich and bold. And then you can get more, I guess, contemplative, yeah, pensive kind of Cabernet blends like some of the ones from the major oak-like Grace, which is a blend of Cabernet and Merlot that’s a bit more like the contemplator wine, the wine you’d have, you know, sitting by the fire or with cheese after dinner, that kind of thing.
Joanna: I’m going to have to go open a bottle of something. I was thinking when you were talking about the Sauvignon being sharp and witty, I definitely am sharp and witty after drinking a few glasses of Sauvignon. I love that. I think it’s brilliant. I love that you have named them so well.
I’ve read some of your books, and I think they’re fantastic. And I also love the wine one.
Apart from your own books, what are some other books you would recommend about vineyards or your area in France?
Caro: There are a couple I would pick out. The first is a woman called Patricia Atkinson. And it’s a little bit of a while ago now that she wrote, but she wrote about her experience starting up a vineyard just three kilometers from where we are. So there’s a kind of variety of thing going on here, and Patricia Atkinson’s first book called The Ripening Sun is a great read. So that is my first pick.
Then if you’re looking for other books about the Dordogne, not necessarily about wine but, in fact, there’s a murder mystery in amongst the series. There is a writer called Martin Walker, who has written a series called Bruno, Chief of Police, and they’re all murder mysteries about the Dordogne. So for anyone interested in southwest France and Dordogne in particular, it’s a great way to read about the culture and the food and all of that and get a wonderful sense of it while kind of having a story to back it up.
And then the final one I’d recommend just in terms of vineyards, and it’s not from this region, but it’s from Italy is by a guy called for Ferenc Máté. It is A Vineyard in Tuscany. And that is a really great read as well. Fantastic, a good laugh and I guess for us, we saw so much of what we went through in his story as well, but very well written as well.
Where can people find you and your books and the vineyard and everything online?
Caro: So ChateauFeely.com. So the family name Feely. And if you just put in Chateau Feely, you’ll find us.
I have also an author website called CaroFeely.com, but it’s not as up-to-date as the Chateau Feely website. So there’s actually more information on the books at the moment on the Chateau Feely site.
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Caro. That was great.
Caro: Thank you, Jo. And, oh, just one other thing, I don’t know if you’ll be able to include it again. So all the books are obviously available from people’s local bookstores and also from Amazon and Kindle and the usual suspects.
Joanna: The usual suspects, great. Thanks, Caro.
Caro: Thank you, Jo. Lovely to talk to you.
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