It Takes a Village
To celebrate Adelsheim's 50th anniversary is to celebrate the Willamette Valley itself.
September 27, 2021 — David and Ginny Adelsheim planted their first vines in the Chehalem Mountains in 1972 — and not because they had any plans to become the world-renowned winery they are today. It was the peak of the back-to-the-land movement and they’d purchased land to try their hands at self-sufficiency.
“We had no vision for life or of how we would make money and have some direction,” David told me over the phone in April. “It was only after we started meeting people who planted grapes that we realized that if we were moving to the country, we might as well look for a south-facing slope and plant some vines.”
Back then the Willamette Valley had far more rolling pastures than vineyards. “Oregon wine” didn’t even exist yet. When David and Ginny purchased 19 acres outside the town of Newberg in 1971, they were inspired by neighbors like David and Diana Lett (of The Eyrie Vineyards), Dick Erath, Chuck Coury, and other early Oregon wine pioneers who were just starting to experiment with planting Burgundian grape varieties like Pinot Noir. They worked in tandem to slowly put Oregon on the map, pooling resources, knowledge, and ideas.
“The Willamette Valley happened to place a strong emphasis on community,” David said. “Partly because we were broke, partly because we didn’t know any better, and I think partly because some of the founders understood how important it was to have a reputation — not just as an individual winery, but as an industry.”
Ask David about Adelsheim’s unlikely and impressive outcome, and he’ll be quick to tell you: it took a village. The collaborative spirit in those early days is exactly what primed the Willamette Valley for success. And that community-driven ethos is still sewn through the fabric of Adelsheim today. So as they celebrate their 50th anniversary, they’re celebrating their community at large.
When I visited the winery back in March, Elizabeth Clark, Adelsheim’s Director of Education and Experience, led me through their COVID-safe tasting area to show me a new art exhibition.
The work was that of Portland-based painter Jeremy Okai Davis: side-profile portraits superimposed with beautiful watercolors of Adelsheim’s estate vineyards. These same paintings appear on the labels of Adelsheim’s 2020 Artist Series Rosé — part of a yearly partnership with local artists.
Art is a big part of Adelsheim’s character, Elizabeth told me. For decades, Ginny Adelsheim painted portraits of friends and neighbors for the winery’s labels — like the one of Diana Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards, which graced the label of their Willamette Valley Pinot Noir for over 25 years.
Just up the steps from their tasting space is an extensive back patio overlooking their Calkin’s Lane vineyard — where I later sat down with Digital Marketing Manager Stephanie Maldonado to taste through a range of their wines. The facility is more casual than I’d expect for somewhere with such a grand reputation. The space doesn’t feel lavish or overdone. I’d just come from a cattle farm, and even in a pair of stained jeans and muddy boots, I didn’t feel underdressed. It didn’t feel like a formal tasting so much as a casual conversation with friends.
We tasted nearly twenty of their wines — including four or five different single vineyard Pinot Noirs. As the afternoon went on, I got the feeling that Adelsheim played two parts at once: an old-school approach that was simultaneously buzzing with youthful energy.
These were classically made wines that didn’t feel at all exclusive. Their 2017 Staking Claim Chardonnay, sourced from several hillside sites throughout the Chehalem Mountain AVA, was high acid and bright. “We always want you to feel refreshed when you’re having one of our wines,” Elizabeth told me, which made sense. I wanted Korean barbecue or a smoked short rib to match.
Winemaker Gina Hennen has been part of the production team at Adelsheim for nearly 15 years — before officially taking the helm in 2017.
As Head Winemaker, Gina takes a low-intervention approach in the cellar to highlight the fruit, rather than using additives to achieve prescribed flavor profiles. But many of her stylistic decisions begin in the vineyard, where she and Vineyard Manager Kelli Gregory work in conjunction to explore how different growing techniques — from pruning methods to canopy management — affect the flavor of the wine.
Ultimately, Gina aims to produce wines with a distinct sense of place — an integral part of Adelsheim’s approach since the beginning.
Thanks to David, Oregon has some of the strictest labeling laws in the country. In order for a wine to display an AVA on its label, at least 95% of the grapes must come from that AVA — in California, it’s only 75%. David pushed the OLCC (Oregon Liquor Control Commission) to enact these regulations in the mid-1970s, when the Oregon wine industry was still young, setting a precedent for authenticity early on. At the time, federal law required that a wine contain only 51% of the grape variety listed on the label.
Later, David led an effort to legally establish the subregion he and Ginny had pioneered as a young couple, resulting in the creation of the Chehalem Mountains AVA in 2006.
Yet the secret to Adelsheim’s longevity can’t be attributed to any of these individual contributions. Instead, it’s the culture that David and his team inscribed into the company early on, which combines unwavering values with an ability to continuously adapt.
“Long-term stability requires new generations taking up the gauntlet and molding it in a way that’s relevant to themselves,” David said.
“One thing millennials have brought to our world, and how they organize their lives, is the extreme identification of values, ensuring that what they buy and what they live with supports the values that hold dear. Millennials are bringing a lot of good to the world when it comes to global warming and inequities hoisted on society by past generations.”
As Stephanie and I continued to taste through their Pinot Noirs, she excitedly shared some of the new programs that the winery has introduced in the past year: An online education program aimed at breaking down barriers and increasing transparency. Virtual seminars, at-home tastings, and illustrated vineyard maps to promote openness and engagement. An accessibility tab on their website to accommodate physical and mental disabilities. Plans to incorporate bilingual tastings and tours led by Spanish-speaking employees.
“We’re always thinking about how we can be better,” Stephanie said. “We’re constantly trying to poke holes to find where we can be more inclusive.”
At Adelsheim, over 50% of the staff are women — including their executive team — which is unfortunately still rare in the wine industry. Arguably their three most crucial positions — owner, winemaker, and vineyard manager — are held by women: Lynn Loacker, Gina Hennen, and Kelli Gregory, respectively. Lynn and her husband, Jack, became co-owners of Adelsheim in 1994, purchasing David and Ginny’s shares of the company in 2017.
None of this is by accident. Women have played a critical role in Adelsheim’s success since the very beginning.
Trained as a sculptor, Ginny Adelsheim fell in love with wine while traveling through Europe in 1969. And her perspective, both as an artist and as a woman, helped set the tone for the winery. The portraits of female friends and neighbors she painted for Adelsheim’s labels, which celebrated community while providing commentary on gender inequity, became synonymous with the winery’s brand. In a 2012 interview, Ginny explained, “The reason I did all of these women was because I felt women weren’t getting enough recognition in the wine industry.”
The women they’ve hired so far have been a big part of advocating for on-site equality, like fair wages and healthcare for vineyard workers. They now partner with Salud! to provide on-site medical care for seasonal workers and their families, including mobile dental trucks and COVID-19 testing.
This is part of what impresses me so much about Adelsheim. As such an established brand, they could easily sell their wine at a premium without bothering to incorporate social programs, farm responsibly or uplift their community. They do it anyway.
They aim to be sustainable in a deeper sense than just throwing some solar panels on the roof of the winery (though they have those, too).
They intentionally support BIPOC and LGBTQ-owned local businesses as much as possible. In 2019, they partnered with basketball player CJ McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers to produce his Heritage 91 Pinot Noir. They’re donating a percentage of those sales to Growing Gardens, a non-profit that builds community gardens at schools, homes, and correctional facilities in Portland.
This inclusive mindset exists in their staff relationships as much as their community partnerships. In the tasting room as much as in the vineyard.
All of Adelsheim’s vineyards are LIVE-certified, meaning they follow (and often exceed) a host of sustainable farming protocols and meet certain metrics — from protecting their local watershed to nixing herbicides to reducing emissions.
Protecting biodiversity is at the top of their concerns. Their Ribbon Springs vineyard is only 60% planted with vines in order to maintain the native habitat. Considering its scale — with around 175 planted acres across its six estate vineyards — it’d be easy to lean into an industrial monoculture mindset that favors high yields over all else. But Adelsheim recognize the importance of strengthening the ecosystem as a whole.
I see these efforts as an extension of their community-driven mindset.
Just as David and Ginny leaned on friends and neighbors for their initial success, their vines do best within the collaborative spirit of a diverse ecosystem. Grapes thrive within community too. Biodiversity is equally important in the vineyard as it is in the industry as a whole.
“I think there is a modesty to our industry in that the goal is not monoculture,” David explained. “The goal is not to beat down others and to make it while other wineries don’t. The goal is for everybody to make it and for everybody to make great wine and to sell all of our wine and to be part of a world where things beyond wine have as much importance as whatever we’re doing to make a living.”
The longevity of the business isn’t the only thing on David’s mind when it comes to the future. There’s the rapidly changing climate, which is already affecting how and what Adelsheim produces in each vintage. As a result of the smoke taint from last year’s wildfires, the winery isn’t releasing any Pinot Noir from 2020. And considering that the grape represents 80% of their production, it’s a big hit.
“We made the decision [not to make any Pinot] because we want to produce quality wine and this wasn’t good enough to put our name on,” Stephanie said. Not to mention unsafe for their vineyard crew to pick fruit near the flames.
These fires are one of many indications of a changing climate in the region, something David has experienced firsthand.
The Willamette Valley is almost indescribably different than it was back in 1971.
Oregon’s population has nearly doubled — and the nine counties within the Willamette Valley have gained 1 million people since David and Ginny planted their first vines. Meanwhile, the cool climate that attracted young winemakers here in the first place has been steadily warming.
“Grapes are the canary in the coal mine for global warming. Bud break, bloom, harvest. Everybody knows those dates, and we have a record of them back to the beginning. All four of those dates are happening earlier and the difference between bud break and harvest is getting shorter.”
Without the Willamette’s unique climate — warm summer days softened by cool nights and maritime fog — the elegant style of Pinot Noir that garnered its word-class reputation would never have been possible. However, David believes that the consistency provided by a hotter and shorter growing season might actually be a net positive for the valley overall. As recently as 2010, he feared his grapes might not sufficiently ripen before harvest to make a decent wine. Now they ripen too quickly.
“With climate change has come the potential to make a riper style of wine,” said David. “Which is quite different from the elegant and delicate wines we first made. The flavors of the wine, the richness, the tannins, the acidity, are all affected by global climate change. We have some possibilities of mitigation: we can go up the hill, around the hill, to try to cool things down. But if we can’t as a world work together to combat climate change, then the reputation that the Willamette Valley has for making great Pinot Noir will be a thing of the past.”
The climate crisis, of course, will have far graver reaches than the Willamette Valley’s reputation. But to me, David Adelsheim’s approach provides an important lesson in leadership that could be applied to many of the issues we’ll face over the next few years.
What problems could we solve if we came from a place of collaboration rather than competition? If we honored and encouraged diversity, both in farming and business practices? If we approached this uncertain future with both firm values and a willingness to adapt?
Katy Severson is a writer and chef who covers natural wine, sustainable agriculture. regenerative foodways and climate change.
Photos Courtesy of Adelsheim