Brave or mad: setting up a vineyard in France
Nine years ago Caro Feely and her husband Seán were city dwellers with a long-held dream to own a vineyard and make wine. Now they’ve made it happen, basing their business on biodynamic farming
Caro and Seán Feely with their children, Sophia and Ellie, on their vineyard in France
The Feely vineyard, in Saussignac, in south west France
It was one of those crazy ideas way too risky to follow, but a rundown farm at a fire-sale price in southwest France tempted us to make the leap. We swapped professional careers and a comfortable house for an 18th-century near-ruin and 10 hectares of vines. Making the move with two small daughters Sophia (two) and Ellie (five months) was “brave or mad” (our Dublin doctor) and a “risk with a capital R” (an accountant friend).
Our first three years in France were a baptism of fire: there was a farm accident – a third of a finger chopped off – and immersion French, offset by a good measure of laughter at the sometimes ridiculous situations in which we found ourselves. Then, just at the point when we should have been finding our feet, we were hit with a late frost that wiped out half our harvest. It was fragile moment for our fledgling business.
Two chance phone calls were critical to saving our farm: one from RTÉ suggesting we appear on a TV show; and a second from a businesswoman in Florida looking for organic grape skins. The calls led us on a journey that saved our business, took us to diverse winegrowing regions such as Alsace, Burgundy and Napa Valley, and left us with a message we want to share.
Since the beginning we farmed organically and, for the past six years, biodynamically as well. People often ask why we farm organically. Soon after we moved I recall seeing a skull-and-crossbones sign on pesticide cans left by the previous owner. I looked closer and read, “Do not enter the vineyard for 48 hours after spraying”. This would be difficult to do if you live in the middle of it. I didn’t know much about the subject at the time, but common sense told me that putting something so toxic on food, or in the vicinity of homes and children, made no sense. Grapes are not washed before they are made into wine.
A few months ago French watchdog magazine Que Choisir did an analysis of 100 wines bought randomly off the shelf. The results were shocking: it found the level of pesticides were on average 300 times the amount allowed in our drinking water, and some were well over 1,000 times the amount.
Farmers have just been banned from spraying near schools within 20 minutes of school opening and closing times – a knee-jerk reaction to a class of children and their teacher ending up in A&E after a farmer sprayed nearby.
A farm a couple of kilometres from us recently lost a landmark case to an employee claiming damages for developing serious health problems after working in the vineyard at 6am following a pesticide treatment the night before.
We ask: why spray such toxic chemicals at all? We have farmed healthily for nine years and have not lost anything to pests.
On our farm, natural habitats, plants under the vines and in hedgerows, encourage good bugs such as ladybirds, which kept unwanted bugs like aphids in check. On conventional farms herbicides often remove all growth that can be competition to the crop.