Nate Ready, Hiyu Wine Farm: Diversity Makes You Nimble
Located in the Alpine climate of Northern Oregon, a stone's throw from the snowy peak of Mt. Hood, Hiyu Wine Farm is one of the most idiosyncratic wine & farming endeavours in the US – or maybe worldwide.
Its leaders Nate Ready, a former high-profile sommelier (think award-winning restaurants like Thomas Keller's French Laundry or Frasca in Boulder, CO) and China Tressemer, a talented artist and culinary guide, have gradually built a flourishing mixed farm and tavern where not just vine and crops, but all sorts of natural life cohabit in what Hiyu calls “the wild side of permaculture”.
Their approach to viticulture is similarly wild, in the best sense: the estate is divided into many small blocks, each planted to a field blend from a different place or moment in the genetic history of the grapevine, from Alpine grapes to Southern Italy or Central Europe. This “IRL grape variety atlas”, consisting of a whopping 100+ different varieties and clones in total, is being transformed into boutique quantities of truly singular wines that Nate describes and contextualises using his vast tasting memory and cultural experience. There's a lot of freedom, art and philosophy involved at Hiyu Wine Farm.
All in all, it's a pretty fascinating operation (just look at their insta), especially for someone like us at Nestarec, who's planning to turn our winery into a whole circle regenerative operation as well. So it was with a huge pleasure that we spoke with Nate himself to get more into detail about what goes on in the Columbia Gorge. The interview conducted online was edited for length and clarity.
Words by Lucie Kohoutová & Milan Nestarec / Images courtesy of Nate Ready, Hiyu Wine Farm
The way you talk about wine is always so evocative, showing a tasting experience that goes deep and far, even into the very rare corners of the wine world and history. Do you feel lucky that you had the opportunity to taste all these wines? And how do you think has it influenced what you're doing now?
I feel fortunate to have had this experience. It naturally led me to question the methodology – how can you achieve that on the most basic level, taking out any process that's not necessary? Just whole bunch fermentation, basket press, ageing in seasoned wood... I think the whole process is just so lovely, especially thinking about the sweet spot between the wars before a lot was lost [to modern agriculture and technological winemaking]. But maybe it's just an imagination, I wasn't there of course, but we definitely try to channel that imagery. I like the Leroy wines – I feel that they capture that moment, showing what that looks like if you remove all the pressure to be perfect.
Was there a significant shift, or even epiphany, between the kind of wines that you liked as a somm and that you enjoy now?
I was always searching for magic. The wines that I really recall being especially moving, are early biodynamic stuff like Nicolas Joly, Marcel Deiss, early Marc Angeli, Jacques Puffeney, Paolo Bea, Quintarelli – wines where you can feel they are reaching beyond the mundane. As a wine buyer, I was very much on a search, reading about things, doing everything possible to find the bottles, moving on to taste the next bottle and sometimes I would land on something that really stood out. It's still the case – recently some Werlitsch wines made my jaw drop when I tasted them for the first time, or Mythopia from the Swiss Alps... Certain wines are really riveting and I try to understand how is that possible.
And my experience – both as a somm and a winemaker – shows me that when you take this passion and share it with people, they respect that and it creates excitement.
What do you mean?
When I followed my mentor from the French Laundry to help him open the Friuli-inspired restaurant Frasca in Boulder, Colorado, in 2004, we served a lot of “strange wine” there, especially for a town of this size, and for that moment in time. The bottles were all very fairly priced, basically retail price with corkage, which created this interesting situation where people from all sorts of backgrounds – Boulder is a pretty interesting community – came and drank crazy bottles, like plenty of orange wine, Zidarich… And I realised that people in the industry are often trying to figure out what the customers want, making assumptions about what they'll like or not, instead of just serving the wines that you're excited about, that you want to serve. My experience from working in Frasca was that for the most part, in 99% of cases, people respect that and that it creates excitement, instead of you assuming that you understand the taste of a person that you don't even know.
I like the way you work as a winemaker. The common way is to model one's wine operation according to what the result should be like, but to me, it seems that at Hiyu, you're doing basically the opposite of that. That the most important thing is having the most diverse and living landscape possible, which then gives birth to a wine reflecting that, without any expectations. Am I wrong, or do you work really without any preconceived ideas about what the wine should be like?
I think it's impossible not to have any idea, but there's a lot of what I would call a dialogue. You as a human set the scene with all the things that you are doing in the vineyard, how you interact with plants and animals, and also what the scene is like in the cellar, for example the fermentation vessels. There are many moments where you have a certain control over what's happening, and for me, it's important to allow for other voices to be part of that conversation, to be open for other sorts of expression. To be open to what emerges, to resist the urge to put life in a narrow box of what we think is beautiful… Both in the vineyard and in the cellar, I think it's important to just watch things without being quick to say “This is wrong” and we need to correct it. For the most part, I believe that things that we don't like are just those that we don't understand.
I definitely had a lot of moments where I wasn't understanding what was happening but then when you sit with it long enough, you can learn to get pleasure from something that is challenging. I think it has a lot to do with how we navigate different cultures, not just human, but also animal, microbial, and fungal... It can be difficult but it's rewarding, that sort of transition of moving from not understanding certain things to experiencing them as something nourishing and beautiful. It's in those moments that food and wine can be the most moving. So whenever things are done to conform to, going back to what we said earlier, what we think that people will like, you're limiting the possibility of such an experience. I'm not talking just about unexpected flavor profiles, but also about what happens in the vineyard at some point, like diseases. We're definitely not trying to make everything clean in a certain way, or homogenous.
You once told me that you often have slow fermentations, which is usually something winemakers are worried about.
You know what's funny – we have wines that ferment very quickly and, although they can be quite delicious, they usually are not the wines that will age well, or are nowhere near as complex to us. In the fermentation process, you basically have saccharomyces operating in the middle phase, and then you have all the other microorganisms operating at the beginning and the end of fermentation, and that's where the interesting stuff is happening. Btw that's also what sulfur is doing when used during the vinification, preventing these interactions and basically favouring saccharomyces. Also in the vineyard, every sulfur you spray for powdery mildew or botrytis or whatever, you're killing all the yeast that are also there and diminishing their population again and again. The vines are adapting to their environment and the organic expression to me is how many living things are interacting and learning from an environment, so with every spray, you're resetting that learning process to zero.
I was listening to Levi Dalton's podcast where Jerome Prevost was saying how he doesn't want to aggressively clean his barrels, just rinse it with water, because you have this culture in the barrel that gives you a sort of continuity. I think that too much SO2, steaming and pressure washing, this more and more intense obsession with cleanliness, can be taken too far. As winemakers, we by default work with a medium that's very microbial, and I believe it's better to work with a consistent culture rather than creating a lot of unpredictability because once you eliminate what was there, you don't know what's gonna come next.
Speaking about sulphur, you stopped using it at bottling a couple of releases back. Was it what you always wanted to do, just gradually working towards it, or was it a sudden decision?
Even before that, we've never used sulphur in the vineyard, and never at the crush or press stage, for the reasons I describe above. We used to make tiny addition, less than 5ppm, to protect the wines during the bottling process. At some point, I just felt that it was doing the opposite of what we wanted it to do. It just didn't feel right. I'd say there were some points of fear but eventually we got over it.
Back to grapes – you guys grow really a lot of different field blends at Hiyu, with varieties coming from all around the world, which basically means that you're growing grapes in an area where they're not supposed to be. I like this iconoclastic approach. Like, we're not traditionally growing Chenin here in Central Europe, but maybe we should be?
Where we're based it's relatively cool climate, and in all fairness, there are grapes that are ripening really really late, and some very early. But for the most part, the grapes are not extreme like that, mostly they're ready to go in like 10-day window. Working with 112 different grape varieties, we've never encountered anything that doesn't seem to work, so my thinking is that all our thoughts about what is appropriate and what's noble is an unnecessary construct – you can make beautiful wine from any grape almost anywhere, it's just so much more about openness. Of course, I'm not advocating that you should demolish all the beautiful traditions that have emerged around certain grapes in certain places. I just think that when starting anew in a place, you should follow your instinct if you feel that it is going to turn out well.
All our complantations have their own identity – Alpine, Mediterranean, Germanic, etc – and are exciting in their own ways. You see all the colours, leaf shapes and sizes growing together, and once you start laying them together, it gives you infinite flavour and aroma possibilities. We're doing this more and more with grapes of many colors and the results are wines with different shades of pink – for example, a pale pink wine that was whole-cluster fermented on skins for a month, with a curious mix of flavors and structure, as was probably often the case in history.
That reminds me of Jean-Michel Deiss whose wines you mentioned earlier, he used to work a lot with complantations of all the Alsatian grapes, even when it was against the appellation laws.
Indeed, he's such an incredible inspiration. Wildly moving, profound wines, meditative in the best sense. His work showed us it's possible, and once you see that, you're like a kid in a candy store with these endless possibilities.
Still, with all these different grapes, don't you have a vineyard block that is impossible or tricky to work with?
We definitely have blocks that have taken us longer to understand. You always have these conversations about sugar level, early pick, late pick, but I actually think you can pick them anytime, you just have to relate to them in a different way depending on the harvest date. Take Zinfandel or Grenache for example – they ripen very unevenly so you can have moments of different maturation within the very same bunch. So what recently happened is that some winemakers in California would wait for the last berries to ripen and you'd get these high-alcohol wines. A lot of that is driven by not being flexible in the winery – if you work with such material in an aggressive, over-extractive way, the unripe berries there lead to bitter, over-extracted wines, even at high price points.
But if you have a really delicate hand, the unripe berries can just become a floral and delicate element of the overall picture. You sort of have to match the picking date with the way that you behave in the cellar. For us, with all the different field blends, we have to understand that there isn't always a pattern.
So it can happen that a Hiyu wine from the same block can be really different from one vintage to another.
Indeed, it could be that one vintage we make sparkling wine, and another one it's orange, pink, or even a dried grape dessert-style wine. Or that one year, from the same plot, we make something very tannic and brooding and very delicate the year after… Given where we are and how we work, each grape variety will respond very differently to the vintage – different flowering and bud break times, and different reactions to disease pressure, so it's important to be open and not force a certain narrative on the wine.
Are these decisions only taken at the moment of harvest?
Well, you bring in the information during the whole year – every single time you pass through a block you get new information, especially as you're getting closer to harvest, so you're waiting for some sort of insight to come. Sometimes that doesn't happen until you're in the fermenter. We don't press directly very often, so we have all these colours of the grapes together in the fermenter and you can taste them in there for a couple of days and decide how long you'll keep them there, whether 2 or 9 or 30 or 120 days... Or you decide when you start treading, whether right away or not. There are things we don't do – we don't sort, we don't destem, we don't use pump-overs or punch-down tools. It's pretty simple in terms of equipment – open-top fermenters, feet, basket press.
It sounds like an approach that's relaxed in a certain way, but on the other hand, I reckon it requires a fair bit of manpower.
We have a year-round team of 9 people to farm 38 acres [= 15.4 hectares] of grapes, and they also do the picking, with no contract labour involved. Our yield is not very high and we pick very small amounts every day, between 1 and 4 tons max, but typically we're picking an equivalent of 100 cases of wines per day, 4-5 barrels basically, which is very small.
You must have a pretty long harvest season.
Indeed, but that's pretty much by design, we wanted to have it like this to have things happen on different days. We start at the end of August / beginning of September for the sparkling wines or fresh whites, and the last picks would be Nebbiolo, our “southern Italian” blocks, Assyrtiko or Rhone field-blends around the second week of November, but it depends.
Don't you have a disease pressure on these late-pick blocks, though?
We do! Here's what's interesting: in addition to what we farm ourselves, we also buy a little bit of grapes, around 5% of our total production. When you farm the fruit to sell it, it has to be perfectly clean, and for us, it's wild to work with that because our fruit is not like that at all. Our grapes have plenty of disease, largely powdery mildew, so our grapes definitely don't look as good as the purchased ones, but the flavour is so much more intense. I find that exposing the grapes to disease pressure makes them catalyse some sort of immune response and it produces more phenols or other flavour components. From my experience, the most flavour-intense grapes come from a situation that is dry-farmed, with no control of vegetation, the vines are naturally setting very low yields and get a lot of disease pressure, but we also get a lot of sun in the summer. With such material, we don't have to do a lot in the cellar, it's all sort of there. We don't even really think about extraction because we have a lot of flavour and tannin anyway.
Yet you don't sort the grapes, neither in the vineyard nor in the cellar.
My experience is that human sorting can take out as much bad as good – people work on visual correlation, you're not tasting every berry while sorting. The homogeneity is a problem for me, as I find that it's limiting the complexity. We spoke about Grenache and its mixed color bunches – if you take out the pink berries and keep only the dark ones, you're changing the color of the wine, the aroma profile, lowering the acid, you're losing a lot I think. For me, it is so much more exciting and beautiful when we just bring all the grapes and let them harmonise in the fermenter.
If everything is the same, there's no harmony because there are no different parts. Whereas if you have a lot of different flavor points in different places [of the wine “fabric”] and they learn to work together in the final wine, be it during elevage or fermentation, that produces energy and complexity that is different from the energy that the wine has from extract, acidity or pH. The process itself becomes the primary driver of the wine's energy instead. Whether it emerges microbially or otherwise. there's a memory of all these “resolutions”, as I call them, and the more of them are going on, the more energy you get in the wine. We have one mixed block where the Verdelho is very prone to powdery, but we just pick it and it makes a certain taste layer in the final wine.
I still can't quite wrap my head around you being so at peace with the vine diseases, both in the vineyard and in the cellar.
The main part of our spray program is probiotic teas, inspired by this guy in Vermont who did what they call holistic orchard management. It's basically microbial innoculate, mixing food for the microbes like molasses or oatmeal, cold-pressed neem oil [that works as a pest control], biochar, and you can add nettles or other plants too. The idea is that you're colonising the leaf surface with as many microbes as possible – basically, you're filling the niches, hoping that when a disease comes into the vineyard there aren't as many places for it to occupy. A bunch of these sprays also enhance and provide nutrients, so that the plant can build its immune response. Some plants do better than others, but overall it seems to turn out fine, I don't really see any big problems.
You vinify all your blocks separately and have a lot of different cuvées as a result – does it ever happen to you that people tell you that it's confusing?
Yes, it is intentionally confusing [laughs]. We want every little piece of land to have a very distinct identity and by naming all the little parcels and having wines from all the little parcels every year, we feel it gets us more in touch with the land. I feel that when you have really strong expectations, based on previous knowledge or idea of a given wine, it's really hard to be surprised. Like when you think that Pinot Noir *needs* to be this, Chardonnay that, or the same often happens with Riesling in Germany – every time you do that, the level of your experience can only reach the level of your expectations, which I find super limiting. So much about wine is mystery discovering, research, trying to visit places, and having internal discussions. If you provide every bit of information about the wine upfront, you sort of take that journey of discovery away. That's why, as a wine buyer, I didn't like it when a guy in a suit came and dropped a bunch of tech sheets.
Yup, that sounds just like a lazy way of selling it, from a person who probably doesn't really have an intimate connection with the wine. But in your case, people end up with a bunch of different wines that can moreover be very different from one vintage to another–
Yes, and every wine can be bottled in like 3 different ways, haha.
So what do you say to your clients about it?
I think they actually enjoy it. It's like, “Every single time I open a bottle from the cellar I have no idea what I'm opening”, and I think it's good to be surprised.
It is theoretically possible to put enough information out there that over time, each of our parcelles and therefore wines have a certain identity, and I think that people will have a sense of that. But with wine, everything takes so much time – we have wines that were last released pre-pandemic and 2019, 20, 21, and 22 vintages are still in barrels, so the wine hasn't been out in a while, it was only experienced by people who been here. So there's identity happening, just hidden from the world.
There are wines elsewhere that existed for a while but it took time for people to discover them, Emidio Pepe is a good example I think – they were doing amazing things for a long time but people elsewhere only started to talk about them like what, 15 years ago. I could say the same about your wines, Milan, it's really not that easy to find enough bottles of all the different cuvées here in the US, to have a sense of it all.
That's funny that you say it because I was asking justly because here at Nestarec, given the extent of the range, we do get that comment about having too many different wines.
I think it's cool! It's totally mysterious which is why I keep looking for bottles wherever I can. If it wasn't it wouldn't be interesting! In a way it's similar to Ganevat, I like that there are all these different cuvées and names, and enjoy trying to understand what's behind them, it's interesting.
Do you travel a lot or prefer to stay at the farm?
I stay at the farm probably too much, especially after the pandemic. It's a challenging balance to find for a winemaker that likes to travel – it's useful to see new places, people, flavours, but on the other hand, you are a farmer that needs to be there. You can definitely be away too much, but also too insular which has its own set of problems. I was lucky to travel a lot when I was young. Part of getting old is that inevitably, it's impossible to stay in touch with all the wines in the world on the level that I had when I was a sommelier. But fairs are good for that, also for their social aspect.
How important is the community for you?
It's a big deal – it would be awful if it would be just us doing our things in isolation… There's a really important group of farmers around us, and it's become one of the most exciting places where things are happening in Oregon and the West Coast. Lots of people are doing progressive things, mostly a mix of farming and wine production, but generally a good mix of different ages and sizes of operations. Maybe they're not known so much outside the area, as a lot of these projects only started around 5 years ago and they're often tiny scale, but it will happen. There's a lot of local embrace already.
Do you think that the future is mixed agriculture, rather than just winemaking?
Definitely. Hiyu is more of a farm than a wine project, the diversity is what makes you resilient. When you specialise you become very fragile if something happens in that one area you chose. That's the biggest problem of monocultures or industrial national supply chains, it's so easy for something to go wrong within them. When you start to embrace diversity, on the contrary, you become more nimble. Once you start to learn and care about other things, like animals, water supply etc, it becomes easier to adapt to all the challenges and you start to look at other problems, not just the business, but also the environmental impact.
How do you feel about agroforestry?
We're very excited about it. Here below the mountain, we have a huge timber industry and pear industry and they both have big problems, coming from this huge separation between nature and human culture that they created. Btw it's interesting that the modern environmental movement is enforcing that difference too, although for a very different set of reasons, of course – they don't want the people in the forest because they think they will do harm there, while the timber industry doesn't want people in the forest because it's easier to do certain things when no one is watching. So there's this idea of “pure nature”, but if you look at indigenous cultures in the US, there's no separation between humans and nature, people learn to respect it and live with it. And in that sense, agroforestry is the most important area to explore.
An extractive timber monoculture can be harvested on 40-year cycles with low yields, causing big problems with water supplies, wildfires, drought, etc, carbon sequestrations.. and in the end, all the money being made is not coming back to the local communities but international timber companies. There's a huge amount of land used to create revenue and if you'd have to pay the cost of environmental damage, it's not even profitable.
In agroforestry though, you have this theoretical model where you can create a way of living around timber based on so-called forest stewards with 100-year leases. A family would build a house there, and be responsible for the wildlife – a certain amount of the land is pure forest, the rest works as a source of high-value timber that could be turned into furniture or so, and you could farm with fewer chemicals and on much longer life cycles. And you can layer food systems inside of that – animals, fruits that do better in higher elevation places, or sought-after medicinal plants. Using a combination of crops and animals, and the flow of people moving through there, you could restore the natural habitat and human connection to it, provide homes, and supply medicinal industries. You kind of take the current bankrupt system and turn it into almost a paradise. Our idea potentially revolves around doing chartreuse, having bees, making mead or different types of eau de vie… So that's what's next for us, to create a functional farm system in this pear- and timber-intensive landscape.
How do you choose people to do all this work with?
They just emerge! [Laughs]. We have an internship program for like 2 – 3 people a year, and almost everyone that's on the team now came through that, that's the main way. It's also important to say that a lot of people have been here for a long time, we are not big and do not have a huge turnover. I'm looking for curiosity, and excitement to learn. You want a team that's diverse in backgrounds and desires but there's a common desire to work through the differences. It's not always gonna be easy but there's a will to make the effort to understand where everyone is coming from.