Food & Drink

Adelaida Cellars earns respect for Paso Robles pinot

A hilltop view of Adelaida Cellars shows some of the walnut orchards surrounding the winery.
A hilltop view of Adelaida Cellars shows some of the walnut orchards surrounding the winery. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The long driveway that leads to Adelaida Cellars is the seam between two plantings: a 13-year-old vineyard containing muscat blanc and Portuguese varietals, and a grove of walnut trees, some a century old. The twisting road seems to embody the winery’s philosophy: to bring together strengths of the past with the potential of the future.

Adelaida Cellars, owned by the Van Steenwyk family, is located in the Adelaida AVA (American Viticultural Area), a sub-appellation located in the northwestern portion of the Paso Robles AVA. It produces estate-only wines from grapes grown on six vineyards. Last year’s harvest yielded 260 tons of fruit; only a small amount was sold to other local producers. A total of 157.5 vineyard acres and hundreds of acres of walnut orchards cover only a small portion of the vast acreage owned by the family.

Just 14 miles from the coast, and with mountainous terrain that rises up to 2,000 feet, the vineyards at Adelaida Cellars are subject to both intense summer heat and gusts of cool coastal air. According to Adelaida Cellars winemaker Jeremy Weintraub, this allows the winery to “fully ripen the grapes, due to the sunlight and warmth, and still retain the natural acidity, as the grapes retain acid when cool.”

The overriding soil type is limestone-rich calcareous clay, which “contributes to the great minerality and acidity in our wines,” Weintraub said. Many variations of that soil type run throughout the properties.

This great diversity in soil, topography and climate allows Adelaida Cellars to grow 24 different varietals, with an emphasis on Rhônes, pinot noir, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon.

What’s more, the winery can “harness different attributes from the same varietal, grown on the same vineyard,” noted Christopher Taranto, communications director of Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, a nonprofit trade association.

The crown jewel of the Adelaida Cellars properties is its Hoffman Mountain Ranch (HMR) Vineyard. It contains what many believe to be the oldest planting of pinot noir grapes within the Central Coast AVA, which, according to Taranto, spans an area between Santa Cruz and Ventura, and inland to San Benito.

Among the many accolades won by Adelaida Cellars wines were honors from Wine Enthusiast magazine for the 2006 HMR pinot noir. It was rated 94 points, and ranked among the Top 100 Wines of the Year. The magazine called the wine “a beautifully crafted pinot that will change your mind about Paso Robles.”

Closer to home, Adelaida Cellars has won the respect of its wine industry peers. Local industry pioneer Gary Eberle called the winery “one of the new forces in the last 20 years.”

“They’ve brought lots of good reviews and good people to the area, and they’ve made consistently good wine,” he added. “If I were to name the top 10 Paso wineries, I’d certainly throw them in the mix.”

A partnership is born

The two parties responsible for Adelaida Cellars’ genesis came to winemaking somewhat by chance.

In the late 1970s, Donald and Elizabeth Van Steenwyk purchased properties along Adelaida Road, both as an investment and as a place for their family to vacation. Donald was a businessman and scientist who owned companies that supplied products and services to the oil industry. Elizabeth has since become a successful children’s author. At the time, they lived in Southern California, but they relocated to the ranch 11 years ago.

The land was already planted with walnuts and almonds, which historically have been key agricultural crops in the Paso Robles area.

Not long after they bought the property, the Van Steenwyks sought the advice of a farm adviser. “He said we needed a second crop, and when my husband asked what that should be, he said grapes,” recalled Elizabeth Van Steenwyk.

In the early 1980s, while the family continued to purchase acreage in Adelaida, John Munch was discovering a talent for winemaking.

Munch was working on a master’s degree in early English literature at San Francisco State University when he got sidetracked doing millwork in San Francisco. He came to the area looking for a rural lifestyle. His late wife Andrée, a native of France, introduced him to a group of French and Swiss investors interested in making sparkling wines in California.

The couple set up a winemaking facility at Estrella River Winery, located on Highway 46 East. They bottled their first sparkling wine in 1982, using grapes from the Estrella vineyards. Part of that time, they worked with Eberle, who helped establish Estrella River Winery before leaving to start Eberle Winery.

At the same time, Munch began the Adelaida Cellars brand to “gain a working knowledge of wine marketing,” he said. The winery, which he named after the 10-acre ranch where he and his wife lived on Adelaida Road, produced its first vintage in 1981 — a cabernet sauvignon.

All of this came to a halt in the mid-1980s when Estrella declared bankruptcy, effectively ending all agreements with Munch. He was left without a winemaking facility and, eventually lost his investors as a result.

It was at this critical juncture that the Van Steenwyks approached Munch. “The offer was that they would pay to put up a building and I would lease it back from them, and they would have the option to buy a certain percentage (of the business),” Munch explained.

According to Munch, his initial role was to oversee vineyard planting and to make wines at the facility under his Adelaida brand. The first production facility and tasting room opened in 1991. That same year saw the first planting of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and northern Rhône-sourced syrah vines on the steeply sloped Viking Vineyard. This was part of Viking Ranch off Peachy Canyon Road, which the family acquired in the 1980s.

Gradually, this agreement developed into a full partnership with Munch continuing as winemaker. During this time, he developed his own brand, Le Cuvier, which was produced at the Adelaida facilities.

A critical acquisition for Adelaida Cellars came in 1994 with the purchase of 419 acres of the original 1,200-acre HMR Vineyard that was planted by Southern California cardiologist Dr. Stanley Hoffman in 1964. In addition to those venerable pinot noir vines, Adelaida Cellars’ gain included cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and gamay noir vines. “The vineyard didn’t even support itself at the time, but it had a certain cachet and reputation,” said Munch, who helped to rehabilitate the vines over the next several years.

In 1999, the Van Steenwyks bought out Munch’s ownership interest in Adelaida Cellars. Munch continues to make wine at Le Cuvier, now located on his home property in Adelaida, which he owns with business partner Mary Fox.

Planting at Adelaida Cellars continued over the next eight years and included Anna’s Vineyard on the HMR Ranch property and Bobcat Crossing Vineyard at the winery’s entrance, as well as more vines on Viking Vineyard.

In 2003, the Van Steenwyks planted Michael’s Vineyard on the HMR Ranch property with 22 acres of dry-farmed zinfandel. In 2013, they added to that with an additional 22 acres of dry-farmed vines including zinfandel, carignane, grenache and alicante bouchet.

Currently, about a third of Adelaida Cellars’ vineyards are dry farmed. All of their walnut trees are also dry farmed, which means around 85 percent of its total crops are grown without irrigation, according to general manager, Jessica Kollhoff. The rest of the vines are watered minimally, using a deficit irrigation method. Weintraub said they are “trying to wean those vines off irrigation.”

Dry farming is possible in the Adelaida area because of its water-retaining calcareous clay soil, as well as rainfall amounts that Weintraub said are “about 25 inches on average annually versus 12 inches in the town of Paso Robles.”

Water conservation is in line with the winery’s philosophy of sustainable farming that includes practices such as natural weed control, solar electricity and graywater recycling.

Weintraub sees other benefits to dry farming, including “very concentrated berries, which makes wine of great concentration and interest,” he said. “The idea is quality not yield.”

Distribution spans 10 states

On a clear January day, a mobile wine-bottling trailer hummed alongside Adelaida Cellars’ production facility. Inside, bottles freshly filled with 2013 HMR pinot noir were clattering along a conveyor belt, on their way to be boxed and shipped to restaurants and wine shops around the nation.

Adelaida Cellars’ distribution spans 10 states. It also has wine club membership in the thousands, and around 1,800 tasting room visitors each month during high tourist season. This is a far cry from 1991, when it sold primarily to local wine shops, and opened its tasting room by “setting out two barrels and a couple of redwood planks,” according to Munch.

Munch pointed out one critical relationship as the catalyst for launching Adelaida Cellars into national distribution. It was an alliance with Vineyard Brands, owned by wine industry veteran Robert Haas, who opened Tablas Creek Vineyard in the Adelaida area with the Perrin family of French winery de Beaucastel in 1989.

Munch said he helped Haas find a location with just the right soil conditions in which to grow Rhône varietals. In return, Vineyard Brands assisted with marketing Adelaida Cellars nationally. “It was the marketing company for the primo wines,” Munch said. “We considered the marketing done. All we’d have to do is make decent wines and we’d be successful.” The relationship lasted about four years until around 1995, Munch said.

Desirable soils, along with heightened recognition of the Paso Robles wine region, have brought more wineries to the Adelaida region in the past two decades.

When Adelaida opened its first tasting room, there were “only a handful” of wineries on Adelaida Road, said Kollhoff. Now, there are more than 30 wineries in the Adelaida District, which became its own AVA just last year. She credits the abundance of tasting rooms on Adelaida Road and the media attention given to Paso Robles wine country with a 20 percent jump in tasting room traffic in 2013.

Taranto believes that marquis brands like Adelaida Cellars and Tablas Creek are also responsible for luring tourists to the remote Adelaida district. “Wine travelers are often looking for those brands that have distribution and marketing beyond the local reach, that they are familiar with and able to pick up at home,” he said.

Adelaida has certainly benefitted from the prominence of Paso Robles wines. But according to Taranto, the benefits flow both ways.

“Paso’s not necessarily known for pinot noir, but there’s stellar pinot being produced here, when you can find it,” he said. “Adelaida has the bandwidth for distribution that’s able to get more of their wines out into the marketplace. And maybe ever so slightly, that’s changing the views of people who believe Paso is not for pinot.”

A taste of the future

Last October, Adelaida Cellars threw a 50th anniversary bash for its HMR vineyard pinot noir vines. While celebrating its history, it began making provisions for the future.

On the same day, it broke ground on a new hospitality center that will include a 1,100-square-foot tasting room, club lounge, VIP/library room for reserve tastings, office space and a large outdoor deck. There also will be around 6,000 square feet of additional barrel storage where the winery can host dinners and special events. The center is expected to open in December of this year.

“We just got to the point where we literally couldn’t fit guests in the tasting room, or the staff members to service them,” said Kollhoff of the current 600-square-foot facility. “We always said we wanted to deliver an experience that matches the quality of the wines, but that’s been difficult to do in recent years.”

Plans to build the new hospitality center were initiated around 2004 by Donald Van Steenwyk, who passed away in 2009. Elizabeth has since taken the reins of the operation.

Last year saw a remodel of the winery’s production facility that included new materials, as well as reorganization for greater efficiency, although its size remains the same.

Kollhoff said the winery’s production has remained fairly consistent, at around 15,000 cases, over the past several years. Weintraub noted that this is a level where they are “comfortable with the focus we can put on all our wines.”

Though there are no new plantings in the works, “there’s always that potential,” said Kollhoff. “But when you’re trying to produce the absolute best quality you can, there’s always an assessment process to find a site with the potential to produce wines of a better quality than where we’re at.”

Long ago, the family’s almond trees were let go because of “their fussiness,” Elizabeth Van Steenwyk said. But there are no plans to tear out any of the walnut trees to plant grapevines, as has been the fate of many local nut orchards. In fact, the Van Steenwyks continue to plant walnut trees. According to Elizabeth, the family is “one of the larger walnut producers in the Central California area.”

Weintraub said that the winery’s future course will be “not so much a reinvention, but a rededication to our original intentions.” He believes that Adelaida Cellars’ true distinction lies in its older vines that produce “more interesting, more compelling, more complex wines.”

Even the winery’s events will underscore its history.

Aside from a few wine club functions, Kollhoff envisions mostly small, intimate events with a focus on education. Plans are in the works for private tastings and seminars featuring their library wines, which are older vintages that the winery has been cellaring. “We have invested in saving quite a bit of inventory over the years. Our wines always aged really well, and now we’ll have a venue to really showcase them,” she said.

Kollhoff believes that the winery, too, has benefitted from age. “We have a 30-plus year proven track with a broad portfolio of really great wines,” she said. “We want to keep building on our history. The quality of our wines, a commitment to the land, and an excellent experience for the day-to-day customer will continue to be our top priorities.”

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