Since first purchasing land in the area in 1971, David Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyard has been involved in nearly every aspect of the evolution of Willamette Valley. This spans from near the valley’s earliest days as a wine region to one that today has received world-wide recognition.
In Part I of my interview, I talked with Adelsheim about the early days of Willamette Valley and its evolution into the early 2000s. Here we discuss the sub-dividing of Willamette Valley into smaller appellations, Chardonnay’s rise to prominence, and what challenges lie ahead. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You talked about the challenge of carving up Willamette Valley into sub-appellations and trying to define them to consumers in a meaningful way. What do you see as the next series of objectives moving that goal forward?
It begs the question, why did we divide the Willamette Valley up into sub-AVAs in the first place? The answer is because we knew there were different wines, and we wanted to be able to tell people where our wines came from.
The place that we’re at today, 20 years on, is that we have a number of large-ish AVAs, such as the original Chehalem Mountains, Eola-Amity in particular, but even Dundee Hills and more recently Tualatin Hills and others. They are large AVAs with more than one soil type that also have lots of variation in elevation and frankly lots of variation in what the wines taste like. But the differences are all place related.
We as an industry need to help consumers not only get a handle on why these variations exist, but more importantly, what are the variations? If you say that the wine comes from a teeny appellation like Ribbon Ridge, which may be very homogenous, what do the Ribbon Ridge wines taste like?
You can go to any winery, and they’ll give you an answer on that, but they’re making it up as they go along. They’re not using a common, industry-wide language. So consumers have no idea if they’re told black fruited and red fruited and grainy tannins and very smooth tannins. It’s all talking about wines from within half a mile of each other. Consumers don’t know what to make of that.
So in the Chehalem Mountains, we defined the AVA the way the TTB wanted: What’s the historical name? Where’s the boundary? We did it, now everybody on our team was excited. We finally had an AVA, and the consumers said ‘Yeah, well, that’s nice, but what are the wines supposed to taste like?’
We had no idea how to answer that because it didn’t look like we had one style of wine within the Chehalem Mountains. That was partly because we have three different soil types, and we also have huge variations in elevation. Everybody has different clones and all these differentiations.
How do you help answer that question for consumers?
We’re finally at the point 18 years later after the AVA approval that we’re hopefully next spring finally starting this series of tastings with winemakers to try to figure out ‘What do the wines from the Chehalem Mountains AVA taste like? Is there anything in common, something different than what one tastes in other places?’ More importantly, we’re pretty sure that there are ‘neighborhoods’ within the Chehalem Mountains. And of course two nested AVAs – Ribbon Ridge and Laurelwood District. Are they consistent? Are they consistently different than other parts of the Chehalem Mountains?
We believe that if we find out what exists and then come up with descriptions, then everybody in either the AVA or the neighborhood can start the conversation using the same words because the grapes all came from a similar place.
We believe that will help consumers understand what this place is and why it makes sense to have an AVA applied to it. I think having common descriptors will help the people in tasting rooms and in the winemaking facilities to all understand that we’re in this together, and that there are things that we can do together to help consumers love the wines from the Chehalem Mountains. That would be extremely important.
The TTB, as you know, doesn’t care about what the wine tastes like, even slightly. Or if there’s any wine made in an appellation or if it’s quality wine.
The word ‘wine’ does not appear in the regulations for American Viticultural Areas. Not once. I double checked.
As you add AVAs, it can potentially add more clutter rather than clarity.
No question. An AVA will only become meaningful if the work is being done beforehand and afterward to create the image of serious intent.
How long do you see that process taking? Is there a kind of roadmap or timeline that you feel somewhat naturally has to take place?
Willamette Valley was approved in 1983, one year one way or the other, from Walla Walla Valley and from Columbia Valley. I don’t think Willamette Valley had real meaning to people until the aughts and maybe even 10 years after that.
It’s certainly not instantaneous. Even Napa Valley after it was approved in what would have been 1981, they were not running at the level that they are today for a good 15 or 20 years.
Obviously Pinot Noir has been the star in Willamette Valley for a very long time. Now we’re seeing a lot of interest in Chardonnay. How do you think the industry needs to go about defining what Willamette Valley Chardonnay is to people as that interest accelerates?
Early on, because of, maybe clones, maybe climate, maybe misunderstanding about what Chardonnay could be in Willamette Valley, we had a good 25 years of unsuccessful work with Chardonnay. A lot of people actually took their Chardonnay out of the vineyard. We always made it and have been certainly closely associated with its resurrection, initially by helping get the clones from Burgundy.
The second phase, which is redefining ripeness for Chardonnay, has been what’s gone on since 2007, 2008. In the first step, there was Dominique Lafon making some Chardonnay at Seven Springs and getting, I don’t know, 97, 98 points from the Wine Spectator – for a Chardonnay from Willamette Valley! Then in 2011, a number of people from Oregon, Doug Tunnell, Josh Bergstrom, and people from our winery were in Burgundy during harvest. Several of them focused on understanding Chardonnay.
In 2015, we had made the decision to get out of the Pinot Gris business and to focus our brand on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There was only one problem. The best Chardonnays we were making were coming from other people’s grapes. We needed to plant our own vineyards.
So we were looking at cellar visit after cellar visit, trying to figure out where the best place to plant Chardonnay would be. Somebody in our crew, and I have no idea who, came up with the idea and said ‘Let’s just invite everybody to come to one place and bring their wine. We’ll taste everybody’s wine, and they’ll get to do it too.’
We held this first Chardonnay Technical Tasting in 2015, and they went on until 2019 when COVID closed it down. We’ll pick up again next year.
But in 2015, the wines were all over the board. They were overripe, under-ripe, too much oak, no oak, too much ML, no ML. Every possible combination. By 2019, they’d all clustered around a style, picked at lower pH, lower sugars, with an intensity and a tension to the wines that had never existed when we were letting them get to 22, 23, 24 Brix. When we had let the grapes get that ripe, the grapes tasted fruity. They changed color from green to yellow, and the wines were uninteresting.
How do you communicate that change in style to consumers?
It’s in fact related to what we’ve done with Pinot Noir, where we’ve taken advantage of our relatively cool weather during the ripening period to pick grapes that are less ripe, with less sugar, lower pH, that truly have an acid backbone to them. Because they are not super ripe, they show where these grapes were grown much more easily than ripe grapes.
This is the promise that the Willamette Valley had back in the 1980s, that we have this cooler climate at the end of the ripening season. Thus we’re making wines with more tension, more acidity, more place influence. We’re doing it with the same clones that are being used in in Burgundy, but the clones only got us in the ballpark. It’s really having command of what is ripe that has been distinctive. We need to continue to figure out ways to tell this story.
When I think about Willamette Valley wine, I think about the group efforts that have been made to bring everyone together in a formal, focused way. How important do you feel like that’s been for the valley in terms of advancing the quality and style of wines that are made?
Extremely. With Pinot, it was the Steamboat Conference. It wasn’t limited to Willamette Valley or Oregon. Steamboat Conference was founded in ‘79 and included winemakers from California and Oregon and eventually from New Zealand and Burgundy and Germany and Australia and Chile and wherever. We were all having the conversation about how to improve the breed of Pinot Noir.
Over the five years that we were able to hold the Chardonnay Technical Tasting, it became more and more evident that the differences of place in Chardonnay parallel the differences we saw with Pinot. We didn’t set up this meeting, as I said, to arrive at a style. We wanted to find where we should plant Chardonnay. In fact, we created a stylistic direction for Willamette Valley Chardonnay, just by being together, tasting each other’s wines, saying ‘Well, I don’t think I would want to do that, but I’m going to try it just to see what it’s like.’
Everyone tried picking earlier, around 3.0, 3.1 pH, which often meant 20 Brix or even 19 Brix. People ended up doing that and liking it, then bringing the wine to the Technical Tasting and having other people like it. It fed on itself, and in the course of five years, we literally created a style for the Willamette Valley.
Obviously, a lot of heavy lifting has been done over the decades since vinifera planting first began in Willamette Valley. What are some of the next major challenges in your mind?
There are all sorts of challenges out there. Global warming is the main one. We need to figure out how to be proactive as an industry in dealing with carbon.
The upside to what we’ve accomplished so far has been that we have built this luxury brand around Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. How do we ensure that we have a climate where we can still make Pinots that are distinctive? What can what can we learn from others in the world? What can we learn about rootstocks that might allow our grapes to ripen during a later period with cooler temperatures?
The style of Willamette Pinot has changed over the years, as we’ve taken advantage of global warming to make riper and riper wines. Is that right? Should we be waiting so long to pick? That’s a stylistic question for the industry,
There are concerns about how many wineries from outside Oregon can own properties in the Willamette Valley before we’re no longer in charge of where we’re going. How do we ensure that collaboration is continued?
There are things we should be doing in the vineyard, things we should be doing in the winery, how to build your own brand, and how do we continue to build the communal brand that was built together? We also need to ensure that, when people have spent so much energy and time and money, in the end they can be a profitable business and can continue to be part of the industry.
So it’s the same areas of challenge as we discussed at the beginning of this interview, but much more acutely focused at this point. We have the advantage of having built this amazing industry, which many outside of Oregon envy for how quickly we built this very special thing.