Adelsheim: Then and Now

Then

Adelsheim is one of the Willamette Valley’s oldest wineries. David and Ginny Adelsheim recruited friends and neighbors to help them plant their first vines in 1972 – long before the concept of Oregon Pinot Noir was a twinkle in the brain of even the most far-sighted wine buff or critic. Forty-two years is a long time in the Oregon wine business but a mere moment in the wider world of viticulture. This is the insistent paradox of the Willamette Valley wine industry: no matter how old it gets, it is ever so young.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at Adelsheim. The sleek website is informative, not idiosyncratic. Will it be bland and corporate? Will there be talk of market expansion, profit margins and best practices? How will Adelsheim reflect Oregon’s fringe status, unique climate and attitude?

***

A bank of solar panels the color of an oil-slick reflects hot bolts of light to the midday sky. Behind them looms a vast stone-clad building with a many-windowed central tower and two sprawling wings. As I open my door a shrill cry stops me cold. Peering down I see a small brown bird a few feet away, braced on tiny claws, barred tail spread like a fan. She repeats the cry. A low shrub borders the parking lot and, assuming her babies are tucked in the foliage, I beat a respectful retreat. Catherine Douglas, manager of export sales, meets me, smiling, and indicates David has just arrived, driving a Subaru with – naturally – Wine Country plates (a $30 DMV surcharge). Compact and energetic, David leads the way to the edifice. His beard is white and trimmed closer than it was forty years ago but, apart from that, it’s easy to picture him tramping the vineyards all day.

The tasting room is airy, high-ceilinged and oozes modern good taste, as does the conference room where we settle. It is a little lonely, with just three of us at one end of the gleaming wooden table, but the half-dozen balloon-shaped Pinot Noir glasses ranged in front of us made our make our corner feel festive.

My prepared questions, however, lay stale on the page. Asking about the ‘70s feels akin to having an audience with Bob Dylan and requesting ‘Hey Mr Tambourine Man’. I can read facts on the website. What I want to know is: What next? Once you’ve arrived where do you go?

Fortunately, this is on David’s mind too: “The big question is: what happened? Why did a certain generation think [wine-making] would be intellectually challenging enough to make it worthwhile for these well-educated people to spend their lives creating this [industry]?” He pauses and looks at me as if expecting an answer: “Is there an intellectual challenge that continues to attract bright, entrepreneurial leaders? Or is this a one or two generation deal that carries on but doesn’t have the intellectual attraction?”

***

When David and his wife Ginny purchased their first acres in the north Willamette Valley, in the shadow of the Chehalem Mountains, in 1971 the “intellectual attraction” was a complete leap into the unknown, arrived at in a desultory fashion. David graduated from college with a degree in German literature but says he didn’t have a particular direction in life until a stint in the Army. After he was discharged, he and Ginny crossed Russia and spent a summer in Europe where they first discovered a connection between food and the land where it grows: “The idea that food could have intellectual importance was ground-breaking to us.” There was no clear way to incorporate this revelation into their lives, though. They moved back to Oregon and David took a series of jobs that “made no sense”. What did make sense was land.

“It was that ‘60s and ‘70s generation,” he says. “We had this idea that going back to the land was a very honest thing. That you, an individual, could control everything from planting the vines to selling the wine, and do everything yourself, every step of the way.”

We often call this the hippie generation but David and Ginny, and the other founding families of Oregon’s wine industry, don’t fit the carefree, “turn on, tune in and drop out” stereotype. They are certainly idealistic and iconoclastic. They are also determined, hard-working and relentless autodidacts. They went back to the land as pioneers, not pastoral fantasists.

For the Adelsheims this meant a literal do-it-yourself ethic. “You had to learn to do the electricity and plumbing for your house, how rewire a press from Germany so it would run it in the States. All those things,” David says, slipping modestly into the second-person. What he means is he had to learn those things – plus how to plant and tend a vineyard, how to make wine, how to supervise construction of a winery and – not least – how to sell this novel concoction, Oregon wine, to a non-wine-loving nation.

***

The story of Willamette Valley wine is, in part, a story of America growing up. David’s father was a government lawyer, his mother the first woman to head Oregon’s Democratic party, but even their sophisticated social circle was ignorant of wine. “My father’s idea of wine was a sparkling Burgundy we had at Christmas,” says David. “Partly because of the experiment with Prohibition, partly because we were just amateurs, [America] was new to the world of fine things.”

Oregon’s neophyte wine-makers didn’t just have to achieve a level of quality; it had to define it. David recalls “sitting around tables at someone’s rented house, drinking cheap Californian wine, trying to envision what a quality wine industry would look like – without being able to use any of those words properly.” The Adelsheims and a dozen other families, including the Campbells from Elk Cove, were a nucleus of visionaries building a future whose existence depended entirely on their own efforts. A few decades later it is easy to gloss that early period (the Adelsheim web timeline skips merrily from the first planting in ‘72 to the first commercial vintage in ‘78) but those were uncertain years. Like pioneers crossing the plains, they must have wondered if they were ever going to reach a discernible destination.

Now

“You haven’t written about wine lately,” David Adelsheim observes.

Startled, I blather about marriage, a new job, blundering to a halt as I realize it wasn’t a question.

David’s scalpel-like curiosity can be unnerving. The sensation diffuses with the awareness that it is wholly impersonal. He has a compulsion to understand how things (and people) work that I’d call ‘childlike’ if it weren’t driven by an imposing, precision-tooled intellect. We talked about intellectual challenges at our first meeting, six years ago, and he returns straight to that point. “How do you stay relevant and create a future that is tremendously exciting for us, and for people who buy wine? How do you move away from Willamette Valley Pinot and become known for single vineyard [wines] that are more intellectually challenging?”

The seamless resumption of our discussion belies major changes for David and the Adelsheim business. In 2017, Lynn Loacker and her husband Jack (who passed away in 2020), became its sole owners. Tongue somewhere in cheek, David reports they hired him because “they couldn’t have the person after whom the winery is named out doing whatever. So I’m employed, happily.”

His current occupation-cum-preoccupation is five to six year project to define sub-regions within Adelsheim’s home AVA, Chehalem Mountain. This comprises “tasting, soil research and scientific affirmation of differences by complex instrumentation.”

Why?

“The same reason people climb Mt Everest,” he deadpans. “Because it’s there.”

Having permitted himself a quip, he returns to didactic musings: “There is a pleasure from understanding when you smell and sip a wine what pieces that are there because of where the vineyard is planted. And what are the pieces influenced by stylistic decisions of people. It makes wine into more than alcohol, more than a human story. It makes it into a product that represents and translates a place. Human beings have always had an interest in that.”

“That’s what David is about, trying to show people we have something special here,” Adelsheim president and CEO Rob Alstrin says. It’s several weeks after my conversation with David and Rob is amused and unsurprised at my brief account of it.

Rob, whose career trajectory ran from a semiconductor brokerage to wine sales to Adelsheim, met David in the late ‘90s while working for a wine wholesaler in Florida.“It was this idealist brand, all about education,” he chuckles. “Every time I talked to David it was about Oregon, about community. He was singing that story for decades before it was a known region.”

On the way to joining Adelsheim in early 2020, Rob worked for Willamette Valley wineries including Domaine Serene, Eminent Domaine and Argyle; he also founded two businesses and was a regional director for an exporter. Despite Rob’s assertion that when it comes to business, “David is a great hippie… I have to be the ‘no’ guy” I suspect it is a case of auto-didactic, questing, perfectionist deep calling unto deep. “It’s pretty bizarre,” Rob says. “I can’t believe I’m in this somewhat delicate position, but I don’t feel constrained. David is a wonderful person. He’ll give me his ideas, but he doesn’t expect me to follow them. We have great admiration for each other.”

One of those unpursued ideas was David’s urge to experiment in the wake of 2020’s wildfires when a “freak wind incident” pushed smoke from burning mountains into the Willamette Valley and held it there for over a week. The apocalyptic pall drove smoke compounds into the delicate flesh of the ripening grapes. Compounding the pervasive damage was its novelty; it was the first time in Adelsheim’s 50 years that this had happened so they had no working knowledge to call upon.

“If I were making the decision, I would have wanted everyone to do as many experiments as possible, to see what happened,” says David.

Rob and winemaker Gina Hennen, appraising the situation with an eye on the bottom line, ran small-scale tests at Oregon State University. After tasting, they found over 80% of the samples were tainted. “It’s about the reputation of the brand. We didn’t see that we could make any Pinot in 2020.”

This was a second gut-punch after the rolling catastrophe of Covid-19. David, as an erstwhile sommelier, knows the value of pairing fine wine with restaurants. “A lot of wineries in Oregon just sell to consumers in the tasting room, or online, they don’t sell in restaurants and retail outside the US. That means nobody learns about those wines.” Since ignorance is anathema, David prioritized restaurant relationships and marketing. The Covid “hatchet” deepened wounds opened by Trump’s protectionism (Adelsheim lost its Chinese distribution amidst political scuffle): “Restaurant sales are 25-30% of what they were. Nobody knows what recovery will look like. That whole aspect of wine’s future is up in the air.”

Adelsheim has no shortage of loyal consumers, though. Direct sales, Rob notes, are “significantly up on last year, despite the tasting room being closed for two months.”

CJ McCollum Tours Adelsheim Winery , September 25th, 2019. Justin Tucker / Nine Eighty Four

How best to cultivate a wine community is a mutual concern Rob and David approach in characteristic fashions. “Who will be our customer when Baby Boomers die?” David wants to know. “In the US, they made fine wine important to life. Are people in their 30s or 40s are going to spend money on wine, and be delighted to do so?”

“Wine used to be an elite, white drink,” says Rob. “We have a lot of work to do, as an industry, to make a case for what this product is about, how it fits into people’s lives. It’s education, communication, reaching new audiences. Trying not to have wine be such a mystical thing.”

As part of this attempt to demystify, Adelsheim partnered with the Portland Trail Blazers. In addition to releasing a 50th anniversary Blazer branded wine, it worked with the team’s star point guard, CJ McCollum, to produce the ‘McCollum Heritage 91’ Pinot. Its first production sold out in 40 minutes. Rob tells me a rose is coming this year, to be followed by a Chardonnay and sparkling wine. “What we’ve seen with the Blazers, our focus and outreach into different communities, is a new audience. We do a lot to foster that.”

It is heartening to see a Willamette Valley winery reaching beyond an “elite, white” audience. David, who’s been filming interviews with fellow pioneering winemakers, touches briefly on “things… I wasn’t conscious of at the time, like the difficulties that women in the founding couples had being taken seriously.”

CJ McCollum Tours Adelsheim Winery , September 25th, 2019. Justin Tucker / Nine Eighty Four

Taking communities of color seriously, as consumers and colleagues, is vital to the wine industry. Oregon didn’t have a Black winemaker until Bertony Faustin started Abbey Creek Vineyard in 2008. McCollom’s wine is another educational endeavor: “I see wine as part of my journey. I am fascinated by it,” the Blazer says via his website: “I want to share my learnings… taking fans and wine lovers alike with me.”

New people and fresh passion underwrites wine’s most valuable currency: stories. “Wine is the story of people,” David says. “With every vintage, Oregon has new winemakers who figured out the combination of courage, education, finances and passion to enter the wine business. These human stories fast-tracked the [Willamette Valley] to recognition. We’ve come from nothing in the past 50 years. We didn’t plan it. We did what we thought would be important, what would work.”

His final remark is applicable in the present tense. Changes notwithstanding, Adelsheim’s story is that of curious, creative people doing what they think is important, what will work.

Winemaker Gina Hennen, left and David Adelsheim taste wine at the Adelsheim Winery on Monday, November 25, 2019 in Newberg, Ore.

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