Versatile Viticulture with Saskia Tingey of Hamel Family Wines
On any given day, you might find Saskia Tingey digging up cow manure she buried deep in the ground six months earlier, intentionally releasing insects into the vineyard, poring over historical data in spreadsheets, or speaking fluent Spanish to a member of her crew.
”It’s never boring.”
But perhaps an even more important list would be of the things you’d never find her doing—spraying weeds or attacking pests with harsh or harmful chemicals, engaging in unsustainable practices, or attempting to extract too much too quickly from the vines and the land.
As a viticulturist at Hamel Family Wines, Saskia practices Biodynamic farming, which focuses on using what you have on the farm, on being in sync with nature, and on prioritizing the health of the entire ecosystem—soil, plants, insects, animals, people and all.
It’s an approach that comes with its fair share of logistical challenges and that requires a great deal of ingenuity and versatility to successfully pull off.
Homegrown, Internationally Seasoned
Saskia grew up in Sonoma County, even played tag in a vineyard or two as a kid. But she didn’t grow up in a wine family and actually experienced her first harvest in New Zealand of all places while backpacking in 2016. “It was beautiful.”
From there, she dabbled in agriculture at an urban farm in New York City and in winery production at a couple wineries in California, before heading to Trentino, Italy, for an apprenticeship and viticulture program at Agricola Foradori.
That’s where she first began to appreciate the artistry involved in winemaking. “We’d have lunch with local producers who would come and bring things they had made and who were connected to the land and growing grapes. It was a lot of hard work, but in agriculture I felt at home.”
Versatility & Viticulture
Since then, Saskia has worked at Redwood Empire Vineyard Management, and most recently, at Hamel Family Wines, where she currently supervises a hundred acres of grapes in Sonoma Valley and Moon Mountain, oversees the management of the Biodynamics program, collects data on everything from insect activity and shoot elongation to disease pressure and rate of canopy growth, works closely with various consultants, and tends to the five head of highland cattle who live on the farm.
“It’s a combination of vineyard management, people management, and data collection. No two days are the same.”
She credits her success in the industry to five super practical things.
One: organization. “There’s a lot of data points, a lot to monitor, and a lot of things to keep in order, especially because we break things down into such small scales.”
Two: flexibility. Mother nature is unpredictable. “One year you’ll get ten inches of rain and the next you’ll get fifty. You need the ability to throw your plan out the window and pivot while keeping your cool.”
Three: speaking Spanish. “The ability to learn languages and understand different cultures is a big, important part of my job.”
Four: the ability to endure long hours outside. “You can’t be afraid of insects or snakes, and you have to be ready for intense climate shifts.”
Five: data interpretation. “It can be overwhelming, getting all this data from all these different sources about all these different things. Soil health. Vine growth. Moisture. You have to get good at noticing patterns, sandwich all the different layers together, and hone your intuition to sort out what data matters and what’s superfluous.”
At Hamel, Saskia practices Biodynamic farming, which was the first organic agricultural movement initially developed in 1924 by an Austrian named Rudolf Steiner.
“Like in organic farming, we don’t use any synthetic chemicals or pesticides. Instead of using a multitude of fungicides, we forage and brew plant teas that have antifungal properties to combat diseases like mildew. Many of these plants (nettle, horsetail, etc) are central to Biodynamics for both practical and philosophical reasons.”
“The approach is also really focused on soil fertility and using what you have on your farm. So you set aside acreage for non-production, try to keep things more wild, and include animals in your production, like our five highland cows.”
“We ferment the cow manure in cow horns by burying it deep underground for half the year. Then we mix it with water and spray it on. It’s highly macrobiotic and great for fungal health.”
Rather than seeing a problem, like pests or weeds, and attacking, Saskia takes an observational and question-based approach. “We don’t kill or attack. There are no enemies, only symptoms of an imbalance. We ask questions like: What’s in our soil that’s leading to this result? What’s out of balance and how can we go about bringing it back into balance?”
“An added bonus is that you get to work in a place where there are no lingering chemicals and you never have to worry about whether the plants have just been sprayed with something carcinogenic. It feels nice to work in a safe environment.”
“And from a wine perspective, practicing Biodynamics helps you produce a wine that’s true and representative of a place. It does that the best of any farming paradigm.”
On Dry Irrigation and Technology
80% of the land Saskia manages is dry farmed, meaning they don’t irrigate at all.
“We time a lot of farming practices so nothing is wasted to the best of our ability. We come in earlier than normal to remove extra shoots and avoid wasting water on material we don’t want anyway. We add fertility to the soil and increase its capacity to hold water. We develop vines to go deep. We plant on sites we know are conducive to dry farming. And we train new vineyard blocks to be more water efficient and transpire less water based on the way the canopy interacts with the sun and responds to the heat.”
“Dry farming is more than just not irrigating. You have to farm differently when you know you’re not going to water.”
Technology also plays a critical role in Saskia’s approach because “it can be really helpful in not wasting resources.” With more precise measurements and better information, she’s able to conserve resources, using less diesel, compost, and water. “It’s about precision viticulture, where you can be super specific in targeting only the vines that actually need resources.”
Technology also allows her to use data from previous vintages to spot patterns and make better decisions. “Layering on historical data helps you know what to expect and how different harvests looked in the past.”
Overcoming Challenges, Enjoying the Process, and Taking Pride in What You Do
What comes across most when you speak with Saskia is her passion for every part of viticulture—the challenges, the work, the lifestyle, the industry, her peers and the impact she has on the world.
“The most challenging part is putting so much work into something over the course of ten or twelve months and watching it all go up in flames because of a severe weather event. That can be really depressing. But you get another chance next year, which always brightens your spirits.”
“My favorite part of the process is pruning early on. It’s chilly. You’re doing a job that takes a lot of patience and care. You’re evaluating what needs to be done, seeing what someone did last year and thinking about what their intentions were, continuing that process. You’re optimistic because you’re healed from the craziness and drama from last year’s harvest and nothing bad has happened yet this year. “
“I also enjoy constantly keeping up with change because it puts you really in sync with the seasons. Winegrowing has taught me that no matter what you plan for you can’t be guaranteed that it will happen.”
“I’m really proud of finding a job early in my life that brings me a lot of joy and that makes me really excited. Both my parents have worked in the same job in the airlines for years and they love it. That was always really inspiring to me. I never wanted to suffer through something.“
“I chose this career because it’s such a wonderful lifestyle. It brings me to really beautiful landscapes and I’m surrounded by friends and colleagues who are so enthusiastic about what they’re doing. All we talk about is wine. And we love it. No one is here to make billions of dollars. We’re in it because it excites us.”
“It’s a really wonderful industry because whether you have a scientific mind or an artistic mind or are interested in history, you have a chance to succeed. There are so many ways to approach it and the risk of boredom is low.”
But perhaps most of all, she’s proud of how her current approach to farming contributes to the world. “Agriculture can be destructive and manipulative of natural and wild spaces, so I’m proud of prioritizing and aligning myself with farming philosophies and practices that have the potential to do good.”
Cheers to that, Saskia, cheers to that.