If you’d ask Ben Casteel the clichéd-but-revelatory question of how he got into wine, his easy answer would be that he was born into it.
His long answer? “I had always viewed winemaking as ‘my Dad’s job’ and had never considered it a possibility for my career,” said Casteel, winemaker and co-owner at Bethel Heights Vineyard. “The easy answer to how I got into wine is that I was born into it, but there is little more to it. As an English major in college, I had a clearly laid out plan to graduate, travel, pursue my doctorate and become a college professor. But life had other plans for me. When lacking the financial means to travel too far, I applied for an internship in Burgundy, France, for the 1999 harvest season. Working harvest for Domaine de Perdrix for six months made me fall in love with the whole experience.”
Casteel approaches winemaking the exact same way as his father, Terry Casteel, did for his 20-year stint as winemaker for Bethel Heights – the focus is on the vineyard, allowing its voice to come through above all others. Casteel grew up in the vineyard with his brother and cousins, and stewardship of the land is all he’s ever known.
With Earth Day in mind, we spoke to Casteel about the many sustainability programs and regenerative agriculture practiced at Bethel Heights, located in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills.
What are the different things that you do from a sustainability perspective at Bethel Heights?
Bethel Heights has been a part of the LIVE program (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) since its beginning in what used to be our tasting room in 1999, and we are in our final year of organic certification. The LIVE program is comprehensive and includes the vineyard and the winery, spanning from how much water we use to make a case of wine, to the weights of the materials we use in our packaging. My aunt and president of Bethel Heights Vineyard, Pat Dudley, and my cousin and owner/winegrower for Hope Well Vineyard, Mimi Casteel, helped found the Oak Accord, a conservation agreement to help protect and restore oak habitat in the Willamette Valley. Sustainability has been a core principle for our company and family since the beginning of 1977, but in the past 15 years, we have vigorously pursued new ways to grow within our company and to foster change in our community.
How does organic viticulture impact the quality of wine?
I think organic viticulture has had an impact on the quality of our vines; we have a vibrant, lush cover crop on our property and a lot of care is taken to have good spacing in the canopy to allow for proper cross ventilation. How organic viticulture affects wine quality is very hard to know. I think we are spending more time in our vineyard because considerably more care is required than in commercial farming, and by being closer to the vines and addressing them by hand more often, we are affecting quality by simply being present. Honestly, I would love to answer this question “organic viticulture makes better wine,” but the factors that lead to wine quality are myriad, and in some ways ineffable.
While maintaining the health of your vines, how do you keep future generations in mind?
Maintaining healthy vines is important both in the present and in the future for the next generation and beyond. We work to maintain the old vines planted in 1977-79, but also acknowledge when it’s time to replant, and at that time we take cuttings from the old vines and build a new plant from the bud wood to create the next generation of vines that will someday be farmed by the next generation of our family. We are also aware that every vintage between 2012 and 2018 was in one way or another defined by heat, so we are also discussing what varieties may be next at Bethel Heights. You only get to make wine once a year, so decisions need to be made well in advance. What may seem like a bad idea for the next seven years could look prescient in 15 years, and as a generational business, those are the terms in which we need to be thinking.
What is your opinion on sustainability practices in the wine industry in the Pacific Northwest? How are the conversations around it?
The Oregon wine industry has been at the forefront of sustainable practices in the United States and it makes me very proud of our wine community that such emphasis has been placed on sustainability and the continued effort to push forward and improve. Many of our industry organizations have adopted sustainability as a responsibility and core tenet of their work in our community and many wineries sacrifice profitability to do so. I currently sit on the Willamette Valley Wineries Association Board of Directors and we have to put a lot of energy and resources behind sustainability. It’s a privilege to work alongside my fellow board members from wineries big and small and see such a desire to do better work on our vineyards and surrounding landscape. It’s a special piece of our industry and one that I hope continues for many generations to come.