The Casteel family was one of the early pioneers to settle in Dover Canyon in 1887. Four generations of the Casteel family have worked and owned ranches in Northern San Luis Obispo County. Clarence Casteel planted vineyards in 1914 at the east end of Jensen Road. His son Mel who worked in those vineyards, later acquired his father’s ranch property in 1956 and became well known for his Zinfandel grapes grown on some of the oldest Zinfandel clones in California. He sold his grapes to many winemakers including David Benion of Ridge Vineyards in Santa Clara County, who favored old vine Zinfandel.
When home winemaking became the trend in the 1970s, Mel invited amateur home winemakers from Southern California to harvest their own grapes in his vineyard each fall and enjoy a wild weekend of Zin and Bar-B-Que. These harvest weekends encouraged many amateurs to become professional; many founded their own wineries in San Luis Obispo County in the next two decades.
Impact on the Wine History of San Luis Obispo County
- Clarence Casteel planted a vineyard of Zinfandel vines, one of the oldest clones in California in 1914. His original ranch, of 160 acres purchased in 1912, already had a vineyard of Mission grapes growing but there is no information on who planted this early vineyard.
- Clarence expanded his vineyards in 1927, during Prohibition, on seven acres and continued to do so annually.
- Mel and Elvin Casteel, twin sons of Clarence, planted a seven-acre vineyard on their father’s ranch as their project for the Future Farmers of America in 1933. Although both men owned ranches and farmed for the rest of their lives in addition to holding down full-time “day” jobs, this project inspired Mel to pursue a second career as a vineyardist; he become known as one of the most famous quality Zinfandel growers in San Luis Obispo County from 1956 until his death in 1980. His twin brother Elvin, a stone mason, left a legacy of buildings and projects such as the iconic Madonna Inn, the Mission Plaza in the city of San Luis Obispo and the Mid-State Fairground in Paso Robles.
- Mel Casteel encouraged many men who were pursuing home winemaking in the late 1960s and the 1970s as a hobby in Southern California with John Daume at the Wine Making Store in Woodland Hills or as members of the Cellar Masters Club in the San Fernando Valley to become professional growers and winemakers. He invited them to harvest grapes in his vineyard each fall where they camped out, harvested and stomped Zinfandel grapes, and enjoyed Mel’s Bar-B- Que. Bill Greenough who owns Saucelito Canyon Vineyards and Winery, Hank Donatoni owner of Donatoni Winery, and Pasquale Mastantuono, founder of Mastantuono Winery in Templeton at the corner of Highway 46 west and Vineyard Drive, are several examples.
- Mel Casteel worked with growers as a consultant to design and lay out their vineyards in the 1970s including Art Norman, the first to plant a vineyard on Vineyard Drive.
Early Southern California Pioneers
One of the earliest families to settle in the area west of Paso Robles is the Casteel family in 1887. Over five generations of Casteels have lived and worked in San Luis Obispo County. The patriarch of the family was Jacob Israel Casteel, originally from Iowa, a man who joined 499 of his fellow Mormons in a migration to Southern California from Salt Lake City, Utah in 1851. The group purchased and settled on the San Bernardino Ranch in Southern California in 1851. They worked to establish a settlement patterned after Salt Lake City. They built a stockade the first year where over 100 families lived to protect themselves from attacks by local Native Americans. The Mormons spent over three years building an 11 mile road into the nearby mountains to cut down the trees to obtain lumber for their residential and commercial buildings. They built eight sawmills and one grist mill. The fields were planted with barley, wheat, vegetables and table grapes. The location of this settlement is now known as Riverside, California, named in 1871.
Brigham Young, the head of the Mormon Church became embroiled in a dispute with the American government and called for support among the Mormons in Southern California. Many sold their land and returned to Great Salt Lake City (named this until 1868 when they dropped the “Great”). Others, including Jacob Casteel, chose to stay in California. Jacob moved just west of Riverside to the small town known as Rubidoux and decided to focus on cattle ranching. His son John Wesley Casteel sought new opportunities in central California.
John Wesley Casteel and his Family Arrive in San Luis Obispo County in 1887
John Wesley Casteel, decided to move his family to Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo County to farm beans. He soon saw more opportunities available to his family in the northern part of the county near Paso Robles. It was a two day trip from Arroyo Grande to the ranch he selected. The new home was located in Dover Canyon on Dover Canyon Road, the main thoroughfare from Paso Robles to the Pacific Ocean. The Casteel family moved into the old Marsh two-story house built on a stone foundation iIn 1887. According to his granddaughter Louesa Casteel Scott, John stocked the ranch with heifers he bought from Wesley Burnett, who lived in the small community of Adelaide, and drove them to Dover Canyon. He set up a dairy operation with milk cows.
John moved his family frequently from ranch to ranch in north county. They have worked and owned multiple ranches starting with the ranch in Dover Canyon, the Kentucky Ranch, the Dick Araujo Ranch and the Misenheimer Ranch. Four generations have worked in cattle ranching, dairy farming, grain production, tanning buckskins, trapping and selling small animals pelts. They also farmed, planting orchards of fruits and walnuts and some of the earliest vineyards in the area. John Wesley Casteel and his wife had two children, Clarence Wesley born on March 14, 1879 and Mattie Casteel.
The younger generations have all had careers in other fields while maintaining their own farms and vineyards.
Clarence and Ethel Casteel Plant the First Grapes at the end of Jensen Road
Clarence married Ethel Blanch Heaton, the daughter of earlier settlers in the area, on October 2, 1908. Clarence and Ethel raised four children: Clarence Harlan born on April 20, 1910, twins Elvin Morris and Melvyn Norris born on two consecutive dates May 19 and 20 in 1914, and daughter Louesa Emily born on November 3, 1917.
Clarence and Ethel Casteel bought their 160-acre ranch in 1912. The land was located in rolling hills at the end of Jensen Road, northeast of Vineyard Drive. This property is located between two important wine routes, located west of Highway 101 and traveling east to west, known today as Adelaida Road in Paso Robles and Highway 46 West in Templeton. The property address was Route One, 93, Paso Robles.
Clarence’s property contained an old vineyard of Mission grapes. No one knows who planted them or when they were planted but the climate and soil indicated that the terroir was accommodating for Mission grapes. In 1914 Clarence planted 30 acres with two new grape varieties, which were popular at the time, Muscat grapes and Zinfandel grapes which were often regarded as the “heritage grapes of the county.” Zinfandel grapes had been planted nearby at the base of York Mountain by James Anderson in 1879 and by Andrew York in the 1880s so cuttings were easily accessible. Clarence also planted 12 acres of apple orchards and peaches and pears. His ranch included pasture land, fields dry-farmed for grains and vegetable crops, and woods with oak trees. Most farmers in the early days of the twentieth century planted multiple crops and ran a small dairy operation.
In 1925, the Casteel home burned to the ground and the family moved to the barn until a new home was built.
Zinfandel became very popular as both a table grape and wine grape during the 100 years between the 1870s and the 1970s. The vines were planted in 1914 and 1927 by Clarence Casteel, thought to be one of the oldest Zinfandel clones in California. Grapes became an important commodity in the local economy; during the 1920s additional vineyards were planted by many Italian families who moved into the area between 1907 and 1926.
During the Prohibition years (1920-1933), Clarence cleared an additional seven acres to expand his vineyards in 1927. Each of the following years, he increased his vineyard acreage. Harlan, Clarence’s oldest son, enjoyed traveling with his father to deliver produce to the stores in the city of San Luis Obispo. It was a two day trip from the ranch so father and son camped at the foot of the Cuesta Grade at “Camp Fremont” on their way to the city. Clarence’s grapes were also sold to local customers, but the most memorable story concerns the famous media mogul
William Randolph Hearst.
William Randolph Hearst, Zinfandel Grapes and Silver Coins
William Randolph Hearst (1863 – 1951) was a newspaper publisher who built the largest newspaper chain, magazine publishing empire and media company, Hearst Communications, in America at the end of the nineteenth century. His father, George Hearst (1820 – 1891), was a United States Senator representing California and a wealthy man in his own right. He transferred control of the San Francisco Examiner to his only son, William, in 1887 launching his publishing career. During the next 60 years Hearst acquired control over many newspapers in American cities; a total of thirty during the peak of his empire. His publishing empire had over 20 million readers a day in the mid- 1930s. Hearst moved to New York City, served as a Democrat for two terms in the United States House of Representatives before running for President of the United States in 1904, but did not win the Presidency; however he did remain active in politics.
His personal life was dominated by a long-time romantic affair from 1897 until his death in 1951 with the comedian and well-known Hollywood actress, Marion Davies. Hearst and Davies lived in Southern California. His estranged wife Millicent whom he married in 1903, lived in New York City where they raised their five sons. Hearst’s vacation retreat in San Simeon is now the California State Park in San Luis Obispo County known as Hearst Castle, open to visitors for tours seven days a week. La Cuesta Encantada (the Enchanted Hill), located on the highest point of the landscape, overlooking the Pacific Ocean near the small town of San Simeon was built by William Hearst on the Rancho Piedra Blanca, a 30,000 acre Mexican land grant property originally purchased in 1865 by his father. Hearst and Marion Davies entertained world-famous movie celebrities and world leaders including Winston Churchill, at the “ranch”, with a staff of cooks and 7,000 bottle winecellar.
Hearst wanted the very best table grapes grown in San Luis Obispo County to serve to his guests at his ranch. Hearst sampled Clarence’s Zinfandel grapes and decided they met his standard of excellence. Clarence’s children described the silver coins that Clarence brought home in buckskin bags from the now famous Hearst Castle. The children “delighted in watching their father pour the silver into a dishpan for counting”.
Clarence Casteel – the Fiddler at Local Dances
Clarence was very fun loving and social. He played the fiddle and was very popular as a musician at the local dances. However he was best known for his work ethic. There was no playing or socializing until a day’s work was finished. He was a tough taskmaster. His sons worked hard under his tutelage. They all acquired his life lessons and became hard workers in their own jobs and on their own farms, passing their own values on to their children. Each generation has been very close as family members, worked together, supported one another in all endeavors and is extremely loyal to one another. Clarence’s wife, Ethel, died on January 24, 1945. He later became reacquainted with a woman he had known in the past. They fell in love and eloped, taking the bus to Las Vegas to be married.
Mel and Elvin Casteel and the Future Farmers of America
In 1917 the Smith Act was passed by Congress to advance education in agriculture across the country. In 1925 four educators in agriculture at Virginia Tech designed the first curriculum for boys in Virginia. In 1926 the first National Congress of Vocational Agriculture students organized a national livestock judging in Kansas City Missouri. By 1928 Future Farmers of America was established in the same city. In 1933, Mel and Elvin Casteel, Clarence’s twin sons, planted a small Zinfandel vineyard on seven acres at their father’s ranch,a project as members of the Future Farmers of America. Eighteen states sent delegates to attend the first convention including those from California and in 1933, the same year that Mel and Elvin planted their vineyard, President Roosevelt welcomed Future Farmers of America officers and members on the White House lawn.
The agriculture program was established in Paso Robles in the 1930s and is still taught through the Paso Robles schools with advisors, as well as teachers, available to the students.
This project influenced Mel’s future as a farmer; Mel ultimately became well known as a famous Zinfandel grape grower, and as a mentor to many men and women home winemakers, both in Southern California and on the Central Coast.
Mel married Martha Louise Eaunce on December 29, 1937. It was the middle of the Great Depression. Mel and his brothers lived in the era where each person had a “day job” in addition to the farming of his own property. The three brothers first worked at temporary jobs including harvesting almonds, cutting wood and making charcoal. Mel spent one year harvesting fruit all through the Salinas and San Joaquin Valleys while his twin brother, Elvin, managed a gas station in San Luis Obispo. Mel and Elvin farmed together in multiple locations, often renting land as far away as Parkfield, ranchland located north of Paso Robles.
Mel pursued a career in the meat business, starting in 1937 with just one other employee, Clyde Harvey. They worked for Gene Bryan, slaughtering and butchering, driving the routes delivering meat to Cambria, King City, and the city of San Luis Obispo at Bryan Meat Company for over thirty years. Harlan and Elvin joined the service during WWII and after the war ended purchased their own ranches in Paso Robles.
Harlan was a mechanic; he worked as a civilian who maintained the heavy equipment at Camp Roberts for years. Elvin also developed the skills of a stone mason.
Mel and Martha had four children. Margaret Ann who died in infancy in 1940, Donna Ray born August 14, 1941 , Linda Deane born April 26, 1966 and Douglas Allen born September 18, 1945. The children were raised in Paso Robles.
The Casteel Ranch – Mel becomes the new owner in the 1950s
When Clarence Casteel died in 1953, his ranch was divided among his three sons. When Clarence purchased the land in 1912, he purchased 160 acres. Forty acres of land were not used and were sold to a neighbor at some point, reducing the Casteel property to 120 acres. His daughter Louesa inherited the house with 60 acres on Willow Creek Road from her grandfather, John Wesley Casteel. John and his wife lived there in their later years. It was located on Willow Creek Road about three quarters of a mile above Clarence’s vineyard.
Clarence’s ranch was valued at around $15,000 in 1953. Mel acquired the entire 120 acres land, buying and trading assets from his two brothers since both already had established their own ranches growing grain.
Mel moved his family to Clarence’s vineyards in 1956 to pursue his second career in earnest. The ranch was planted with fruit orchards and vineyards; he planted 100 acres of walnuts. The vineyards were old and still producing fine fruit. Mel became well-known as a Zinfandel grower; his grapes were famous for their rich flavor. Mel expanded his vineyards, dry-farmed and head-pruned with Zinfandel, and grew limited amounts of Mission grapes and Grenache. Walnuts became an important crop, as well.
As Mel expanded his vineyards in the 1950s, the huge rocks removed from his property became legendary. The boulders were hauled away by Alex Madonna to build the brightly colored pink Madonna Inn, an iconic hotel in San Luis Obispo. Elvin Casteel was the stone mason who designed the rock work at the Madonna Inn, the San Luis Obispo Mission Plaza and the Paso Robles Fairgrounds.
Mel’s only son Doug was around 11 when the family moved to the ranch. Doug learned how to drive the tractor, farm and worked hard tending the vines. Mel is remembered fondly as a taskmaster who expected every one to work hard. He was very demanding but he is also remembered for treating everyone well and as equals. He paid his workers well. Mel’s ranch of 120 acres consisted of 100 acres of walnut trees and 20 acres of vineyard. He grew Zinfandel, and small amounts of Grenach and Muscat Alexandria.
Four men who worked with Mel over the years are David Bailey, Steve Crouch, David Osgood and Kevin Healey. In a recent interview with Kevin Healey, Mel was described as generous and insightful. He mentored Kevin who worked with Mel in the vineyards and the walnut groves. Kevin describes Mel as a man who would help anyone who asked him, and in fact could never say no. Mel friendships with those he worked with were highly valued by each person. Kevin describes him as a unique individual, one of a kind. Mel was very energetic and when the work was done he was a lot of fun to be around. He shared his homemade wine from the barrel with friends. Like so many vineyardists in San Luis Obispo County, he also had musical talent, and was best known for playing Red River Valley on his harmonica.
Another long time friend who worked with Mel the last few years he owned the ranch was George Dellagamma. His family had settled in the area in the 1880s and owned one of the early wineries near the old Klau Mine near the original town of Adelaida. George ran cattle on his ranch but worked with Mel during each harvest recording each lug of grapes as it was weigned. The person who harvested the lug had a number on the lug box which identified him. His daily pay was based on George’s records. George was also known for his skills as a water witcher, a person who identified sources of water below ground level with a wooden branch and a legend yet to be written.
Mel’s son, Doug, did not continue the legacy of farming Mel’s ranch. Doug pursued his own career and raised his family in Atascadero. Doug and his wife Levonne purchased their own property in the Adelaida hills in the late 1980s and started developing it in 1991. They moved back to the old neighborhood in retirement and built a house on Peachy Canyon Road, near Doug’s childhood home. Doug had not farmed in thirty years but he decided to plant vineyards in 2015. His Zinfandel and Cabernet are dry-farmed. And as the world turns, Doug is selling his Cabernet Sauvignon to Kevin Healey, owner of Bella Luna Estate Winery who learned to plant vineyards from his father.
Mel’s son Doug shared his memory of one of Mel’s projects. The old wine cave collapsed so Mel decided to build a wine cave where vineyard workers and friends enjoyed relaxing after a long day in the vineyard. The wine cave construction started in the 1960s. The first year, Doug worked with Mel to dig it back fifteen feet into the hillside. The next room they dug was 12 feet by 12 feet, shored up with cross beams of railroad ties. The entrance faced north and the cellar retained a constant temperature of 56 degrees. It became a gathering place for friends and workers.
Mel’s average crop at harvest was 75 tons on twenty acres. Prices ranged from $100 to $150 a ton in the 1960s. They rose to $200 a ton in the 1970s. He arranged to deliver grapes to customers in the north to Swiss Italians living in Gonzales and Greenfield and to customers as far south as Santa Barbara. Yobaldo Ballesteros, a wood and charcoal maker delivered the grapes. He lived on Las Tablas Road and owned a flatbed truck that could carry five tons at a time. Mel had a barn and a storage building where the wooden lug boxes were stored. Doug was especially good with the lug boxes. Mel’s local clients included John Madonna and Dave Wickson, a veterinarian in Morro Bay.
When home winemaking became popular in the 1960s and 1970s, Mel sold some of his grapes to the Home Winemaking Shop owned by John Daume in Woodland Hills. Mel invited amateur home winemakers from Southern California to harvest their own grapes in his vineyards and enjoy a wild weekend of Zin and Bar-B-Que on the ranch, starting around 1963. The event grew each year and continued for ten years, ending when the ranch was sold.
People came in pick-up trucks and campers, some pulling trailers and bringing plastic trash bins to transport their grapes. People arrived Friday afternoon or early Saturday morning. Each person was given a wooden lug box and sent out to harvest the grapes at eight in the morning. Each lug box held 40 pounds of grapes. Mel killed the deer for the Bar-B-Que lunch. Doug did the grilling of the venison and his mother made beans and salad which was served with french bread. After weighing their grapes on the certified scale, some people returned home to press their grapes in the late afternoon. Others discarded their clothes and spent the afternoon stomping their own grapes together in plastic bins; they were known as the nudists from Santa Barbara. Many continued to party and drink Zinfandel made by Mel, sleeping under the stars in their sleeping bags on the lawn. It should be noted that Mel never made wine to be sold commercially.
These harvest weekends encouraged many amateurs to become professional, including Bill Greenough who purchased the vineyards in 1974 that were originally planted by Henry Ditmas in the Upper Arroyo Grande Valley. Today, Bill and his wife Nancy, own those original vineyards and the Saucelito Canyon Winery. Mel also sold his grapes to famous winemakers including David Benion of Ridge Vineyards.
When Mel sold his vineyards in 1972, he continued consulting with local growers planning layouts and rooting of vineyards. Many of his clients were living on Vineyard Drive.
Mel sold his ranch in 1972 to a couple who had started as amateur winemakers in Southern California, Charlie and Joyce Paolilio. Although they worked hard, they were unable to succeed with the vineyard or making wine commercially. However, Charlie was a terrific photographer and his photos taken at Mel’s last harvest are included in the Casteel Legend, a valuable addition to San Luis Obispo County’s wine history.
1851: Jacob Israel Casteel joins a group of Mormons to establish a settlement in the area now known as Riverside, California patterned on Grand Salt Lake City.
1887: John Wesley Casteel settles in Arroyo Grande and moves to Dover Canyon.
1908: Clarence married Ethel Blanch Heaton.
1912: Clarence buys the 160-acre property at the end of Jensen Road and discovers an old vineyard of Mission grapes planted on it.
1914: Melvin and Elvin Casteel, twins, are born to Clarence and Ethel.
1914: Clarence Casteel plants a 30-acre vineyard of Zinfandel and muscat on his ranch and orchards of apples, peaches and pears.
1927: Clarence begins to expand his vineyards, adding seven acres. Mel and Elvin help plant the vineyard on the steep hillside.
1933: Mel and Elvin join the Future Farmers of America and plant their own vineyard of seven acres on Clarence’s ranch as a Future Farmers of America Project.
1937: Mel starts his career at Bryan Meat Company and works there for 27 years.
1945: Doug Casteel is born to Martha and Mel Casteel; his grandmother Ethel Casteel dies.
1953: Clarence Casteel dies and leaves his ranch to his three sons.
1956: Mel moves his family out to the 120-acre ranch with his family after purchasing the shares owned by his two brothers.
1963: Mel invites amateur winemakers to harvest Zinfandel grapes in his vineyard during one weekend in the fall. This harvest becomes an annual event for the next ten years.
1967: Mel retires from Bryan Meat Company.
1972: Mel sells his vineyard to Charles and Joyce Paolilio.
1972: Mel and Martha move to a home on Vineyard Drive and Mel consults with local vineyard owners, designing and layout their new vineyards.
1980: Mel dies having choked on a piece of meat at his home in Paso Robles.
1981: Mel’s vineyard becomes known as the Old Casteel Vineyard. By 1981 the 25-acre parcel of old Zinfandel and assorted varieties owned by the Wyatt and Hight families with Barbara Wyatt managing the vineyards and Cliff Hight as winemaker.