When David Adelsheim’s epitaph comes to be written, "pioneer" and "leader" are two words that are sure to figure on it. He was a pioneer of grape growing and winemaking in Oregon with his first planting of pinot noir in the Chehalem Mountains in 1972. He led multiple efforts over the next 40 years to establish the identity of the region — the Willamette Valley — and of Oregon wine in general on the world stage.
Adelsheim and his then-wife, Ginny, started Adelsheim Vineyard in 1971. A German literature graduate, Adelsheim was convinced to get into winemaking by the earlier Oregon wine pioneers David Lett of the Eyrie Vineyards, Chuck Coury of the David Hill Winery, Dick Erath of Erath, and Bill Blosser of Sokol Blosser. His first vineyard purchase in 1971 — it was to become his Quarter Mile Lane Vineyard — followed their directions when he put in his vines the following year: plant on well-drained Jory soil (based on igneous rock) on south-facing slopes. He planted 15 acres of pinot noir, riesling, pinot gris, and chardonnay in the Chehalem Mountains. The first wines were not released until 1978, but Adelsheim spent the interim years learning winemaking from people like Lett, and spending two months in Burgundy studying the subject.
Adelsheim's acreage grew over the years to over 229 acres in four Willamette Valley AVAs (officially designated American Viticultural Areas). Additional grapes are sourced from growers under long-term contracts. The wines have won many medals and other accolades over the years, establishing Adelsheim’s status as one of the leading wineries in Oregon and earning him global distribution as well.
A crucial part of creating a fledgling wine industry is to establish a coherent framework of rules early on. In places that got started without such a framework, there are always problems. For example, California sparkling wine producers have to contend with in-state competitors who have the perpetual grandfathered right to call their wine “Champagne” even though it may contain no traditional Champagne grapes and isn’t made with the Champagne method. In Texas, winemakers have to compete with slosh shops that import bulk wine from California and label it to appear to be from Texas.
Oregon’s approach was to bake authenticity into the rules from the outset. Adelsheim has been involved in just about every major administrative rule initiative involving the Oregon pinot noir industry. Of particular note are the rules of 1977 (Oregon Revised Statutes 845-10) that governed the use of vitis vinifera grape variety names, appellations of origin, and semi-generic designations (e.g. “Burgundy,” “Chianti,” etc.). The rules required that 90 percent of a wine be a single varietal in order to use that varietal’s name on the label. Also, 100 percent of a wine had to come from an appellation in order to use that appellation’s name. At the time, federal law required only a 51 percent content match with the labeled varietal, so Oregon significantly raised the authenticity bar.
In addition, semi-generic designations were banned. Only very limited use of sugar (chaptalization) was allowed in the winemaking process and addition of water (dilution) was banned. More controversially, the “Estate Bottled” designation on a label required that the vineyard be no further than five miles from the winery. That rule was later revised to eliminate the arbitrary distance and replace it with an AVA-based rule. For approval, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) required unanimity among all the state’s wineries, then 20 in number. Adelsheim lobbied every one and was able to get it!
Scroll forward to 2006: The federal Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) had tightened many federal laws, often using Oregon’s rules as a justification. As a result, many 1977 Oregon rules became moot. A rewriting allowed them to be made a little more practical. Thus, only 95 percent (rather than 100 percent) of a wine had to come from a named appellation. However, the remaining 5 percent still had to come from Oregon; no cutting with out-of-state bulk wine was permitted — the one exception being if the appellation crossed state lines, as with the Walla Walla Valley AVA, partly in Oregon and partly in Washington.
As viticultural and enological experience in the region grew, the variations within the Willamette Valley AVA came into sharp relief. Wineries petitioned for, and received, approval for several sub-AVAs: the Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills, Yamhill-Carlton, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, and Chehalem Mountains AVAs were all born in rapid succession in the late twentieth century. It was Adelsheim who petitioned, successfully, for the Chehalem Mountains designation.
The area is characterized by dramatic changes in altitude and climate. The temperature falls and rainfall increases with higher altitudes. Thus, there is a three-week difference in ripening time between the vineyards at 200 feet and those at 900 feet. Soils are also varied, with three major types. Red basaltic — the product of volcanic activity — gives red-fruit flavors to the pinot noir. Marine sedimentary soils give black-fruit character. Loess is a loosely compacted yellow-grey sediment that, in Oregon, is mainly silt. It provides good drainage and is suitable for both white and red grapes.
Seven of Adelsheim’s 10 estate vineyards are already in the Chehalem Mountains AVA. Grower contracts are being switched to vineyards within the AVA as they come up for renewal. For instance, the winery's entry level Willamette Valley pinot noir currently draws on sources from all over the valley, but will be sourced exclusively from the Chehalem Mountains AVA in the future.
Adelsheim's "Breaking Ground" Chehalem Mountains Pinot Noir 2014 ($45) is something of a sentinel for the change in direction. It is 88 percent estate-grown and was fashioned by Adelsheim's winemaker, Dave Paige, to epitomize the character of Chehalem Mountains’ pinot noir fruit. It is a complex wine with a nose of black raspberries and spices. In the mouth, the rich dark fruit is repeated and there are plush tannins.
It may seem odd that Adelsheim Vineyards should be in transition after 45 years but, looking back, change has been a constant for the winery, perhaps reflecting the character of its owner. I expect it to still be evolving 10 years from now.