Mimi Casteel Is Betting the Farm

How one farmer, biologist and winemaker is trying to change an entire industry’s mind about the way it grows wine.

Mimi Casteel’s favorite Icelandic rooster has just been killed, in her estimation, by the UPS truck. The new rooster that’s stepped up in its place struts around a barn near the edge of her property, Hope Well Vineyard, located in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills; he’s pretty but mouthy, crowing every few seconds in an attempt to assert dominance over everything—the barn, the fencepost, his owner. “They’re jungle animals,” says Casteel, trudging up the road. “Nobody knows that.” Since the old rooster died, a predator has been picking off Hope Well’s hens. Small and expressive with wisps of sun-lightened hair escaping her ponytail, she inspects her duck pen in the distance, and explains that whatever the predator is, it must have wings—perhaps an owl, or a hawk.

As a farmer, biologist and winemaker, Mimi Casteel shares the mindset of many conscientious winegrowers: When you take risks—farming without synthetics or irrigation, for instance—hens and vines may perish. But Casteel diverges from the natural and biodynamic schools in major ways. And it’s not even so much that she diverges from them, but rather she magpies certain practices, cobbles them together and then leapfrogs so far beyond any one school that she’s not just growing grapes according to a dogmatic formula, but growing the soil itself according to what it needs, in the moment that it needs it.

“I’m taking a lot more risk than most people think is even responsible in an agricultural system,” she says. “Nobody wants to talk about what that means and what you have to buy into. It is a constant source of stress and paranoia for me.”

Casteel farms regeneratively, meaning she never tills, never irrigates and encourages habitat, going so far as to reintroduce wildlife to land that has been bereft of it for decades. She uses a tractor only when necessary. Where Rudolf Steiner, godfather of biodynamics, was mystical, Casteel is scientific. Where Masanobu Fukuoka espoused the philosophy of “do-nothing farming,” Casteel believes in doing quite a lot, at least in the short-term. Within the wine world, her efforts have been received with cautious enthusiasm, but also skepticism; for many, it’s difficult to come to terms with being told that single-crop cultivation and tilling—cornerstones of modern agriculture, sustainable and conventional alike—are detrimental to the land. Casteel’s camp is a lonely one.

The way she sees it, the current agricultural paradigm is contributing excessively to climate change, and she hopes that her 80-acre patch of land will demonstrate a viable solution. Not only do plants require diversity among them to nourish the soil and one another, but they also require sound, protected root systems. The argument goes that every single time soil is tilled, the disturbance breaks up root tissue and mycorrhizae (symbiotic relationships between fungi and plants that provide nutrition and communication to one another and the soil), depletes hydration and releases carbon into the atmosphere. By planting varied crops, by not tilling, by actually encouraging wild plant and animal life, Casteel believes that we could restore the land to its natural balance while creating a large-scale solution to climate change. To her, regenerative farming is the Manhattan Project of our time.

“We built nuclear bombs when we felt threatened,” she says. “That was a very short, very intense effort of the best minds. With a fraction of that, we could transition 400 million acres in less than a decade and that would change… everything.”

hope well wine

According to a 2014 report by the Rodale Institute, trials have demonstrated that if all current global cropland and pasture were transitioned to regenerative agricultural management practices—many of which are not even as intensive as the ones Casteel uses—it would be possible to “sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions.”

Maggie Harrison, winemaker at Antica Terra, which contracts several acres of pinot noir and chardonnay at Hope Well, insistently sees Casteel as the most important person working in viticulture and agriculture today. “Mimi sees every single thing as a puzzle. There is no plan in advance. She is bearing witness to what’s happening in front of her and responding in the most thoughtful way.”

Longtime friend Whitney Schubert, French portfolio manager at Polaner Selections (which hosted Casteel on a panel about regenerative agriculture in May) agrees. “If Mimi was not in wine, we would know her as a tender of the land, beating this drum in a much less confined space. The reason her place in the world is important right now is because of what’s plaguing our world.” The fact that Casteel’s methods make better wine is almost beside the point, but one worth considering nonetheless.

If you could experience terroir at its most truthful—its most purely reflective essence—you’d have to rewind hundreds of years; we’ve been cultivating land too hard and for too long to have any sense of what real place tastes like. “I don’t think we know what a wine tastes like when it’s grown with its fully intact system around it. We don’t know what it’s like to taste wine that is the most naked reflection of its place,” she says. “I want to know what wine used to taste like, when vineyards were not surrounded by vineyards, but when vineyards were surrounded by wild nature.” Her work is not only an attempt to recapture some elusive flavor, but also to show the world that possibility is so close—as close as the ground beneath our feet.

For years before Casteel arrived, Hope Well had been a Christmas tree farm (“it was nuclear,” she says, referring to the chemical-laden crop). It took two years of soil building before she began growing grapevines, and three more before she began working with the grapes. Today, Hope Well is teeming with life. Within the wilder sections you can glimpse sheep, goats and llamas chomping through head-high invasive brush. A puma moves through her land, as well as bobcats and possibly a long-tailed weasel—which is exciting, considering ground-nesting predators are usually absent from agricultural systems where tilling is the norm. Along a winding drive are a pack of sleepy American Guinea hogs whose bite force is fiercer than a bear’s. Pecking through her 25 acres of vines are those pretty Icelandic chickens and Indian Runner ducks, as well as a mess of cats who are perpetually leaving bloodied presents along the porch. Ever at Casteel’s heels is a sweet brown Labradoodle named Olive. And between rows, a cover crop of nearly 300 plant species proliferates. Each fall, Casteel seeds as many new species as she can afford—perennials, annuals, shallow rooting, deep rooting—with a no-till drill, and once those grow in, she tamps them down with a roller crimper to create a mulch layer. “If it’s green, it’s making sugar [and] that’s feeding the soil,” she says. It’s flowering season, and underfoot are lupine and dandelion, Queen Anne’s lace and chicory.

As proof of her experiment, Casteel says she harvests 10 to 14 days later than the surrounding vineyards, at a full degree less alcohol. This is because she has cultivated a world within which her vines aren’t reliant upon just themselves and the sugars they’re producing in isolation, but on an entire ecosystem of plants and animals and bacteria.

Casteel grew up just down the road at Bethel Heights, a pioneering vineyard her parents took control of in the 1970s. “My childhood was totally idyllic,” she says, attributing her deep introversion to wandering through the woods for days at a time unattended. “I would just sleep out there sometimes.” When she went to college in New Orleans, she knew immediately that her years away from the land would be painful, but she didn’t want anything handed to her. She triple-majored in history, classical languages and math and then got a master’s degree in forest ecology while also studying biochemistry. She worked as a firefighter, botanist and forester in the national forests, realizing that she was documenting devastation rather than alleviating it. When she returned to Bethel Heights in 2005, Hope Well was bought in anticipation of phylloxera ravaging her family’s vineyard. Rather than preemptively rip the vines out, she attempted to save the old rootstock.

“Nobody thought I would be successful. They thought, ‘What will we do when Mimi fails and the whole crop goes down?’ [Hope Well] was pitted against me.”

Bethel’s crop did not go down—its 40-year-old vines still thrive today—and Hope Well has become Casteel’s own ground for experimentation. Twenty acres are contracted out to other Willamette Valley wineries, including Antica Terra, Bergström, Lingua Franca, Cristom and Domaine Nicolas-Jay. The rest she keeps for herself, making 500 cases of wine that are almost impossible to find beyond the West Coast.

On this rare drizzly summer day, Casteel has an even rarer few hours off. It’s the one day per month that she has a crew of workers she’s known since she was a kid to do a full round through the vines. They’re checking for and spot-treating powdery mildew—it’s been a record-setting year for disease pressure—and doing lots of other heavy-lifting tasks she just can’t do alone. Last year, while she was away for a couple of weeks, she hired someone to look after the farm, and came back to find five acres plowed. “It was 10 years of really hard work,” she says, looking out from her porch down into the bowl of her fields. “I thought, I can’t fucking leave this place. I don’t have the stomach for it. I felt like someone had died.” The only place she’s seen a proliferation of powdery mildew this year is in the blocks that were plowed.

Down in the rows, Casteel treads over St. John’s wort, bachelor’s button and California poppy, pulling grapevines that have gone laterally rogue. She’s considering what else she might have done had she not come back to wine and the Willamette. It was always going to be something all encompassing, all consuming, deep as it could possibly be. “I was going to do my Ph.D. on the origins of life on earth,” she says, reaching for another precocious branch. Olive runs ahead through some pinot noir, chasing a grasshopper. A truck pulls up at the gate, and the rooster, of a species that originated in the jungle, crows.

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