When you read about Bethel Heights‘ vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills in Oregon, you first find conflicting accounts of their agricultural suitability. You also read about romantically idealistic pastoral perfection… right next to Salem, where there were those trials. So, where lies truth, and justice, at Bethel Heights Vineyards? Here’s what we mean:
*From Bethel Heights’ website
“We found… the old abandoned Bethel Heights Walnut Groves in the Eola Hills with fifty acres ‘suitable for vineyard’ according to the classified ad.”
“The land was deemed ‘not suitable for farming’, but the Casteels found the south-facing slope with good exposure and shallow, well-drained soils to be ideal for viticulture.”
So, which is true? As usual, the truth is both, but not because those doing the deeming differentiate between “farming” and “viticulture”. Nor is it because Wikipedia is not a credible source. It has to do with time.
A crazy place to grow grapes
In 1970, Oregon’s Department of Agriculture “thought the state was a crazy place to grow grapes.” Indeed, “Banks refused to lend money for vineyard development or wineries.” But in 1972, the early winegrowing pioneers, fewer than a dozen families, created new land-use plans. With these, they persuaded planners to re-designate the hillsides from “view property” to vineyard land.* It wasn’t until 1977 that twin brothers Ted and Terry Casteel bought and planted the land. They moved with wives Pat Dudley and Marilyn Webb from Seattle and Michigan in 1978, children and all.
The land, originally slated to become a trailer park, would give rise to some of the valley’s finest wines. It would also turn the four academic hippies into trailblazers. Now, if John Keats had anything to say about it, the beauty of the wines should be all the truth we need.
*from North American Pinot Noir by John Winthrop Haegar.
Why Oregon? Why Eola?
Well, it depends on your motivation and what you know. The place has the trifecta of cool climate, challenging soils, and the promise of the grail of grape variety.
Climate—the northerly latitude, elevated altitude, and slightly inland location create a shorter and drier growing season than complete coastal, but not as tight and parched as a full continental effect. The Eola Hills lie due east of the Van Duzer corridor, where powerful Pacific winds (the Eolian winds) further cool the grapes, reduce yields, and focus flavour and acidity.
Soil—volcanic subsoils and topsoils combine with marine sediment and sandstone. The base rock is volcanic basalt with marine sedimented clay-laden loam tinted red with iron on top. This iron helps retain moisture to allow dry-farming.
Grape varieties—romantics dream of poetic expressions through sultry Pinot Noir. This location promised a perfect place to pursue that dream. Other cool-climate varieties flourish here too, like Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer.
Thumbing their noses at phylloxera
When the families planted their first vines in ’77 and ’79, they did it the simplest way possible. They stuck what vine cuttings were available right in the ground in the High Wire, Flat Block, Southeast Block, and West Block vineyards. From there, vines send out their own roots.
Now, if you know even a little bit about wine, you’ll have learned that this is tantamount to vitis-cide. The vine will succumb to phylloxera, that omnipresent louse that feeds on roots and kills vines everywhere in the world. Phylloxera hadn’t been discovered in Oregon at the time. Somehow those vines have survived the root sucker. Forty-plus years on, they are “some of the last own-rooted Pinot noir and Chardonnay vines surviving anywhere in the world.” To boot, they are producing some of their best fruit.
Since then, the Casteels expanded their plantings through the 1990s and 2000s. They were able to source more specific vine clones than before, and chose to avoid the threat of phylloxera by grafting to resistant rootstock as is the practice. In 1999, they planted the Justice Vineyard. It is a denser planting with Dijon clone 777 and employs more strategic sustainable practices and canopy management. It sits at lower altitude than the original vineyards and slopes gently up toward them. At just over 20 years, it’s starting to come into its own.
As hippies do: community building
As early Willamette winegrowing arrivees, the Casteel-Dudley-Webbs knew the importance of promoting the industry beyond their own specific business activity. Pat founded the Oregon Pinot Camp in 2000, an annual pilgrimage of over 250 industry pros. They come for an education- and wine-soaked long weekend of immersion in all things Willamette. There are masterclasses on geology and winemaking, as well as vineyard walks, meals and events, and a ton of other ways to dig into the valley.
Pat also has been the executive director of the International Pinot Noir Celebration, a consumer event where up to 800 Pinotphiles come to drink, share, and celebrate the grape while learning from and hanging with dozens of growers from around the world.
The next generation
When it comes to the modern history of Oregon winegrowing and where it’s headed, the Casteels occupy all three waves of succession to the original pioneers. Also from North American Pinot Noir, Haeger explains that Harry Petersen-Nedry of Chehalem Wines identifies these waves as:
- romantics, [who were] inspired by a passion for pinot noir but [who were] also after a congenial lifestyle away from urban centres.
- successful professionals transplanted from other fields and [who were] able to invest resources.
- apprentices, who worked for first-generation wineries and set out to create their own.
Let’s talk about this last group. When the Casteel’s moved in ’78, five children among the two families came in tow. Those cousins grew up on what was a wild, rolling, and in-development natural playground. Whether it was that playful spirit, the call of the land, a sense of duty, or some other reason, they are all involved in the business. Ben leads the winemaking at Bethel. Jon opened Casteel Custom Bottling, a mobile bottling service in the valley. Jessie and Dee Dee sit on the Board and act as ambassadors where they live.
Wait. That’s just four.
There’s still Mimi. Look forward to a full Mimi feature in the next post. If you’ve ever been interested in anything that has to do with anything, you’ll want to catch up on that one. For now, the completely incomplete version is that she looked after the vineyards from 2005 to 2017. She then moved to her own farm, Hope Well, where her regenerative approach to farming takes the concept of terroir and sustainability to a whole new level. Stay tuned.