Caro Feely and her husband Seán left Dublin 12 years ago with their young family to set up an organic vineyard in south-west France. Ahead of her Litfest visit and with a new book on shelves, she shares what the last decade has taught her.
Caro Feely’s fourth book, Glass Half Full: The Ups and Downs of Vineyard Life in France (Summersdale, approx €11.50) is out now, chateaufeely.com. Catch Caro Feely at Litfest at Ballymaloe, May 19-21, litfest.ie.
WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR GREATEST CHALLENGES?
In the early years, it was getting to grips with a new industry, culture and language while raising two small children. Then it was to create a thriving, sustainable business on a small hill farm. Our modern economy is very much “get big or get out”. The downside of this when it comes to farming is that we lose biodiversity, we destroy our rural communities and we also lose a vital connection to the earth and nature. Supporting small organic farms near you helps create local employment, keep air and water clean and provides food security. When we live in the city, it can feel like this is not our problem, but since we all need to eat, it is vital. And then there’s finding the balance between personal and professional life. This is particularly acute if you run your own business and work where you live, but with smartphones and the always-on culture today, this is a challenge for most working women.
THE BIGGEST SURPRISES?
When the top restaurant in the Dordogne came knocking on our door and wanted to reference our wines on their wine list; winning the Best of Wine Tourism Gold trophy for the greater Bordeaux region for our sustainable tourism and then again this year for our accommodation – we were up against grand cru classés and châteaux backed by billionaires. The way our vines have developed their own immunity with organic and biodynamic practices.
THE GREATEST LESSONS LEARNED?
Follow your dream – with passion and persistence, you will succeed. Tenacity – like all things, a key is to keep going, nothing comes easy; in honour of that, we launched a new red wine this year called Ténacité. Always speak out about something you believe in. For me, one is organic farming – visitors leave our vineyard with a real understanding of their ecological responsibility, that their choice of products and farming methods directly impacts their health, but also the communities where their food is grown – hopefully enough to change their choices when they shop.
HOW HAS THE EXPERIENCE BENEFITTED YOUR DAUGHTERS?
Sophia, 14, and Ellie, 12, are both fully fluent in English and French. I think they are closer to nature and have a deeper understanding of food and environmental issues too. I think having more than one cultural and language reference perhaps also makes them more open as individuals.
HOW DO YOU AND SEÁN BALANCE THE BUSINESS WITH FAMILY LIFE?
Seán loves growing vines and other things, and is really good at it. He is responsible for the wine growing and production, while I’m responsible for the marketing and wine tourism, including the accommodation, tours and wine school. We help each other at peak times. I love sharing my passion for wine and organic farming and writing. I could do without doing the accounts and other administrative tasks… When it comes to balance, I do five minutes of yoga every morning. It helps me stay sane in times of extreme pressure like the peak tourist season and harvest time. Finding the perfect work/life balance is a work in progress.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ANYONE WHO HAS YET TO GROW THEIR OWN FOOD?
The benefits of taste and nutrition (not only because of it being organic, but also because of picking and eating the food fresh), knowing the provenance of your food and your reduced ecological impact definitely o set the hard work. Start small with easy vegetables and herbs that you know will do well in your climate. A handful of fresh herbs can really transform your food.
YOUR ADVICE ON BALANCING A LOVE OF WINE WITH LOOKING AFTER YOUR HEALTH?
Moderation is key. I love a glass of wine with dinner and perhaps two or three on a weekend party night, but I do a night or two without alcohol every week. This follows the guidelines for responsible drinking, and I find it works well for me. A glass of (particularly red) wine is a healthy part of your diet, but
it must be organic. Conventionally farmed (non-organic) wine can contain residues of pesticides that are carcinogenic, create nervous system disruption and/or endocrine disruption.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO MOST AT LITFEST THIS MONTH?
The event’s focus on responsibility as food producers and as food lovers is a great theme. If people don’t buy food farmed with systemic pesticides, then farmers won’t use systemic pesticides. Iconic chefs and food-thought leaders have a significant role to play. In the Drinks Theatre, I’m particularly looking forward to Isabelle Legeron on natural wine; and on the wider stage – investigative food journalist Joanna Blythman. My slot is a one-hour event with the Sunday Business Post’s Tomás Clancy. Last time Tomás and I did an event together at Ballymaloe, it was a blast.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO MOST ABOUT YOUR VISIT BACK TO IRELAND?
Seeing friends, doing things like walking Dun Laoghaire Pier, swimming the Forty Foot, walking or cycling the coastline from Monkstown to Killiney Beach, seeing our importer Mary Pawle and wine shops that stock our wines, eating fabulous Irish food (there is nothing to beat real Irish butter!), being back at Ballymaloe, and experiencing Litfest.
Caro Feely’s fourth book, Glass Half Full: The Ups and Downs of Vineyard Life in France (Summersdale, approx €11.50) is out now, chateaufeely.com. Catch Caro Feely at Litfest at Ballymaloe, May 19-21, litfest.ie. This article originally appeared in the May issue of IMAGE magazine, on shelves nationwide now.