Wine Book Review: Challenging Change in the Wine World and Beyond

Caro Feely, Cultivating Change: Regenerating Land and Love in the Age of Climate Crisis (2023).

They say that time changes things. But sometimes you have to change them yourself. I think of this saying, which I originally heard attributed to Nelson Mandela, whenever I read Caro Feely’s books.

Time and Change

South Africa-born Feely along with her husband Sean and their daughters made the audacious choice to leave their lives in Ireland and move to Saussignac in Southwest France, purchase vineyards, and begin the continuing adventure that is Chateau Feely. The move was all about change. New country. New language. New culture. New business. New joys and triumphs. New tensions and lots of stress.

Caro Feely has documented her changing world in a series of books starting with Grape Expectations in 2012 and continuing through the “vineyard series” to Saving our Skins (2014) and Glass Half Full (2017). Cultivating Change can be read on its own or as a continuation of the vineyard series.

Like Feely’s previous books, Cultivating Change works on several levels at once through her very personal account of life at Chateau Feely (some parts are so personal that I feel like I am reading her diary). Readers come to understand that it is hard to unravel the threads of life — family, business, community, nature. I was originally attracted to Feely’s books by their analysis of the business side of a family winery in France. And then I got caught up in the challenge they undertook to move from conventional to organic and now biodynamic  viticulture. These threads are strong, but only part of the story.

Time Has Come Today

Time is a central theme in Cultivating Change. Time’s accelerating pace affects everything. Friends and family grow older and sometimes grow apart. The daughters are suddenly grown up or nearly so. Time changes things and fast time creates a sudden urgency that pulls at all of the book’s threads. Sometimes you have to change things yourself, as the saying goes, and Caro Feely finds herself compelled to take action, a fact that is complicated by the covid pandemic.

Readers will find the account of the impact of climate change on wine growing at Chateau Feely particularly interesting. The urgent need for change to fight change has spurred Feely to become an activist, so we learn of her expanding role as an advocate for progressive vineyard practices.

Feely needs allies to help cultivate the changes she seeks and fight those she opposes, so we sense her anger and disappointment when she discovers some obvious alliances breaking down. More than once in the book we encounter wine sellers who have the potential to educate consumers about winegrowing and advocate for progressive practices who just don’t seem to take the matter seriously.

I thought of these scenes from the book when I was following up on a reference from Giovanna Prandini, the founder of Perla del Garda winery. Her note led me to an importer and wine subscription program here in the Seattle area called Iola Wines.  Iola Wines, which focuses on women winemakers and environmentally progressive wineries, would seem to be the sort of ally that Caro Feely might want. I was a little surprised (and then not so surprised) to find the “small world” fact that Chateau Feely wines are part of the Iola wine program.

One final change to note. The wine world is changing and so is the world of books. Cultivating Change is the first of Feely’s books to be self-published. Once upon a time, self-publication was thought of as the “vanity press” for books that no “real” publisher would touch. But those days have gone, especially in the world of wine books, as more and more important authors choose a disintermediation strategy and go DtC.

It’s a new set of challenges for Caro Feely and I am not sure where she finds the time for everything she already does, but I am glad she still makes time for her books. Interesting. Informative. Inspiring. Highly recommended.

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