October 2010 Issue of Wines & Vines

Winemaker Interview: David Adelsheim

Early Oregon vintner discusses packaging and winery expansion

by Laurie Daniel
David Adelsheim
David Adelsheim
When David Adelsheim established Adelsheim Vineyard in Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains, he was something of a pioneer. It was 1971, and a few people (like David Lett, Dick Erath and Bill Blosser) had planted winegrapes around the Willamette Valley, but not in the Chehalem Mountains. Adelsheim had no background in the wine business. He majored in German literature in Frankfurt, Berlin, and at Portland State University, and he had worked in personnel management in the Army. But he got advice from Oregon’s other early vintners and settled on what he thought was a suitable 19-acre parcel.

Adelsheim Vineyard now encompasses 190 acres of vineyard at 11 sites. Adelsheim made the wines through 1986 and now focuses on the overall direction of the company. He was the first chairman of the Oregon Wine Board and has served as president of the Oregon Winegrowers Association.

Wines & Vines: In 2008, Adelsheim Vineyard completed a new addition to the winery. How has that changed the winemaking?

David Adelsheim: The 2008 fermentation addition at the winery has given us the ability to do a number of things that we couldn’t do before. Perhaps the most important is simply to have many more fermentors for Pinot Noir, so that picking is not limited by fermentor availability.

Equally important is that the fermentors are small and movable, and that the setup is therefore extremely flexible. As our winery’s focus moves from a generic Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to many more single-vineyard and upper-tier wines, it has become critical for us to keep every block of grapes separate through the fermentation and aging processes.

Another part of maximizing quality is doing experiments both in the vineyard and in the winery. To maximize the quality of every vineyard block, we need to do comparisons of cover crop use, crop level, timing of thinning and spray regimes. In the winery, the most important comparisons we can do are those that take place during fermentation. Every experiment we do, whether in the vineyard or in the winery, takes at least two fermentors.

The 2008 addition was not really about making more wine. The amount of wine we make in the next eight years will increase by perhaps 10,000 cases, to 50,000 cases. However, the mix will shift from half white-half red to two-thirds red. And 38% of that red will be upper-tier, not 6%, which is what we do currently.

W&V: Your wine labels, with the women’s portraits, are unusual and instantly recognizable. How did you arrive at those designs?

Adelsheim: All the portraits are drawings by Ginny Adelsheim, who was my wife and co-founded the winery. Even after our divorce, she has remained very much a partner in the winery.

For the first wine we were going to release (a 1978 Washington Sémillon), Ginny wanted to draw a human face for the label. Ginny is a ceramicist and had done a lot of work with the human form in clay. She was used to drawing human faces from life. For the label, she wanted a bacchanalian figure. As she drew, she looked in a mirror to make sure that the nose and the eyes, the forehead and the chin, made sense. The figure ended up looking a little like a lost member of Ginny’s family.

For the second wine, she set out to draw another figure. But that second figure kept looking like the first one because she kept looking in the mirror. A friend of hers from grade school was living with us at the time, so Ginny asked her if she would model for the label. The more Ginny worked on the drawing, the more it looked like Connie. Ultimately, we decided it should be Connie. And thus was born the portrait label.

In 1982, full-color printing became as inexpensive as the system we had been using. So Ginny redrew the labels in full color. The new series included friends, family and even one of our competitors—Diana Lett. They were all meant to honor people who had helped us create the vineyard, build the winery and launch our brand. And to Ginny, it was important to honor women, who often got less credit than their husbands in the wine business.

In 1987, we launched a new series, starting with a portrait of our daughter Elizabeth. Naturally enough, the wine was called “Elizabeth’s Reserve.” Ginny had spent an extended time in Florence, Italy, during which she had seen drawings by the Renaissance painter Andrea Del Sarto. Back in Oregon, she did a drawing of Lizzie in profile in the same style. Since Lizzie was an only child, for subsequent upper-tier labels we borrowed the daughters of some of our best friends.

Producing a rarity

Adelsheim Vineyard is one of only a handful of U.S. wineries to produce a wine made from Auxerrois, the principal grape of France's Lorraine region and the second most-important grape of Luxembourg. A white grape, it also plays a supporting role in Alsace.

Two clones of Auxerrois arrived at Oregon State University in 1976 along with other vine material that Adelsheim, who had been doing clonal research in France, had arranged to have sent from Alsace.

"I'd never heard of Auxerrois when it arrived," says Adelsheim, who estimates there are about 5,700 acres of it in the world.

Cuttings of the two clones were planted in OSU's quarantine block, and experimental wines were made from the two clones. "Those wines intrigued me," he says, "and when, a few years later, a friend gave me the opportunity to make recommendations on interesting varieties to plant, I suggested Auxerrois." Adelsheim also planted some, but he says that both sites were too warm.

In the late 1990s, he planted Auxerrois on a steep, northeast-facing section of the Ribbon Springs Vineyard. "It was a guess, but it seemed that Auxerrois could do well on that kind of site," Adelsheim says. "And so it has." He makes about 600 cases per year. Winemaker David Paige describes the wine as having aromas and flavors of tarragon, fennel bulb, green pear, mineral and citrus blossom.

W&V: You’re in the process of rebranding Adelsheim Vineyard, including changing those labels. What are you trying to accomplish?

Adelsheim: All our labels evolved over time. Eventually it became too difficult to re-letter every label in the hand-drawn typeface Ginny had invented. Also, the two label series looked very different from each other. With the turn of the century, we started to work in earnest to make the labels look more like each other.

But our product mix changed again. New varieties and single-vineyard wines were added. Ginny provided a new drawing, this time of the winery, for our “wacky whites.” We turned to a Portland designer, Bob Bredemeier, who is a Photoshop wizard, to give our single-vineyard wines a new look.

By 2009, we had four different label series, and within each series there were often multiple drawings. They all looked different. Another problem surfaced. When we tried to sell our Willamette Valley series wines in Japan and the UK, those labels were met with resistance. We eventually came to believe that our Pinot Noir label (which shows Diana Lett starring straight at the viewer) might be seen as confrontational by Japanese eyes. In the UK, the full-color labels were simply seen as “down market,” not appropriate for a wine costing £15 to £25 per bottle.

The company has gone through profound changes in its 39 years. Our financial partners, Lynn and Jack Loacker, joined the company in 1994, and many of our staff have joined us since 2000, including winemaker Dave Paige and vineyard manager Chad Vargas. While we want to continue to honor our past, it is more important at this stage to communicate the present and the future of our company.

Last year, we began working with a marketing company that took us through a great deal of imaging work, identifying our brand characteristics, attributes, strengths and weaknesses, as well as our current target market and those we’d like to attract. We hired a new marketing and communications manager, Catherine Douglas. She and I took the work from the marketing company and refined it, reducing the number of wine series to just two, and created a detailed brief that outlined the distinctions of each series and its qualities.

We hired Flint Design in Portland, Ore., a firm that has an extensive background in wine label design. We saw the first round of designs in February and are on the seventh round of designs at the time of this interview (August 2010). We envision the new labels starting to appear in 2011 on a few of the wines from 2009. All the wines from the 2010 vintage should have the new labels.

W&V:  Are you worried the new labels you decide on won’t be so easy to spot?

Adelsheim: Redesigning a label that has been around for 30 years is always going to be a difficult process. On the one hand, many consumers know us only by our iconic labels. On the other hand, many of the gatekeepers in the wine trade view those same labels as a liability. The labels are so distinctive that no one has a neutral opinion.

So any new design we come up with will, automatically, not be as easy to spot as the labels we would be giving up. We are, in essence, hoping for something that will be a little more neutral, a little less demanding of attention, more in keeping with the decor of an expensive restaurant.

The new labels are envisioned as a “refreshing” of the previous packaging, while better defining the tiers for consumers and trade. The packages will be classic, elegant, understated, distinguished and, above all, will maintain the artistry that has defined Adelsheim Vineyard for four decades.

Our team is planning an extensive event schedule around our 40th anniversary next year, and the launch of the new packaging will play a role in these events. We also plan a “Rediscover Adelsheim” theme, incorporating both the anniversary and the release of the new packaging—again, honoring the past while looking at the present and toward the future.

W&V: Are you planning any other changes to your wine packaging?

This will be a good opportunity to re-evaluate the rest of our packaging. Almost all our whites are currently bottled under screwcaps. Almost certainly that would be expanded into our reds. While we have not ruled out glass stoppers for our upper-tier wines, the sustainability and tradition of cork need to be considered.

We also hope to find new opportunities to lighten our bottles. We started using ECO Series glass bottles, made by Saint-Gobain (now Verallia North America) in Washington, this year for many of our wines and hope that a range of more elegant shapes will be available soon.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006. To contact her or comment on this article, e-mail edit@winesandvines.com.

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