Land, vine, wine, and intention: Keeler Estate Vineyard

A Sip Wines "Winelight"

Craig and Gabriele Keeler, Founders & Owners

Meet Craig and Gabriele Keeler, founders and owners of Keeler Estate Vineyard (along with their daughter Beatrice, pictured in the photo above). The Keelers are one of our biodynamic winery partners at Sip Wines, and because biodynamic farming is still relatively unknown—and incredibly interesting—we’re so excited to share their story, and their delicious wine.

It all started with some sheep, as so many great stories do.

No actually, Keeler Estate Vineyard wasn’t always a vineyard. First, it was a sheep… farm? Sheepery? Sheep commune? I have no idea what to call it, and I didn’t think to ask Craig and Gabriele Keeler when I spoke with them.

Craig and Gabriele bought the land that would become Keeler Estate Vineyard all the way back in the 1980s, that blissful time when everything was big: hair, shoulder pads, cell phones—as well as the soon-to-be Keeler property, 200 aces of beautiful and untamed natural land in Amity, Oregon. In the beginning, the land represented an idea of a new life chapter for the Keelers; with a background in engineering, Craig had already enjoyed a long career in the wood product business, working with factories and imports. Seems pretty unrelated to wine, right? Except interestingly, Craig’s experience in the wood industry was a decisive factor in the Keelers’ ultimate decision to create a biodynamic vineyard and winery. More on that to come.

Back to the sheep, who were the first beneficiaries of the new Keeler estate. Craig and Gabriele’s daughter Beatrice was the driving force behind this endeavor, which was quite successful for a while. If I understood correctly, she even raised show-sheep! Like, very fancy sheep that went to shows, I think? Eventually, though, Beatrice wanted to move on to other pastures, and so it was time for the sheep to do the same. Farewell, sheep.

So what next? As wonderful as the Keeler land was, it wasn’t at all suited for gardening or traditional farming… with one exception. (See where I’m going with this?) Yep, you guessed it: GRAPES! Wine grapes, to be specific. The wine industry was just taking off in Oregon, and the Keelers had found their next endeavor… eventually, anyway. First, Craig had to go see about a slicing mill in West Virginia, and that took a while. Fortunately, the land was patient.

Taking DIY to a new level...

In 2006, the Keelers were finally ready to return to Oregon and grow some grapes, and they wanted to do it all themselves. We’re not talking about your average DIY “look at this cute macrame hanging succulent planter that I made with a kit” project; the Keelers literally built the vineyard from the ground up. And if you know what a vineyard looks like, you know that’s a LOT of trellis. I’m tired just thinking about it.

The Keelers must have a lot more stamina than I do, because Craig still had enough energy left after the trellises to enroll in viticulture coursework and learn all about grape growing and farming practices. By 2007, they were ready to plant—and yes, they did that themselves too, starting with the lowest section of the land and working their way up the hill over the years. Currently Keeler Estate Vineyard has about 45 acres planted, with an ultimate goal of 60-ish acres in the next year or two. For the next few years the Keelers grew and sold their fruit, I guess resting up for their next big endeavor, which was launching their winemaking in 2011.

But wait… didn’t I say the Keelers bought 200 acres? What about the rest of the land?

Some things matter more than money.

As excited as they were to make wine, the Keelers had an even higher priority: nurturing their land. They were even more excited to discover that it was possible to pursue both of these goals, in a harmonious way, through biodynamic farming.

Remember earlier I said that Craig’s background in the wood industry set him on the path to biodynamics? It’s not as big of a jump as it might appear, because working in the wood industry meant that Craig already had a deep connection to the land—and had witnessed firsthand the devastation brought about by years of profit-driven practices by big companies, what Craig termed “single generation moneymaking operations.” Businesses were (and many still are) run without concern or consideration for future impact, focused solely on maximizing short-term profits; in the wood industry, that meant wiping out enormous swaths of forest to meet demand at the lowest possible cost, and never mind that the forests would likely never recover. Churn and burn.

[At this point in the story, I couldn’t stop thinking about this animated movie from 1992 that I absolutely LOVED even though actually it was probably pretty dumb: FernGully: The Last Rainforest.  It was all about fairies living in a rainforest, and this one fairy in particular who accidentally shrinks a logger (voiced by Christian Slater) and then they fall in love and he realizes that his logging company was terrible and they fight to protect the rainforest. Specifically, Craig’s story reminded me of the villain in this story, Hexxus, an embodiment of human pollution released by the loggers chopping down the trees. He was scary.]

The Keelers knew that even as they established a vineyard, they wanted to hold themselves to the highest possible standard in their farming practices. They brought in experts on all the major certifications to educate them on organics and sustainability, ultimately deciding that biodynamics best embodied their own guiding principles. Also, they thought it was pretty fun.

Seriously, mad respect for that decision, because a biodynamic certification is not an easy thing to obtain. It’s actually the strictest of all the available certifications in the US, encompassing all organic requirements plus adding a whole bunch of others. When they got started, they were pretty much told that they were crazy for doing it, on the grounds that it was expensive and wouldn’t result in any actual financial rewards. Craig’s response? “It doesn’t always have to.”

And that, my friends, is integrity.

Keeler Biodynamic Basics: What it looks like on the ground

I could probably write a book about all the amazing things the Keelers are doing, but I’ll do my best to summarize. As a Demeter-certified farm, a key part of their biodynamic farming is the relatively small piece of their land that is actually growing grapes: with a goal of 60 acres planted, it’s just over a quarter of their total property, and that’s a deliberate decision called “polyculture farming.”

Polyculture farming is applied to mimic the kind of functioning you see in a natural ecosystem by diverse plant and management techniques to produce the best products possible in an environmentally sound way—not packing the land full of vines to grow the most grapes. It also means cultivating an appropriate balance with other life, such as maintaining insectaries for native insect life, or installing special perches throughout the vineyard for owls and hawks that will hunt harmful rodents--I'm sure the Keelers DIY-ed those too. Also doggos.

Let’s not forget about the 86 acres of land that the Keelers have turned into an Oregon white oak sanctuary. The Oregon white oak is a highly endangered deciduous oak varietal, one of only four native to the West Coast, whose population has dwindled to less than 10% of its original spread. The Keelers have joined a preservation initiative with the goal of reverting this land back to the white oak’s natural habitat, clearing out invasive plant life and encouraging repopulation of beneficial native flora and fauna. It’s a massive undertaking, and one the Keelers are passionate about as a means of symbolically giving back from the wood industry’s destructive practices.

This is not your average wine, and that’s how they want it

This is a good moment for me to explain the importance of these Sip Wines Winelights. Sure, we want to introduce our winery partners to you and tell their stories, but it’s not just so you can get to know them. These stories are also critically important in understanding the wine you’re buying, what sets it apart--and in many instances what makes it more expensive. This is not mass-produced wine. The Keelers are making wine in a very laborious, environmentally and socially conscious way, and they’re producing wine of a caliber that most wine drinkers have never experienced. Basically, they’re making special wine, and they’re doing it on purpose.

When you buy a bottle of Keeler wine, you’re buying a wine whose existence is a manifestation of the Willamette Valley habitat. It’s a do-no-harm wine, not only for the environment but also for you, the consumer, because you can drink it knowing that it was made through natural processes without harmful chemicals or other additives. Each bottle is made deliberately and thoughtfully, and the taste reflects that.

I know this to be true because I’ve had a bottle, and I’ll say this as well: I did not want to share it. My best advice is, if you buy a bottle, think carefully about saving it for your next party of one before you open it. And enjoy!

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