Caro Feely – a truth stranger than fiction
21 June 2016
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Jenny Crwys–Williams: Landing on my desk about three months ago, I got a series of books written by you and I’d never heard of you before. But you’re a South African winemaker, you disseminate knowledge about wine. You’ve got your own wine estate in France and everybody knows you except me. Just tell us briefly about your journey.
Caro Feely: Sean and I, my husband Sean. He and I we grew up in South Africa or both in rural Kwazulu-Natal actually, and we had this dream to go wine farming. In fact, his grandparents were winegrowers between Stellenbosch and Somerset West. So he grew up with wine in the family, with hand-harvesting, with them, when he got bitten by the bug.
Then just before I met him I had been sharing a house in Johannesburg with a guy who was a master of wine and that gave us… that had started my passion for wine. Or taken it further than it had been just as a student kind of drinking taffies and having fun at university.
The instant we met we started to talk about the idea of this back to the land dream that we had. It was well, wouldn’t it be great to have a wine farm. So it was very much from kind of the age of 22 that this started to form as something in our minds.
But we were, neither of us, professional winemakers at the time. We were following other careers and we motivated for a move to Cape Town. Because of course there weren’t any vineyards in Jo’burg. We luckily got moved to Cape Town, we went down and we started to look at vineyards.
We were thinking we’d buy a couple of hectares to work on the weekend but in fact, if anyone has that in mind, I don’t recommend it. It’s not a hobby, it’s not a weekend job, it’s a full-time affair. It’s a bit like having two cows or 50 cows. You’ve still got to be there morning and night to milk the cows and it’s the same with a wine farm, particularly if you’re for farming like we are.
The French connection
JCW: So Caro, how did you get from Dublin of all places, how did you get from there to France and your own estate?
CF: In fact, when we go to Dublin, our very first holiday was to France because we were mad about wine. We were passionate about it and for us France was a kind of Mecca of wine. We came here for a two-week holiday and we were totally smitten.
It was this, wow, the depth of the wine culture, the fact that it was all small winegrowers or mostly small winegrowers. Not all but mostly small winegrowers who were really doing everything themselves from kind of A to Z and super passionate about what they were doing really in their vineyard. Very much about the terroir, the way the soil is and the microclimate.
There was a kind of depth or passion that was something we’d never experienced and we just completely fell in love and when we got back to Dublin we were like oh, maybe we should think about going to France rather than back to the Cape for this wine farm thing.
But it was very much an out there idea and we certainly didn’t have the money to do it. We just had to keep on kind of earning a living. Every year we came to France, did a bit more research plus saved every penny, so we were very frugal about our kind of living.
Everything went into the farm fund and I guess after about five years in Dublin we started to look quite seriously for a farm. Kind of still not knowing if we’d pull it off or not. Three years later we found this farm which was in liquidation, it was fire sale, it was completely rundown. That’s why we could afford it, or consider affording it.
But we had to kind of look beyond the caved in roofs and vineyards that were un-trellised. Falling all over the place, had mouse infestations, so it was a real mess. So you had to look beyond that and it really was a place with great potential. So we were very lucky, we put the offer in.
Within three months we were here. We had two very young children and we completely left these professional lives to come to rural France. That’s the story that’s in Grape Expectations, the first book. Because it was a real adventure and even just going through the purchasing process. It was so unbelievable that I was like this is it, you know the truth is stranger than fiction and I just have to write about this.
From writing about wine to living wine
JCW: Well I’ve got a friend who has just converted a barn in Cabourg. I cannot even begin to tell you the machinations of doing that. I mean it is complex. So you picked up the pen and you wrote Grape Expectations and you’re with a lovely publisher. Then really you’ve been on that bandwagon as well as making wines ever since?
CF: Yes, the following book is “Saving our Skin”. So with a couple of years later where we have turned the corner. It’s much more about the biodynamics, going from just being certified organic, which is how we started out. So we converted to organic, as the final aim was to going bio-organic. Then we also became a certified wine school, so I had already started to give short classes on wine and tour the region.
Since then I guess it became more organised because it became a certified Wine, Spirit Education Trust school. That’s when the publisher asked me to write the book on wine a couple of years later. So that’s the one that also landed on your desk, the “Wine, a Simple Guide”. Which is an easy kind of introduction that I think also has quite a lot of anecdotes that makes it interesting reading even for wine professionals. Because it’s got a lot of information that you might not necessarily have come across before.
JCW: What I liked about it, because there are so many people new to wine in South Africa, is that it isn’t in any way patronising. It doesn’t spell it out like A, B, C but it just gives you the basic information. I met a guy the other day at a French street festival in Johannesburg and he was sitting there listening to an interview that I was doing.
I went up to him and I said you know, are you into wine. He said, “I was so humiliated because I went to a restaurant and I was asked to choose the wine and I didn’t know how to do it”. He said, “So I’m trying to find out about wine so that I don’t sound ignorant”.
I mean he was lovely and I just kept thinking of the number of people including myself who would actually find “Wine”, which is the title of the book really useful. The other ones I think add to it. I think you almost want to read this one first, would you agree?
CF: I think you can absolutely get a lot from all three and I totally agree. The “Wine” book is a great start for getting just a little bit of knowledge about wine because it is a huge subject. It’s such fun and I think you get even more fun out of wine when you have a little bit of knowledge.
Because you start to feel more confident about trying different wines that widens your horizon. I guess it’s part of what keeps us passionate about what we do; is the variety, the excitement of all the different vintages, the different options that you have.
It is an endless world of variables, you know even for the winemaker, even on one small farm like ours at Chateau Feely. We have so many variables that go into our wine that every vintage is like a whole new discovering. It’s like just meeting all these new characters I guess and for me that’s part of the excitement of wine. I think my hope that I give a little sense of that in the book that it really isn’t a dry subject.
I don’t think it is an A, B, C subject at all. It really is something that is about life, which is why 90% of it is actually about the farming. About what we do on the farm rather than about the winemaking. I love to transmit that to people, because I think that’s an essential point as well. Is that it’s all about the micro-climate, the soil it’s growing in, it’s not just about which vat it was in.
Great to be able to share my learned knowledge
JCW: Yes, indeed. But Caro so really the educational side is massively important for you as well?
CF: Absolutely, for us as at the farm today we’ve diversified which is really good news for any farmer. Because when the weather hits you badly with a frost or bad weather at flowering or you name it, or hail. We’ve had all three in the last 11 years. I think no farmer is safe from a weather catastrophe. So having some diversification is really, really key. It’s particularly today, I think for any small farmer you have to be doing other things and you have to selling direct to kind of make a living.
So here we do… the wine of course is the key part of the business, but we have the wine school. We do wine visits and I love doing that. Particularly the focus on organic and biodynamics. Because I think that it is a very, very important part to the future.
I see it growing absolutely, the awareness, the interest in this aspects of wine and winegrowing really is becoming more important. Then we also have accommodation, so those three kind of hand in hand and they work really, really well together. Of course the books are kind complimentary to all of that.
JCW: So Caro if I came to you and did a course with you for instance, how long would it take and what would I get out of it?
CF: We do everything from a one-hour visit that is very light to you can come and do five days of wine education.
JCW: Well look, I think it sounds absolutely… yes sorry go on.
CF: For those who really want to get something concrete out of it. It’s possible to do a certified course, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Course, which I know you can also do in Cape Town. I’m sure in Johannesburg as well.
It’s like an internationally recognised course that I highly recommend actually, for people out there. That’s what we’re giving via the Wine & Spirit Education Trust School. So we can give those classes and that gives you like a certificate that’s valid for looking for a job like in wine in a wine shop or something like that as well.
JCW: It sounds absolutely great. However, let’s just finish off with the books, so there are three books I would recommend to people who don’t know too much about wine. To go in with “Wine”, the first one and then the others as you see fit because they’re all humorous. They’re warm, they’re written simply and they’re not too big as well and I think there’s great value in being succinct.