David Adelsheim is the founder of Adelsheim Vineyard, the Chehalem Mountains’ first winery, which he founded in 1971 with his former wife, Ginny Adelsheim. He majored in German literature in Frankfurt, Berlin, and at Portland State University, and worked in personnel management in the Army. Adelsheim has no formal training in viticulture but got advice from Oregon’s other early vintners before purchasing his original 19-acre parcel in Yamhill County, becoming part of the ten families to make wine in the Willamette Valley before 1980. His early winemaking experience included work at the experimental winery of the Lycée Viticole in Beaune, France, and at The Eyrie Vineyard in Oregon. Adelsheim was the first chairman of the Oregon Wine Board and has served as president of the Oregon Winegrowers Association. He was instrumental in getting Oregon State University to import clones from Burgundy, and met with scientists in France and Germany to persuade them to share their clones with Oregon winemakers.
We interviewed David Adelsheim for WineSpeed in January 2020. We thought it fitting to print this interview now, during Oregon Wine Month.
Karen MacNeil: You founded the first winery in the Chehalem Mountains appellation of the Willamette Valley in 1971. Why there?
David Adelsheim: In 1971, there were no AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) anywhere. So, no one had a clue about the differences between one site and another, except that the valley floor would have soils that were likely to be too vigorous and/or prone to frost. The earliest people to plant grapes in the Willamette Valley knew that it had a cooler growing-season climate than areas in California and was, perhaps, a bit more like northern France. When we looked for a place to, perhaps, plant grapes, all we could do is look for a hillside (not too high, not too low,) a southern slope (for more sun interception,) and “Jory clay-loam” soils (since it was on such soils that David Lett—Oregon’s pinot noir pioneer—sited his vineyard). That the piece of property we found in May of 1971 happened to be on the slopes of the Chehalem Mountains, as opposed to the Dundee Hills, had no meaning at all.
KM: You have now been in the Willamette Valley wine business for almost 50 years. What is it about wine that moves you?
DA: This month, it is because wine is not just an alcoholic beverage nor just the result of focused craftsmanship. Wine is also place, in the sense that if other variables are minimized (in the vineyard, in the winery) then a wine can be an extremely accurate representation of a piece of ground. Other things, like cheese, perhaps marijuana, could be that as well. But only wine has a long history of being marketed as a product of place.
KM: Is wine good for a society or a culture? How so?
DA: Wine itself is, on balance, slightly better for society than not. The good things that come from wine—good conversation, relaxation, enjoyment with food, and intellectual focus—probably outweigh the negatives—alcoholism and drunk driving. But I would not try to win the debate about this with those who have suffered harm from their own or others’ drinking. Wine has probably caused fewer wars, arguments, and disagreements compared to other alcoholic beverages. But again, none of this is an important selling point for wine, in my opinion.
KM: You helped establish the very successful annual International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) which gives Willamette Valley worldwide exposure as it brings in people from all over the world to learn about pinot noir. The celebration is now in its 34th year, quite the bold move to stage this event in Willamette Valley 34 years ago.
DA: To be clear, I actually didn’t have much to do with “establishing” IPNC. What I did in 1986 and particularly in 1987 was talk up IPNC with the Drouhin family and with other Burgundians so that we could get 10 (or so) of them to McMinnville for the first IPNC. That set the event on a very different course than if there had been only U.S. wineries present. Whether it was bold or not, I’m not sure. We probably didn’t know any better. We were having discussions with the Drouhins about vineyard land in Oregon, so having a bunch of them come here didn’t seem that farfetched.
KM: Besides Willamette Valley, what other wine region inspires you the most and why?
DA: I suspect there are lots of regions that I could name here. But the place I come away from every time I visit, inspired to improve aspects of our vineyards, try new steps in our winery and explore new ways to market our wines is, of course, Burgundy. Obviously, we in the Willamette Valley feel a sort of kinship with vintners there, but I’m talking about winegrowers there doing things or making connections I’ve never considered. The most inspiring wines I tried last time I was there were not the world-renowned Grands Crus but rather smaller wines – Premier Crus from Savigny – that were in exquisite balance. How do you “listen” to the vineyard in such a way as to pull that off?
KM: Do you remember your first glass of wine and who gave it to you?
DA: No. But it was probably in high school, 1961, when a group of us were trying alcoholic beverages of all shapes in order to experience the effects that mankind has sought since the time of the first fermentation. I’m pretty sure I didn’t much like the flavor and it was likely purchased based on price.
“Obviously, we in the Willamette Valley feel a sort of kinship with vintners [in Burgundy]… The most inspiring wines I tried last time I was there were not the world-renowned Grands Crus but rather smaller wines – Premier Crus from Savigny – that were in exquisite balance. How do you “listen” to the vineyard in such a way as to pull that off?”
KM: I’m not going to ask what’s your favorite type of wine. But what wine or type of wine do you like the least?
DA: Actually, that’s just as bad. The answer that I’ve often given, by way of getting around the question altogether, is, “I always like to try wines I’ve never had before. From new regions, new varieties, new producers.” But when I sit down to dinner at home, I’d almost always prefer a wine from a very cool growing region – a wine with more acidity than tannin, a wine with more freshness than jamminess, a wine with less alcohol than more. And, sadly, there aren’t that many places that qualify.
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage?
DA: Coffee and sparkling water are about the only things (besides wine) I drink with any regularity. When it comes to alcohol, I’m the opposite of a millennial. I like wine; I like to try wines I’ve never had before. No, wait. That was my answer to the last question.
KM: What advice would you give a young person going into the wine business today?
DA: It seems there are two kinds of people who go into the wine business. Those that are entrepreneurial and want to become successful. Wine, in their minds, is just a way to that success. And there are those who want to grow, to make, and even to sell great wine. That latter group, I would encourage to do everything that their budget allows to make their dream come true. Work for (and learn from) others, buy grapes, make small lots, engage and collaborate with the community of winegrowers. And, if you are skilled and thoughtful, there’s a good chance you can succeed.
KM: If you could share a bottle of wine with anyone famous, living or deceased, who would it be and what would you want to talk about?
DA: I get to share wine with so many interesting people. From time to time they are famous. But I’m rarely impressed just by fame. Usually what I want to discuss is an individual’s unique role in the world and their opinions.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
DA: In my 49 years in the business, I’ve done a number of things, which at the time I thought were important to do. Events, rules, laws, AVAs, organizations, etc. Some have been reversed, some were stupid in the first place and a few continue to have value. In time we may see if any stand up.