"The interface between man and nature is what it’s really about; for better or for worse, it gives ineffable qualities that define wine: the relationship between the human being and nature in one place.”
The Hood River Valley is a place that reverberates with energy. As we walk through the forest’s thick foliage, there is no man-made sound to be heard, other than the odd snap of twigs from beneath our feet. It’s almost as if we can feel the heartbeat of nature herself. It wouldn’t surprise us if there really were fairies living underneath the dense shrubbery.
This energy is what Nate Ready and China Tresemer of HIYU are committed to preserving on their farm; their goal is to grow vines, vegetables and tend animals with as little interference with nature’s own rhythm as possible. This means working in tandem with nature, never against it. Instead of seeing the negatives (weeds as competition, mildew as bad), they flip their thinking - for example, which plants might be beneficial to the vines? How can the present microbial population be increased so that there’s less room for mildew to take hold?
Nate and China are the two people on a tandem bike, of which the framework is nature. They sit on top of a complex functioning world that gives them life, and their aim is simply to respect it and to help create an environment for it to flourish: for nature to thrive, for the bike to run more smoothly.
Meet Nate and China
“In permaculture, there is Zone 4. When wilderness intersects with agriculture, this is when the human touch is the lightest. When Europeans first came to North America, they thought they were exploring the wilderness of the Eastern Seaboard, but in fact they were actually exploring a land that was being very thoughtfully managed in an incredibly gentle way by the Native Americans.”
This is a duo that never stops thinking. Their fascination with the interconnectedness of everything that exists in nature led them far away from city life. Nate left behind his sommelier career to work harvests in Italy and Slovenia, where he crossed paths with China. They learnt about viticulture and winemaking with Christian Patat and Edi Simcic, and then returned to the US, to work with Antica Terra in Oregon. Along the way, it wasn’t so much the wine as it was the agriculture that enchanted them.
Together, they began delving into agricultural literature, trying to find writings and teachings that didn’t involve chemicals. China had grown up on a biodynamic farm in Vermont, so was already well-versed in practicing the biodynamic way, but neither she nor Nate were satisfied. Nate explains,
“Biodynamics is very important in the sense that it addresses the astral body and energies, at a very diffuse level; looking at the deep spiritual connections between plants and animals, but there’s aspects of biodynamic viticulture and the way it’s practised that’s pretty crude.”
They didn’t feel that biodynamics alone was giving them enough material to fulfil their purpose of farming in harmony with nature. So, first they returned to the very beginnings with Columella’s Roman On Agriculture text. Next, somehow they stumbled upon Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution. These days, it’s become an iconic book, heralded in many spheres of farming for its natural approach to agriculture, but back then - in 2008 - it wasn’t even in print yet; they found their bootleg copy on ebay, sent from India. Nate recalls,
“It was the first thing we read that really resonated with us. Grasp the Nettle, Culture and Horticulture and Joly’s books were good, but Fukuoka sort of opened up a world that we didn’t know existed. It didn’t answer a lot of practical questions, it probably brings up more questions than answers… but it proved to be a very fruitful area of exploration.”
Once they had discovered Fukuoka and the notion of natural farming and polyculture, suddenly other names appeared right and centre. Permaculturists Bill Mollison, Geoff Lawton and Sepp Holzer were of great inspiration, and it became clear that this was the route for their future farm.
“These were people who were actively working on projects in the world; working with agriculture in a very appealing, creative and dynamic way. It was a real WOW moment. Fukuoka opens the door - the philosophy is compelling - but in terms of actual practice, Holzer is the one. He is doing mind blowing things that are real, tangible and palpable.”
The Hood River Valley is the western segment sitting within the Columbia Valley on the Oregon side. The Columbia Valley in itself is an extraordinarily diverse array of microclimates, mesoclimates, soil types and elevations. This means that in a relatively small area (it takes just 30 minutes to drive from west to east) you can go from a cool-climate zone suited to Riesling and Pinot Noir, to a hot arid desert zone where Mediterranean varieties thrive. It’s truly a place where anything is possible, and as the region is less well-known than the Willamette, the price of land isn’t crazy (yet).
These conditions, plus the fact that it’s very dry, making it ideal for organic viticulture, ticked every box for the permaculture farm that would become HIYU. From the start, their approach was very gentle. Nate explains,
“The important thing is that you never create a blank canvas and then populate it. You’re always replacing or drawing over what existed before, and trying to do that in a way that involves as little disruption as possible. You paint over it and try not to have systematic thought, instead working in response to everything else that’s living on the property. It’s much slower, but you end up seeing things that you wouldn’t have seen if you’d just implemented things en masse.”
The property they purchased is a 30-acre farm that lies just 22 miles from Mount Hood. In order to respect the natural environment, only 14 acres are planted to vines; the rest is composed of fields and pastoral land for animals, a forest, a pond and vegetable and fruit gardens.
No machines are used; the only tool they use is a scythe for when the vegetation under the vines becomes too dense, and the only guidance applied to the vines is pruning. The vines are not hedged (the apex is allowed to grow), and they do not do green harvest or even shoot thinning. The land is not mown, nor tilled; instead some cover crops are sown depending on the year and what is deemed necessary. The animals on the farm include pigs, cows, chicken, ducks and geese, and they are released into the vineyard at certain times of the year to provide natural lawn mowing maintenance. The milk, cheese and meat comes from the animals on the farm, and all of their produce including their veg, fruit and nuts, are served in their “wine tavern” - a farm-to-table communal style restaurant.
With regards to the varieties, well… this is not simple Pinot Noir and Chardonnay territory. It’s the polar opposite; if “classic Oregon” is Bronte’s Edgar Linton, then HIYU is Heathcliff.
What many don’t know about Nate Ready is that he was until recently a master sommelier. He abdicated his MS title in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, as he felt the way the court is managed is in direct opposition to his own beliefs about society and social and racial equality, expressed in this letter. At HIYU, they have also introduced a diversity fellowship; the information for which can be read here.
So one might think that Nate’s love for ampelography and grape varieties might have stemmed from his educational sommelier studies, but in fact it was only sparked several years later having passed his exam, when the “WINE GRAPES” tome by Jose Vouillamoz, Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding MW was published. It details the 1,400 grape varieties used for wine production in the world, and tells their histories and genetic relationships. It left him completely spellbound.
“I find such immense pleasure in that book, just sitting down and thumbing through the pages. I found it so alluring but also so frustrating - because I wanted all of them! All those varieties, but didn’t think that was at all possible.”
However, when visiting a nearby grower named Steve Thompson, of Analemma Wines, he discovered that it was possible to buy budwood from the famed wine university of California, UC Davis. They had 450 grape varieties available. It was like bees to nectar; Nate being the bee, the varieties being the nectar. So, by planting rootstock and by grafting, he was able to introduce 107 grape varieties to HIYU; a number that is still growing.
“Suddenly, the activity of trying to decide what should be in each part of the vineyard became exponentially more interesting. Before, it had seemed shallow and one-dimensional. Now, this new possibility was just so much more satisfying. It just felt nuts.”
He believes that many who invest in vineyard land are subject to unconscious bias and fear; therefore people stick to the same reliable varieties, and the evolution of what is possible is halted.
“The uncertainty and fear is often unwarranted. At the end of the day, it’s a wonderful and beautiful process.”
Every half acre block is different to its neighbour, and each is planted to a field blend of different varieties that represent a certain moment or location in the history of the European grapevine, vitis vinifera. This means that you will find a Burgundy section, for example, which is planted to Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Aligoté, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Melon de Bourgogne, but you’ll also find Portuguese sections planted to several indigenous varieties of Portugal. There are also sections based on historical legends surrounding the founding of Santiago de Compostela, and a section dedicated to the genetic family tree of Syrah. It’s as if this vineyard is a microcosmic viticultural map of the world, but the ink used to sketch it has been infused with magic.
They go much further than basic organic principles, as they do not even use sulphur (for powdery mildew) or copper (not necessary anyway, as there is no downy mildew pressure here). For five years they have managed to eliminate sulphur completely, by introducing a new fungi vs fungi scheme. By utilising a mix of cinnamon or neem oil, together with liquid kelp, fish meal, biochar and fermented tea, the goal is to "displace" the powdery mildew with other fungi. The idea is to spray as much beneficial fungal life onto the plants, so there's simply no room for the powdery mildew. Imagine a bar crammed full of people from diverse backgrounds, versus a bar with predominantly the same kind of person. The former is what they have achieved in their microbiology, meaning that although they do get a small amount of powdery mildew, it’s never enough to cause significant damage or loss of yield.
The farming, the plant genetics and the people - Nate, China and their coworkers - come together to form a beguiling, creative confluence of history, plant memory and imagination.
Life at HIYU
With such a vast array of varieties and parcels and with a creative mind, this makes the cellar at HIYU the equivalent of Brocéliande. Nate is Merlin. Over fifty cuvees have been born here; predominantly blends from HIYU, but also single varietal wines from vineyards that Nate and China lease elsewhere in the valley, allowing them to play around with other expressions of site. All wines from the parcels on the farm are labelled as HIYU wines, whereas wines from leased vineyards are named Spring Ephemeral.
Just like in the vineyard, there is absolutely no recipe here; this is anarchist winemaking in its most positive form - anarchy as the utopian dream, not the dystopian nightmare. Some wines are pressed directly, some see many months of skin contact. Some involve carbonic fermentation, some do not. Some are racked, others are not. Some are aged for a year, others for several years. Some are multi-vintage blends. Some are sparkling; created with methods both involving the petnat method, and natural takes on the traditional method. The only laws are natural yeasts, no additives (save for the occasional homeopathic dose of sulphur at bottling) and nothing is removed from the wine: no fining and no filtering. All grapes are foot-stomped and a wooden basket press is the only form of press here. No pumps are used; instead wine is transported by gravity and via small bucket methodology.
These are wines that feed the soul and the mind; brilliantly open, simultaneously soothing yet energising. They were not born to be different, rather they were born to follow a different compass to that of the status quo. Nate smiles, and adds,