Fieldcraft: The Wisdom of Farming Passed Down Through the Years

One independent and small winery that I place among the top in Chile is Garage Wine Co. Not only their wines are great, but their work goes beyond what’s in the bottle. I’ve been to some of the ancient dry-farmed vineyards where they source their grapes and met some of the growers that work with Derek Mossman and his partners, like Don Nivaldo Morales, and I think they have the right approach to preserving Chile's cultural heritage and the artisanal wine growing methods of yesteryear. 

Mossman sent me some thoughts about their philosophy, but unfortunately it was too late to include them in my current article about Chile, so I asked him to polish it a bit to be able to publish it here for you. This is what he has to say about what he calls “fieldcraft.”

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Garage Wine Co.'s Derek Mossman. (Photo by Julio Donoso.)

The Secano Interior, or dry-farmed interior, is the cradle of Chilean viticulture dating back to the mid-1500s. It is often referred to by the more contemporary political names of the Maule and the Itata Valleys. Revived attention in these old vines has led to interest and investment, but the machinations of the modern world do not so easily mesh with the gearing of the old.

At the Garage Wine Co., we have worked with small farmers in the Secano Interior ploughing the vines and cultivating the land for many years. We have built our firm together with them. These vignerons’ families have dry-farmed the Secano since colonial times, and not just their vineyards, but mixed farms of heritage seed wheat, free-range livestock, and local market gardening. Yet as South American wine exports have boomed over the last quarter century, it has grown increasingly difficult for these small growers to sell their grapes at a decent price.

Large buyers want more for less and they would have the small modernize: spray instead of cultivate, scale instead of focus and above all reduce the cost of labor. But the labor is where you find the wisdom of farming passed down through the years: the fieldcraft, if you will. With the pushing aside of this wisdom, proper farming is being undermined by short-term thinking and much is at risk. 

What is needed is stewardship, not just of livelihoods and traditions but of flavors, for today these are threatened by a disconnect between new means and old ways. 

To be sure, many firms are today lending support buying fruit and investing in property. Others, such as winemakers and wine professionals like Pedro Parra (soil doctor) and Renan Cancino (viticulture guru) are applying intellectual capital to polish and fine-tune the wines like never before. Each is making a contribution, but if the wine public wishes to enjoy the real marvels of the wines of the Secano Interior, there is crucial piece of work that necessarily involves the inclusion of the age-old fieldcraft. To make wines of origin we must lend credence to the work that has come before ours.

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Don Nivaldo Morales.

This is not easily accomplished because the rigor of modern business requires, indeed insists, upon non-earthly efficiencies and herein lies the rub:

“Be sure every bin is filled before sending the truck North [to the central winery far away].” 

“Our winemaker loves your fruit, but your price is arbitrary, not in keeping with the other things we buy in the region.” 

“Of course we shall have to set you up as a supplier on our internal software—it should only be a few weeks until you are up and running and we can direct deposit.” 

The cultural gap between new and old is not difficult to imagine.

The only real bridge across this gap is physical work “codo a codo,” or elbow to elbow as we say in local Spanish. Both scale and labor need redefining in the context of both the vibrant viticultural legacy and healthy farming for the planet.

Some have called our way of thinking soft, but at the Garage Wine Co. we think the wine trade is stronger with the small farmers in it. In a world that wants more sustainably grown foods, these farmers have a 400+ year head start. Never was this more evident than in 2017 with the devastating bushfires in Chile. A clear and present pattern emerged: the only firebreaks that stopped the spread of the forest flames were the small green cultivated farms of the vignerons. This is why it is significant that our first release of what we have come to call “the fieldcraft bottlings” was the Phoenix Ferment Pais 2017—born out of the ashes. 

The Phoenix is the first of a series of wines that simply put: usually don’t get made. They are small parcels that defy the modern model of necessary scale, practicality of harvest, proximity to transport, valid D.O. paperwork (Denomination of Origin)…and so forth. They have everything against them, but they are diamonds in the rough.  

It was with the enlightened support from clients like Bibendum in the U.K. (who made an en primeur order whilst the fires of 2017 were still burning) that we decided to make more not less of these wines. Instead of tailoring our growth to the practicalities and efficiencies of the day, we have decided that these bottlings should underpin our future path.

We have now commited to making several wines for the fieldcraft bottlings each harvest. 2018 had us making the Phoenix again with more Cariñena in the blend of principally Pais, and a Semillon on skins painstakingly separated from the Sauvignon that had crept into the vineyard. I am afraid we must hold in reserve the details of the third wine, for in the words of the vigneron who worked with us on it: “when there is something in the bottle, there is something to talk about.” Sage counsel indeed. En primeur support continues to help us develop these and other bottlings going forward insuring the past is present in our future.

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