Taste and Place at Adelsheim Vineyard

Sunflowers tilted to face their namesake. Lettuce, onions, strawberries mingled with marigolds, geraniums, lavender bloomed with the fluffy white bumblebee backsides. Adelsheim CEO Rob Alstrin lead the way, feet crunching on the ground cover of hazelnut shells. Rose grew warm in our glasses.

From the slight rise where the garden, planted in one collaborative burst, spread we looked back at the winery and the bloom of umbrellas that mark the outdoor tasting space. It was hot, and getting hotter.

Founder David Adelsheim, slight and crisp, hair a touch whiter than the last time we met, strode up the hill. He wouldn’t have been late, he pointed out, if we’d made an appointment instead of firing off a text. The gleam in his eye belied the reproach. (This tone is habitual: later, a worker walked past, noted a bottle of Chardonnay on our table and asks if we’d like an ice bucket. “No,” David deadpanned. “We like it warm.”)

Even 11:30 AM was too late to remain unsheltered. We strolled through down and took our places at a long table: David at the head, Rob opposite, my partner beside me.

Adelsheim Vineyard

***

Permit me to interrupt myself to say that I am loathe to share my tasting notes. As a perfectionist over-reliant on visual detail, reporting on my other senses is intimidating. What if I get it wrong? What if, in fact, that wasn’t strawberry on the nose? What if I missed the vanilla?

Part of the challenge of exploring wine is to not fixate on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, as if tasting wine were a seventh-grade science test. Yes, wine grapes have distinctive characteristics (some more than others). But these are tempered — as we shall see in a moment — by terroir, climate and production methods.

Plus, to borrow a line from The Life of Brian, ‘we are all individuals’. A wine’s interaction with a palate is as personal as a kiss. As with romance, one should strike a balance between emotion and analysis.

So, with all those caveats, I’m going to include my tasting notes in what follows. Not because they are definitive, or necessarily how Adelsheim would describe the wines, but because it was my experience in the moment.

***

This year, 2021, was the earliest bloom on record, David said. Adelsheim might have to start harvest as early as the first week of August.

In our glasses, a 2018 Chahelem Mountain ‘Staking Claim’ Chardonnay. On the nose, ripe with peach notes and buttery caramel popcorn.

Chardonnay is the Willamette Valley’s new challenge, according to David. “We’ve moved from a clone focus to a place focus. A few years ago, you had no idea what to expect [from it].”

Over the past five years, Willamette Valley winemakers have come together to study Chardonnays as they worked out an Oregonian interpretation of the noble grape. “Repeated blind-tastings have created stylistic consistency,” David said. “It’s picked early, aged in oak, full malolactic fermentation. It’s not California-style.”

California ripe it isn’t, but it is unctuous. The 2018 Ribbon Ridge Chardonnay has ripe apples and citrus fruit but again the buttered popcorn richness of malolactic fermentation. It is deliciously, unmistakably a wine that belongs on a table scattered with Le Creusets of poached chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans from a garden.

Maintaining this Chardonnay style, five-plus years in the making, is going to be difficult. A couple of weeks before our meeting the Willamette Valley saw its highest-ever recorded temperatures, rising to 116 F on 28 June, 2021. Rob shook his head as we swapped heat-wave stories: hopefully it won’t turn out like last year.

In 2020, a rare convergence of heat, wind and wildfires smothered the Valley in smoke for over a week. Rob and winemaker Gina Hennen made the wrenching decision to not produce Pinot for that vintage. They didn’t want to risk a sub-standard year that would damage the brand’s reputation. It is a choice they hope not to have to make again.

Rob poured a 2016 Breaking Ground Pinot, which David described as “our vision of what Pinot from Chahalem Mountains tastes like.” The grapes come from plots that include three soil types, typical of the Valley’s diverse terroir. It has medium body and tannins; the fruit is ripe and dark with distinct cedar notes.

“It seems like Pinot has changed since I was here last,” I ventured. “A lot of it is very ripe and dark; it doesn’t taste ‘Willamette Valley.'”

David is preoccupied with making wine that tastes of place. It’s the challenge that drives him to study his beloved Chahelem Mountains AVA. He is recruiting tasters to collaborate in research over the next few years to define sub-AVAs based on flavor characteristics.

A decade ago, this might have been less daunting. Climate change was a rumble, not the roar of fire-swept hillsides and heat-punched vines that have become reality. Will the tasters stay ahead of the shifts? Will a 2023 vintage be distinguishable as cousin to a 2017 from the same plot?

The next bottle was a 2017 Ribbon Ridge Pinot. It smelled of ripe red fruit, spice and charred wood. On the palate, dry with medium acidity, plump red cherries and plums followed by sweet cedar.

Looking across to the heat-smudged colors of the garden and the fluttering pennons of the vineyard it was hard to imagine it swathed in smoke; harder still to picture without the opulent green. There are certainly arid wine regions where one neither wants nor expects verdance; not the Willamette Valley though.

How much borrowed time do we have?

We tipped out the dregs and swirled samples of a 2017 Boulder Bluff Pinot, crafted from 18-year-old vines. Spice and red fruit dominated on the nose and palate. Writing on the Adelsheim website, David described the plot:

“We planted it in 2003, eight acres in Pinot noir and two acres in Chardonnay.  When we made the first wine from the vineyard, the Loackers named the vineyard “Boulder Bluff” for the incredible number of basalt rocks that had to be removed (more or less) from the steep surface of the property.

“In the early years of this century, we knew about global climate change, of course.  But the vintages of 1995, 1996, and 1997 had all been very rainy and were very much on our minds as we were deciding on what rootstock to use in this new vineyard.  Gary Andrus of Archery Summit had come up with an amazing idea – graft our regular Pinot noir clones onto a rootstock that would make the grapes ripen earlier, before the rains of October…. Now 19 years after planting, we know that Boulder Bluff Pinot (planted at 600 feet above sea level on RG rootstock and on a super-warm slope) ripens around the same time as our earliest Pinot 300 feet lower, at Calkins Lane Vineyard.”

Wine-growing regions around the world are struggling to adjust to new climate realities. There are options, as David’s article highlighted: choosing plots and aspects to optimize growing conditions.

In the Willamette Valley, this may mean moving vines off southwest-facing slopes as seasons get hotter. Where possible, viticulturists can plant at higher elevations. Some adjustments may come with losses. Stony soil was traditionally valued for drainage and heat-retention that promoted ripening in cooler climates. As these become a memory, winemakers may have to sacrifice the mineral qualities of stony soils to avoid over-ripening, or use trellising techniques to minimize the heat impact.

Adelsheim and other legacy wineries are in a strong position to weather the future. It has the financial and intellectual resources to make significant changes. This may not be the case for many of the Willamette Valley’s 700-odd wineries.

Rob commented on the open, inclusive attitude of the local industry. There are too many winemakers to gather in someone’s living room with a jug of wine and talk shop, like they did when Adelsheim was founded in the 1970s, but the spirit of cooperation endures.

Our final tasting was sip of history, a 2017 Quarter Mile Lane Pinot from the 47-year-old vines next to David’s house. It is paler in hue, ruby edging toward garnet. Red plum, cherry, baking spice, lingered long after each sip.

It is a grand gesture, bottled. A story of place that embraces earth, atmosphere and human intervention. “[Quarter Mile Lane Pinots] are red-fruited – I’ve always said they reminded me of wild cherries, but not the cough drops,” David wrote on the website. “Real wild cherries with the touch of greenness.  There is also a delicate spiciness in the nose – baking spices, but more white spiciness than brown.  Nothing obvious or overt.  Just subtle hints behind the fruitiness.  They are not “big-bodied” wines – they lean toward elegance.”

Lean toward elegance has the ring of a mission statement; it suits Adelsheim, the man and the brand.

As we gathered our things, said farewells, it felt like leaving a familiar space, though I’ve only visited a couple of times in the past few years. Rob, David and the whole 40-strong Adelsheim team exude a warmth and enthusiasm that shapes the psychic terrain as much as the flourishing gardens and vineyards define the land.

I don’t for a minute doubt that drastic weather and unforeseen occurrences will crop up in our next conversation, whenever it takes place. What is equally certain is the passionate commitment to taste and place will remain.

Adelsheim ‘Artist Series’ 2020 Willamette Valley Rose with labels by Jeremy Okai Davis.

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