On the reclaimed land of an old Christmas tree farm in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills, Mimi Casteel makes wine—very good wine—under her Hope Well label. The wine is an enjoyable byproduct of a much larger experiment undertaken by Casteel. Using methods of regenerative agriculture, she aims to demonstrate that farming can be done in a way that not only improves the land, but even reverses the effects of climate change.
For her ongoing collaboration with other winemakers to adopt these methods, her willingness to speak out against harmful practices being used throughout the wine industry, and the sheer ambition of her work, Mimi Casteel is our Imbibe 75 2020 Wine Person of the Year. To better understand her approach, Casteel, who comes from a background in biology and forestry science, gave us a tour of her vineyard. And here, she explains the elements of regenerative farming, how she implements practices, and the remarkable changes she’s seen—and believes are possible.
What Is Regenerative Agriculture?
Before regenerative agriculture had a name, many of the same tenets fell under practices of organic or biodynamic farming—not only eliminating chemicals, but all non-naturally occurring activities including tilling and irrigation. “What we’re trying to do is increase diversity everywhere on our farm, both with the types of farming activities we’re doing, and the ways we work with the un-farmed areas to interweave connection,” explains Casteel. “We’re still doing seed-saving, and no-till drilling for new seeds to increase the diversity of our floor. When it comes to every trophic and energetic level of our farm, we are trying to re-establish function, with redundancy built into it.”
The idea is that through a more holistic approach, all the elements of the environment are woven together like a tapestry that is stronger as a result, which in turn makes for better grape growing conditions and thus, better wine. The redundancy functions as extra levels of protection so the whole thing doesn’t unravel. But it’s not just about the care of the plants; it means fostering a full ecosystem that can function as it would in nature. At Hope Well, that means a farm bustling with animals, through-routes for wildlife, and an effective food chain keeping it all in balance.
“[Animals] are something that we keep out of an agriculture system normally because they’re one more thing to manage, but they’re also an opportunity,” says Casteel. “Think about chickens. They do a great job of maintaining pest populations. We also want predators, and we want them at as many levels as possible. We have so many beautiful snakes that keep our rodent pressures way down, but we also want the rodents because they do a great job of nutrient cycling. We want all those things working; we just want them working in a balance. People will say you can’t do this without chemicals, but we’ve done it using plants and animals. It’s just a different timeline and expectation.”
Casteel likes to joke that working in the wine industry is part of an “ongoing existential crisis”—acknowledging the habitat destruction that often occurs as acreage is cleared to plant vineyards. But Casteel believes that not only are regenerative practices better for the earth, they’re better for the wine. “One of the things I really like to dive into with wine geeks is about our ‘tidy’ aesthetic around vineyards and holding handfuls of our bare, mineral soil and talking about how that’s our terroir. Please! Roots touching rocks don’t do anything.”
Casteel equates healthy soil to our own digestive microbiome. When microorganisms are present, they can break down inorganic minerals into something the plant can use. “When you start rebuilding an ecosystem that your vines can communicate with, do you taste that in the wine? Absolutely! It’s almost like there is this intelligence in your mouth that feels like it’s been awoken. It’s a totally different experience.”
The Big Picture
The Capital “O” objective of regenerative farming, put simply, is to help reverse the effects of climate change by using farming methods that sequester carbon dioxide in the soil. “I think for a lot of people, it just never occurred to them that plowing might not be great,” says Casteel. “It’s very eye-opening, when I say, ‘Look, bare soil can’t store carbon.’ You empirically lose carbon when you expose it to the atmosphere.”
Casteel acknowledges that addressing an ecological crises such as climate change through farming practices will require a revolution in thinking and approach, but that at the end of the day the answer itself is simple. “Some of the technology that is being heavily invested in to address climate change is trying to mimic what plants do already. The most elegant example of what you’re all dreaming about already exists everywhere you look.”
Regardless of the challenges, Casteel remains convinced that these methods are the only logical, and conscionable, path forward. “If I can’t make this [land] better with what I’m doing, then I’m probably doing it wrong. And if we don’t accept that it is our job, then I don’t know what kind of future we’re even expecting for ourselves,”she says. “What we’ve been able to do [at Hope Well] in 10 years—which is just what we’ve been able to afford to do—paints a very positive and hopeful picture of what we could do in the future.”
Her call to colleagues that they can, and should, do better has been answered with enthusiasm. “The feedback from other winemakers has been overwhelmingly positive,” she says. “This is a brilliant and beautiful community of people who genuinely want to do the right thing and are in support of agricultural practices that support the climate.”
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