Regenerative Viticulture Insights: Exploring the beauty of native architecture in vineyards, with Mimi Casteel

Regenerative Viticulture Insights: Exploring the beauty of native architecture in vineyards, with Mimi Casteel 1080 1080 Sectormentor

Regenerative Viticulture Insights:
Exploring the beauty of native architecture in vineyards, with Mimi Casteel

We recently shared three amazing discussions from our second edition of the Regenerative Viticulture Series.

To celebrate our learnings, we’re releasing a roundup of each of the sessions and some of our favourite insights from them. In this first instalment, we’ve pulled together some highlights from our conversation with the brilliant Mimi Casteel, vineyard manager & winemaker at Hope Well Wine, Oregon.

Mimi grew up working on her parents vineyard and winery, where she first fell in love with the surrounding forests, going on to study a masters in forest science, and working as a botanist and ecologist for the US Forest Service.

In 2005 Mimi came back to farming and viticulture out of a desire to help make changes on private land, where she felt the true threats to the US native ecosystems were occurring. In 2021 she downsized to a smaller plot of land, meaning she no longer sells grapes, and has the opportunity to work more with practitioners looking to start on a regenerative path. 

Mimi is a trustee of The Regenerative Viticulture Foundation, a global non-profit aiming to support a transition to more agro-ecological practices in wine-growing, which enhance soil health and biodiversity. The foundation works to connect practitioners to existing educational resources and organisations that provide advice on how to enact this transition to regenerative viticulture.

“Everybody meets significant challenges and barriers on the path to doing a better job with the land. Our lands have been very under-served – so on the path back to health and resilience there are going to be challenges. Connecting people with that community of support to be able to keep going and try new things is critical work and I am excited to be a part of it.”

Moving away from producing grapes commercially and growing only for her own wine also gave Mimi the freedom to experiment with different regenerative practices herself; exploring how restoring and enhancing natural systems can support nature recovery and develop character in the wine. 

“I’m very excited to not only be starting again at a new baseline but also to be able to lift my own baseline curiosity in terms of what doing things differently can do for the wine itself and for the vineyard – bringing back together an ecology and geometry of an ecosystem – I would love to see where that takes the wine”

Mimi’s background in forestry has given her a unique approach to viticulture and has influenced her management decisions in interesting ways. She has a particular focus on the different dimensions in a vineyard, exploring how encouraging a wider range of natural architecture, such as shrubs and trees, can benefit the farm ecosystem both above and below ground, much like the varying layers of habitat within a forest.

                                      View of large natural architecture surrounding Mimi’s vineyard

Mimi gives the land space to develop naturally while assisting through management and replanting

In the first year at the new site, Mimi allowed herself the space to just observe what was happening on the land – noting what native seedlings were emerging, where, and allowing them to grow. 

This year she is looking to install some more wildlife architecture, particularly around the edges to add structural diversity alongside providing wind buffers, wildlife cover, food and forage. Aiming to create a “multidimensional geometry of symbiosis” through using native shrubs and trees to vary root structures with perennial grasses. Mimi is interested in how these different levels of architecture can reduce a farming system’s dependency on outside inputs to protect the crops that are being grown.

“I’m really trying to explore where the intersections are between what the vine needs, and what the ecosystem provides and also needs.”

                    Pictures of wildlife found at Hope Well vineyard taken from Mimi’s Instagram account

One major benefit of introducing large ecological features such as trees is the effect that their root systems will have on the underground network. In the first decade of its life, a tree will put all of its photosynthetic energy into its root system, and it is that root architecture which often determines the depths of the water table.

“I think we maybe underestimate what having trees in a system can do for water storage and water banking, but you can’t replace that fracking root structure with anything else we might put into a vineyard system. Even our vines now are very limited in terms of what layers of soil they are really exploring with their roots.”

This not only affects the resilience of your vineyard but has the capacity to contribute towards drought resilience on a regional basis. 

Mimi believes in starting with the “biggest architectural features that you want to bring back” and then “dialling in the details after that”. “You need a big base to have a tall pyramid!” – through her experiments over the years she has found that “you can’t spend too much time building the base of that pyramid – the bigger it is, and the stronger it is the higher you can go with whatever else you want to do”.  This is also important for minimising the potential for competition between this larger architecture and our vines. 

“There is a competitive discussion to be had – I don’t deny that especially at different stages of succession you will have competitive forces at play as the system comes into a homeostasis, as you will. That’s why I like to start by putting in those deep rooting perennials because as they grow, the capacity for a cooperative environment grows.”

Mimi goes on to explain how the development of the lower levels of architecture within the vineyard ecosystem and their role in managing disease

Disease pressure is a limitation for most viticulturalists. At Hope Well they have very wet springs and winters, creating significant powdery mildew pressure.

Mimi is exploring combatting powdery mildew without using chemical fungicides. She has found that the vineyard floor affects the humidity of the fruiting zone and the amount of water available at each point in the growing season. Cover crops will provide a buffer in the event of heavy rainfall late in the season. If cover is established it will absorb the water in place of the vines, reducing the likelihood of “blowing up” the fruit due to excess water uptake, reducing the risk of botrytis. Mimi has also been experimenting with cover crops under the vine itself; observing how the vines respond, how long the flowering period is and when they start to senesce, especially during the grapes ripening stage. 

In Mimi’s experience, vineyards are most vulnerable to fungal diseases when vines are growing the fastest. She likens the beginning of the growing season to when you clear cut a forest – there is an abundance of nutrients and moisture and the plants are eager to grow and grow quickly, resulting in large, water swollen cells that lack a certain level of structural integrity. Mimi therefore prefers less internode growth during this period, instead encouraging growth of small, lipid dense cell membranes to hopefully result in a higher density of nutrients and photosynthetic products staying within the cells, to increase the vines’ resilience against disease. Cover crops can help manage this period of extensive vegetative growth by absorbing some of the resources that would otherwise be used by the vines. 

Cover crops planted in the alleys between vine rows at Hope Well vineyard – taken from Mimi’s Instagram account

We also discussed the use of tillage within a vineyard and its effect on soil health & temperature.

Mimi’s region in Oregon tends towards an arid climate in summer, susceptible to drought, such as during the 2021 “heat dome” where temperatures were regularly recorded at over 46 degrees celcius. During this period Mimi measured the soil temperature on her own (un-tilled) land, compared with the soil temperature on a neighbour’s tilled fields. She found that her soils were as much as 15 degrees (Celcius) cooler than the tilled soils, a difference which affects drought resilience as well as the biological life the soil is able to support. 

Mimi also discovered that the vine canopies were degrees cooler in her vineyard, due to the presence of cover crops holding water in the soil, and enabling transpiration to occur. She also found that her cover crops were reducing the likelihood of frost damage during the winter – the covers held heat within the soil, so they stayed warmer for longer, and were not affected by frost until much later into the winter season. 

Mimi’s incredible findings represent powerful examples of the benefits of continual cover and living roots within the soil.

Finally, Mimi shared her advice on opening up practitioners’ minds to new regenerative concepts

While many ecological and economic benefits of using regenerative practices in vineyards are clear, we appreciate it can still be daunting to begin the transition. We asked Mimi how she began her transition and what advice she would give to others taking their first steps on a regenerative journey:

“Observation is key – that you try new things and allow yourself to be curious. Whether you are heading out to count earthworms or noting new flora growth between your vines, the main point is that you’re paying attention – It is also very beneficial to have a way of organising your observations and making a routine of it because you will notice other things as you go.”

“The most powerful driver for opening minds is having some repeatable observable feature to point to – encouraging people to adopt methodologies of recording their information through technologies like Sectormentor. Just having data to put in front of people is a very powerful stimulator for curiosity.”

“If wines are these time capsules of energy, the more we put into a system the more that is going to show up in the wine – make the wine and it will convince people.”

We loved having the opportunity to talk with Mimi who has inspired us to look at viticulture and a vineyards ecosystem from a new perspective. If you want to learn more about Mimi’s regenerative journey listen to the full conversation in the video below!

All of the beautiful images in this blog were taken from Mimi’s website and Instagram account @mimicasteel – check them out to learn more about Mimi’s philosophy at Hope Well.