Deidre Heekin - Farms 4.5 hectares of organic, biodynamic vines & produces up to 1200 cases of wine
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I have been in the business for twenty-five plus years. I originally started out on the restaurant side of the business and opened a sweet little place with my husband back in 1996 that ran for over twenty years. I was the Wine Director which sounds really fancy for a 16 seat restaurant with a team of three including myself! I am a self-taught somm and wine educator who became really interested in understanding wine from a kinesthetic perspective so I could better represent the wine producers on my wine list and better educate about wine tableside. Because our business was very busy in the autumn, and we were such a small team, I could not leave to participate in harvest somewhere, so I bought fruit with no real provenance except “California” or “Italy” from the market in Boston in order to really understand the process of fermentation. I made wine for a couple of years in my bathtub and learned an incredible amount from that experience, but ultimately I realized that, as a believer that wine is made in the field, I was missing a big part of the puzzle and what I wanted to get at next was understanding the farming aspects of wine and how that translated in the cellar. I thought I was at a road block because of where I live in Vermont and that there was no way I could experience winegrowing firsthand in an extended way. I could go, and did go, to visit producers abroad and asked lots of questions about their farming methods and spent as much time in the vineyard as tasting their wines in the cantina, but I couldn’t experience it firsthand. Or so I thought. At the time I had this flash of desire, I became aware of the burgeoning winegrowing community in Vermont. I went to go taste with a producer who had been recommended to me, Lincoln Peak Winery, and I was so impressed with what he was accomplishing, and inspired by the potential of his wines, I left his winery with 100 vines from his nursery in the back of my car! The moment I planted that first vine, I was hooked. I knew that winegrowing, working in the field, was what I wanted to do with my life. I knew it was my vocation. So now, many years later, I am a fulltime winegrower. La Garagista, the label I have with my husband Caleb Barber (a chef), started officially in 2010. We ran our restaurant during the first several years of our fledgling farm and winery and in 2017 we let go of our restaurant space in the village of Woodstock in order to focus completely on the wine and to shift our efforts in hospitality to on-farm experiences. I currently farm 4 parcels of vines, about 4.5 hectares, and make about 1000 to 1200 cases of wine. And I love what I do!
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
My “aha” moment had to do with having the opportunity to live and work in Italy before I was involved with food and wine. Early on in my time living there, I was invited to a beautiful multi-course holiday lunch with a family. We were taken on an afternoon walk in the countryside after the lunch and before a rest, followed by more time at the table for a simple dinner. The combination of those events — plus an autumn walk up to an abandoned village where we collected mushrooms, ate forgotten grapes off the vines, rosehips off wild bushes and figs from abandoned gardens, to be followed pasta and wine made in the garage of a neighbor and served in old water bottles — changed me on a cellular level. The experience of wine as food and part of conversation and companionship, wine as an agricultural expression and a way of telling the story of a people and a place, struck me full-on and even though I did not know it at the time, set me on the path I am following now.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
What isn’t rewarding?! In all seriousness, this is such a fulfilling job in every aspect, from the day-to-day nitty-gritty elements of running a business and working together as a small team, to the meditative time of pruning in the winter, to the anticipation of the work in the field during the summer, to the crazy logistics and challenges to the cameraderie of harvest and the development of the wine itself: what it has to say about our year, this place we live and farm, how we grow and who we become as people.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
Certainly during the time I was working as a sommelier in my early years at the restaurant I would come up against customer and sales rep prejudices against working with a woman and the preconception that I could not have the knowledge or ability required for the job. I am petite and blonde as well, which did not help to further confidence in my expertise. At that time, I took to wearing fake reading glasses during sales visits and during service, which helped quite a bit in giving me street credibility. When I began to segue into winegrowing and production, I was considered the “Crazy Lady” by many in my small region because I was hellbent on working organically and biodynamically in the vineyard, a region that believed that growing grapes in this way was logistically and technically impossible. Those who were more generous just thought my hopes were admirable, but that I was ill-advised and rather dumb in my efforts. Things have changed some, thankfully, from that time. More and more women have become visible in all areas of restaurants and wine production and lead in every sector. I do not think it is a coincidence that this shift has happened at the same time that small farms have become important again, organic and biodynamic farming is increasingly important for consumers and smaller winegrowers have more opportunities to share their small-batch bottles through technological breakthroughs like social media. But these weren’t and aren’t the only changes. I changed much within myself. I am older, more mature, I need reading glasses for real(!). I gained confidence in what knowledge I have and in the knowledge that I have so much more to learn. I’m still small and blonde, but I have learned how to navigate my way-- I hope in an open, yet no-nonsense way. Now, I avoid what naysayers there may be out there because negative dialogues rooted in unmoving prejudice and narrow mindedness do not interest me and I have the experience and strength to walk away from those kinds of meaningless and pointless interchanges. I am not interested in engaging with others who do not want to connect in a mutually respectful way, or listen to each other. I don’t believe that the changes in our world that need to happen will come from arguing with those who have no interest in change. I’d rather do my best by providing positive examples of ways in which we can change together.
Women are victims of the patriarchy as well, and often are harder/more judgmental of other women as a result. How can we as women become more aware of our own prejudice towards each and change that behavior?
Women can be incredibly judgmental and unsupportive of other women, which I do believe is a symptom of patriarchy. I think we are living in a difficult time to deal with big social, professional and personal issues; the conversations between all people are becoming only more divisive, more partisan. I spoke at and attended the North American Biodynamic Conference this past November. They promoted and discussed a set of conference guidelines containing 12 points to adhere to while attending the conference as a way of encouraging positive dialogue and behavior and managing the expectations of a very diverse group of about 600 people. I was incredibly impressed with these guidelines and think about them often in my daily life. I thought the twelfth point was particularly wise, thoughtful, compassionate and graceful: Call each other in, not out. “When someone acts in a way that challenges your values, use it as an opportunity to invite or call that person into greater awareness of their impact. Be accepting that you might also be called into acting more skillfully. Let’s all help each other to learn and grow.” This is the kind of action I am most interested in these days: to engage with people in a way that fosters listening, conversation and understanding, rather than shutting the dialogue down and creating defensiveness. We can support each other with an effort at mutual engagement. It’s easy to point out all that is wrong with an idea, and a person or organization’s perceived actions and words, and that is the go-to these days. It’s much more difficult to be aware of our own behavior and open ourselves up to asking questions to gain better understanding, to listen, and to engender a conversation where people feel safe to present their positions, and to acknowledge that the world and human behavior are incredibly complex. At the end of the day, we may not agree with one another, and we cannot guarantee that the other person will respond with the same openness, but where will be if we don’t lead by example and try? We will never make headway with each other and come together if we do not make the effort to change the way we discuss complicated issues. Change begins with each of us. You cannot expect others to listen to you and treat you with respect and understanding if you don’t do the same. It is time to do away with finger-pointing and assumptions, and time to listen to and educate each other. It is time to move beyond just highlighting that we have problems culturally and with each other, and to actually provide the information and tools with which we can create change. I feel encouraged that this shift does seem to be happening, but we're not all the way there yet.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
I think we can see more female-owned and led businesses and organizations and more education across the board, leading to personal and career development and providing tools for action. I believe that opportunities for women in wine to be able to connect as much as possible with the natural landscape of wine in a meaningful way would provide a grounded platform to foster understanding and healing between each other and our environments.
What changes do you hope to see in regards to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
I hope to see women of all ages, types and colors banding together in conversation and understanding rather than in division. I hope for this immediately. I hope to see women create their own new and improved language to educate each other and to provide real information and courses of action for change in environmental issues, professional sabotage, and issues of psychological and sexual predation. I hope to see more women lead the charge in wine and climate change and investigate more deeply our connections to Nature. I hope to see more women in wine realize that they are never without their own innate strength and that our relationships with each other do not need to be about having power over another. I hope women in wine, like women everywhere, understand that one’s livelihood should never trump one’s sovereignty over one’s own body.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
The message I have for women would be the same I have for anyone: stay true to your mission and your path, and know that the more you know, the less you realize you know. Be confident and find strength in your abilities and experiences, and be honest with yourself when you are successful as well as when you make mistakes. Become articulate in our communication. Be creative; use your imagination. Always be humble; always be generous of heart.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
Equality would have equal representation, equal opportunity, and equal pay between women, men, non-binary folks, people of color; true diversity.
In what ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
I strive to do the best work I can, confirming that women are more than capable to do the job of winegrower and to own a winery. But more importantly, I take every opportunity I can to encourage other women who want to work in wine. I have mentored many women in the past, and currently am doing so. I have a female assistant winegrower, Camila Carrillo. We are starting our third year working together, but I also support her completely in her own independent wine project Montañuela, which she is just starting. I try to provide as many varied opportunities as I can to the women who work with me. When I have women and men working together, everyone is treated equally and paid equitably. We have been very fortunate to have always had a very diverse crew working with us, bringing different ideas and experiences to share.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
The criteria for a wonder woman of wine for me is the same as any woman I admire. She must be someone who is ambitious, but generous; always humble, but confident, incisive, and strong in her convictions. At the same time, she must be willing to listen just as much as share her perspective. She must be willing to lead, lighting the way with intelligence, intuition, compassion and justice. She must be both pragmatic and a dreamer, in touch with her senses as much as she focuses on logistics and realities. She must embrace creativity and imagination. She must be rooted in herself, the world around her, and aware and honest about her strengths and flaws. She must have energy and patience. She must be kind and encouraging. She must be able to communicate and articulate. She must have a sense of humor, and laugh at herself just as much as she laughs at the ironies of the world in which we live. I imagine her much like Artemis, looking calmly down the length of her arrow.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
All of these women hold the characteristics I described above, and all have helped me navigate my way in wine as a woman, whether they know it or not. As I write this, I am not surprised that many of the same qualities keep repeating for each woman. Mimi Casteel of Hopewell Wines in Oregon because she is leading the charge in climate change and regenerative farming in viticulture. Her vineyards, wines and voice are ringing loud and clear across our industry. Camila Carrillo, the assistant winegrower at La Garagista because she is following her dream with conviction, patience, sensibility, and grace. The work she is already accomplishing with her own wine shows all of these attributes, and while her work in the vines and in the cellar is an exercise rooted in serious study and observation, there is also much joy. Alice Feiring, a natural wine writer of great integrity, has always been a beacon of truth for me, as well as a generous mentor in wine writing and in the study of wine. She calls it like she sees it, which doesn’t always sit well with everyone, and which has always made her a bit of an outsider, and this is one of the things I admire most about her. She is willing to throw the rock in the window, and is always ready to go in a positive way to the mat to get to the other side of a dialogue. An outsider looking out, always looking for the path forward. Christy Frank is one of the smartest and most generous women in the wine business I know. She has an incredible energy, incisive advice and a sincere and ambitious interest in helping women move forward in wine. Pascaline Lepeltier because, not only does she have one of the most amazing palates alive in wine today and I have learned an incredible amount from tasting with her, but she is incredibly strong. She is also generous and elegant in the way she navigates the wine world: a true iron hand in a velvet glove. Melissa Sutherland I admire for her deep and intellectual love of wine. She is incredibly precise and drawn to the profound. She has been very successful at continually reimagining her career in wine, and stays the course of what originally inspired her. She is another woman of integrity and one who is continually willing to ask the tough questions and work for the betterment of others. Dora Forsoni of Sanguineto II is one of the strongest female winemakers I know, starting at a time when it was difficult to be a woman making wine in Italy. She is essentially a one-woman show in the vineyard and cellar, and there is nothing she can’t do. She reminds me of the goddess Athena, commanding respect from both those around her and Nature herself, but at the same time full of a mischievous sense of humor. Elisabetta Foradori has been a particularly bright light for me since I was a sommelier, inspiring me with her work in biodynamic viticulture and her complete connection to her landscape and her vines. Vanya Filopovic of the Joe Beef restaurants and her own importation company VinDamejeanne. There are so many reasons to admire Vanya as a sommelier, as an importer, as a restaurateur, and one of the most generous and gracious people I have ever met who personifies hospitality. At the same time, she is a warrior for beauty and integrity in wine. Lindsay Brennan is an amazing blend of honesty and passion and is of thoughtful, sincere, and judicial character. The wine world cannot have enough women like her. I admire incredibly the way she has been building her career, the lovely restaurant Alma she runs with her chef husband Juan and her importation company Vin i Vida, all while staying true to her clear-eyed mission and path.