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Salem's Bethel Heights Vineyard helped prove grapes can be grown in PNW's cooler climate.

Mitch Lies

February 22, 2024

7 Min Read
Bethel Heights leaders
Bethel Heights Winemaker Ben Casteel, with company President Pat Dudley and Vineyard Manager Ted Casteel at the Eola-Amity Hills vineyard just west of Salem.Andrea Johnson

In 1977, when two couples, twins Ted and Terry Casteel and their wives, Pat Dudley and Marilyn Webb, started Bethel Heights Vineyard, it wasn’t without the knowledge that there was potential in growing wine grapes in Oregon.

By then, industry pioneers like David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards, who planted the first Pinot Noir grapes in the Willamette Valley in 1965, and Dick Erath of Erath Vineyards, who planted his first Pinot Noir in the valley in 1969, had shown wine grapes could be successfully grown in the cooler climate of northern Oregon.

But the venture was not without risks, either, and looking back today, it is noteworthy both in its boldness, as the couples left behind careers in academia, and in how it resonates with others who shaped the Oregon wine grape industry.

That said, today, when people talk about the history of Oregon wine, Bethel Heights is likely not the first vineyard to come to mind. Most think of Richard Sommer, who planted the first commercial wine grapes in Oregon near the southern Oregon city of Roseburg, in 1961. Then there was Lett in 1965, followed by Charles Coury of David Hill Winery and Erath. Dick Ponzi, Bill and Susan Sokol Blosser, David Adelsheim followed with vineyards in the early 1970s.

“We were really the second wave,” Pat Dudley said in an interview with Western Farm Press.

“But I think we played a role in the early years,” said Ted Casteel. “The original pioneers were taking a big risk, and these people in general had very small vineyards. They weren’t going to plant a 100-acre vineyard, whereas by the time we were done, we had a 70-acre vineyard, and we were the suppliers of a lot of their fruit.”

“And that was true of the lot of the vineyards down here,” Dudley said. “The Eola-Amity Hills had some significant vineyards, like Seven Springs, for instance, and Temperance Hill and Canary Hill Vineyard and the O’Connor Vineyard. Those were all friends and neighbors and all of them were growing grapes and not making wine and we were selling the fruit to the wineries in Yamhill County.”

“In the beginning, we were making a little wine in Terry and Marilyn’s basement, but we weren’t really in the wine business,” Ted Casteel said. “We were basically farmers.”

Bethel Heights, which harvested its first grapes in 1981, in fact, didn’t make any wine until 1984, when Terry Casteel, who passed away on Nov. 30 after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease, made the winery’s first vintage. Today the vineyard produces about 11,000 cases annually and sells its wine in 34 states, Europe and Canada.


The vineyard’s start, innocuously enough, can be traced to an advertisement in a trade publication announcing the sale of vineyard property in the Eola-Amity hills just west of Salem. At the time, in the mid-1970s, the two couples were both tiring of life in academia and were looking to get into the wine industry, and specifically into growing and producing Pinot Noir.

“We had been tasting wine together for years, and what began to emerge was a love for Pinot Noir,” said Webb. “It was so flexible. You could have it with seafood, it can stand up to some spice. It seems so perfect as a wine for many different occasions and different menus, whereas with Cabernet, not so much. You know, you need a more robust piece of meat.”

By then, Ted Casteel and Pat Dudley, who had spent time in Europe tasting wines, were completing a one-year course in viticulture and enology at UC Davis after leaving their teaching positions at the University of Michigan, and the vineyard seemed an ideal location to launch their dream.

“We had just taken a class about vineyard economics,” Dudley said. “And the lesson of the day was it takes 25 acres to support a family. You can make a living growing grapes on 25 acres, and this was a 50-acre potential vineyard, and we had two families, and so it was sort of like it was made for us.”

The property is fed by a spring that runs through the vineyard, has mid-level south facing slopes, well-drained volcanic soil and other features that are ideal for wine grape growing. Still, the couples did their due diligence before taking the plunge. They asked Dick Erath what he thought of the property.

“The first thing he did, which I thought was interesting, is he wanted to talk to the cherry growers in this region, and he came back and said they wanted to know how the water source was,” Dudley said. “And so the fact that we have this pure spring-fed water running through our property that is a perennial spring was a real selling point for us.”

That was February. By the following summer, Terry Casteel and Marilyn Webb had sold their home in Seattle, Terry had left his psychology practice and Marilyn had left her job in the provost office at the University of Washington to venture south, and Ted Casteel and Pat Dudley came north from UC Davis to the rolling hills just west of Salem.

At the time, the property was planted to 14 acres of Pinot Noir grapes, and the couples quickly set out to expand the vineyard’s footprint, eventually growing to the 100 acres that Bethel Heights encompasses today. Over the years, they constructed an attractive tasing room, complete with offices and wood-paneled meeting rooms, and a state-of-the-art wine making facility and an expansive cellar.

A unique bond

Today it can be said that Bethel Heights is emblematic of the best of the Oregon wine industry, and particularly the Willamette Valley wine industry and the propensity of its viticulturists and enologists to share information about its signature varietal, Pinot Noir.

The vineyard, for example, was one of the founders of Oregon Pinot Camp, an annual event launched in 2000 that serves as a marketing vehicle for not just Bethel Heights but for all Oregon vineyards that produce Pinot Noir. All four founders have regularly served on industry boards over the years, volunteering their time for the betterment of the Oregon wine industry. And the founders regularly participate in the International Pinot Noir Celebration, held annually in McMinnville, Oregon, during which wine grape growers and enologists share information.

“That is one of the things that differentiates the Oregon wine industry from the Washington wine industry,” Dudley said. “The people that are making wine up there always say, ‘Oh, you guys are so lucky because you’re focused on one variety.’ It’s been a really fortunate thing in terms of identity of the region and being able to market our wine together.”

Bethel Heights’ venture into winemaking had an inauspicious start in that Willamette Valley grape grower suffered catastrophic losses in 1984 to an extremely cold and wet harvest season. And there have been other years where the frailties of agriculture, so dependent on weather and other forces, proved daunting, including as recently as 2020 when the winery chose to sell its grapes for bulk at pennies on the dollar because of smoke damage from wildfires.

But Bethel Heights persevered and today the winery boasts multiple award-winning and highly rated wines. Among some of its recent releases, Bethel Heights Vineyards 2021 Chardonnay Casteel scored a 97 from Decanter. Its 2021 Pinot Noir Casteel scored a 96 also from Decanter. Wine Advocate rated that same 2021 Pinot Noir Casteel 99 and rated the vineyard’s 2021 Pinot Noir Justice Vineyard a 98+. Wine Spectator gave the vineyard’s Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills Justice Vineyard 2021 93 points and gave the vineyard’s Pinot Noir Eola-Amity Hills Casteel 2021 94 points.

A significant development over the years has been the embrace of the winery by the founders’ children. Ben Casteel, son to Terry Casteel and Marilyn Webb, today is the company’s winemaker, and has been producing world class wines since 2005. The couples’ other children serve on the winery’s Board of Directors and have been involved in the operation for several years.

To this day, Ted Casteel continues as vineyard manager, and Pat Dudley is president of the company.

As the Oregon wine industry continues its rapid expansion to where today more than 700 wineries operate in the Willamette Valley, and as more and more of the original Oregon wineries are sold to investment groups and large winery conglomerates from outside of Oregon, Bethel Heights stands among just a handful of original Oregon wineries still operating. And the story of Bethel Heights is emblematic of the Oregon wine industry’s rich history, a history full of challenges and successes and one that has helped defined a wine culture that today ranks among the best in the world.

Bethel Heights Vineyard is at 6060 Bethel Heights Road, Salem, Oregon 97304. The tasting room is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Reservations are recommended.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Lies

Mitch Lies is a freelance writer based in Oregon.

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