Last month I attended the WWET in the Willamette Valley and during this tour we had the memorable opportunity to be audience to 6 of the winemaking pioneers of the Willamette Valley.
My hope is to share the story and wines from each of these original founding families of the Willamette Valley and the wines that they shared during the tasting part of the seminar. Each of their personal stories is filled with inspiration, struggles and strong determination to succeed in a business that most of them really knew nothing about, winemaking in the Willamette Valley. Each of these pioneer’s history and story is equally educational and fascinating, so let’s begin with David Adelsheim.
David Adelsheim’s story and winemaking journey began in the Willamette Valley in 1971.
(All quotes from David are from the seminar on August 13, 2019)
David began his story with a little background of how he ended up in the Willamette Valley.
“To give you an idea of our entry into the wine industry, my first wife and I wanted to move from Portland out to the suburbs. But, we didn’t want to go to far away from Portland because of the fact that we never lived outside of the city.”
“So we drew a circle around Portland and kind of went in several directions, but when we came southwest we ended up in this area and ran into a realtor and he told us he had heard that some people had planted wine grapes, which was extremely exciting to me, so we spend the rest of the afternoon looking for wine grapes, and actually never found any.”
Intrigued by the story of wine grapes being grown in the area, David and his first wife continued there search.
“Toward the end of the day we drove up Kings Grey Road, which is over in the Chehalem Mountains, and stopped a guy who was outside his house and asked him if he had ever heard of anybody who had planted wine grapes. And, as it turned out he and that man was Dickey Erath, and he pointed out back a couple of miles away to what was back then the first vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains.”
Dick “Dickey” Erath of Erath Winery purchased his first vineyard site on Chehalem Mountain in 1968. In 1969 Dick planted four acres of the property with 23 wine varieties, including Pinot Noir.
“We didn’t actually see those grapes back then either, but as it turned out we had a friend in common, a student who was taking a class, with Bill Blosser. We conceived a plan to get to Bill Blosser and we got in his office and that is where we meet Bill and his wife Susan. Susan invited us to a May Day party, this was 1971, at their rental home which was in the Dundee Hills and they invited some other people. In my mind it was, the Ponzi’s, Harry (Peterson-Nedry) and the Courys (Charles and Shirley Coury). At that point we knew about half of the wine industry.”
Charles and Shirley Coury arrived in the Willamette Valley in March of 1965 and planted their first vines in a nursery which was established by cared for by David Lett. The Coury’s then returned a year later from California and purchased land in Forest Grove that had formally been operated as a vineyard and winery. On the property historically named David Hill, the Coury’s replanted Pinot Noir and Riesling.
David continued to share bits of history from the those years in the 70’s and into the early 80’s, with one bit of important information.
“Nobody ever sold wine, nobody had ever run a business or had a great deal of experience in winemaking.”
David went on to share some of his personal insight into winemaking in the Willamette Valley and tried to answer the question of ‘Why are you here’.
“Why is the Willamette Valley here today with that kind of beginning? I think the answer is ‘Collaborative Peace’, which Susan (Sokol-Blosser) mentioned. The second extremely important piece is we wanted to make great wine.”
Many at the table agreed during the seminar that what was a critical factor in the success of the Willamette Valley wine industry was that they did not set out to make money. David commented, “we just didn’t know how you did that in this business and I think it didn’t matter that much.”
David then moved on to discuss the two wines that he had brought for the tasting that day; first a 1986 Adelsheim Vineyard Pinot Noir ‘Elizabeth’s Reserve’ Willamette Valley and then a 2007 Adelsheim Vineyard Pinot Noir ‘Bryan Creek Vineyard’ Chehalem Mountains.
“The wine that I actually want you to try is the kind of thing that we did back then, this is a ’86 Reserve, that is in fact a blend of two different vineyards, one from the Chehalem Mountains and one from the Dundee Hills. This wine came about because we wanted to make a small wine of what we thought would be an even better wine. By selecting the best barrels from these two sites which made this wine.“
I thoroughly enjoyed the story behind this 1986 vintage that David told in visually expressive way, with comments and laughter added by everyone at the table.
“Now ’86 was not a particularly great vintage and we added a dimension to this wine, which comes out as a minty quality, that would be what became known as the ‘Zambelli Effect. Before this we were doing things smaller, by hand, sometimes in buckets. But then this ‘music man’ came around and he had a piece of equipment that was glowing stainless steel and promised a lot of labor saving advantages. It would de-stem, it would crush and as a result our wines changed. And, we all recognized this.”
When it came time to introduce his second wine you could tell that David was extremely proud of this vintage, and rightfully so, it was in a word Amazing! Here is what Mr. Adelsheim had to say about this 2007 Pinot Noir:
“I wanted to bring this (2007) because it is illustrative of what has happened since around 2000. The 2017 Bryon Creek is a single vineyard, we had made single vineyards before but this was the first time we didn’t call it Chehalem Mountains. Chehalem Mountains which I had petitioned for was finally approved in 2006 and so this was the first thing we bottled that we could put that AVA on.“
David Adelsheim is a strong supporter of single vineyard and this wine marked the next step in really giving his wines a sense of place.
“Willamette Valley is not just about large scale place, its about small scale place. It is my belief that the future of the Willamette Valley and Pinot Noir is about single vineyards, single block vineyards, because they are so distinct.”
“When you can produce a single vineyard, that changes everything about a wine. Because you are no longer talking about how to make the wine better. All you can do is leave things out. Because you got what you got and if you screwed it up in fermentation or screwed up a barrel, all you can do is leave that out. So it takes winemaking to the next level, it requires a higher level of focus. But, the pleasures that you retrieve from a single place, single variety of a wine are hugely different from what you get by pushing things together to off set this little problem by putting this wine into that over here. When you do this it no longer tastes of that singular place. So, to me this was the first (2007) vintage we got to actually say where that place was.”
For me this 2007 Bryon Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir was a perfect Willamette Valley Pinot and I felt incredibly lucky to be able to taste this vintage. On the nose and on the palate my first thought was brandy soaked cherries with a familiar mineral scent that I had discovered in many of the areas wines. I think many at my table agreed this was an exceptional wine.
It is not often that you get the good fortune to be among such an important group of individuals who with determination, hard work and yes luck, built a wine region literally from the ground up. I can’t say whether or not I will ever have an opportunity like this seminar again, but I know that it will be one that I remember for years to come.
Thank you Richard and Nancy Ponzi, Harry Peterson-Nedry, David Adelsheim, Jason Lett, and Susan Sokol-Blosser for taking the time to share your incredible stories with us.
I hope that you enjoyed David Adelsheim’s story as much as I did, I will be sharing more from this seminar and the stories from the other Willamette Valley pioneers very soon.
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