Elk Cove Vineyards & Winery
by Cole Danehower
Adam Campbell leads Elk Cove into the 21st Century
As a businessman, Adam Godlee Campbell can talk as pragmatically as you like about market share, distribution pipelines, and production capacity. But as a winemaker, Adam can also talk as mystically about wine as the most romantic idealist.
"I think the more you care about the wines in your cellar," he comments, "the better they become. Not just because of the little practical things you do to take care of them, but also because you're thinking about them all the time. There is something about giving them constant attention-the wines that I go back and taste and then taste again, somehow those are the wines that become the stars of the cellar."
Adam is in the forefront of a new generation of Oregon winemakers: men and women who are taking over the successful wineries built by their parents. They have a special challenge to balance a heritage of great winemaking with the running of a successful long-term business.
Hand off to a New Generation
"It is important for me to be cautious," says Adam about managing Elk Cove Vineyards, "because this is my parents' entire retirement, plus it has to support my family as well."
And yet... there is an emotional component to Elk Cove that is always present for Adam.
"Making wine in general-and making Pinot noir in particular-is such a personal thing," he explains. "I think what guides my style is having grown up on the property and having been involved in a family business from the very beginning. I was very young when my parents were dreaming all this up, but every night at dinner we'd talk collectively about it."
That kind of perspective makes the business of Elk Cove very personal. "The first vineyard I bought in 1995 was land I rode past on the school bus every day as a kid," he says. "Sometimes I discount that as not being very important, but when you think about it, that is quite a perspective as I make our wines."
And now, having developed that site into a premier vineyard, Adam is able to-literally-reap the fruits of his history. "When you work so hard in the vineyard, it kind of becomes your baby; it is wonderful to be able to see it all the way through to the winemaking."
"Making wine in general, and Pinot noir in particular, is such a personal thing. When you are passionate and consumed with something, you tend to find your own way with it."
[Photo: Blending business acumen with winemaking skill, this second-generation Oregon winemakeris making the most of his patrimony.]
Involved from the Beginning
Elk Cove Vineyards was founded in 1974 by Adam's parents, Pat and Joe Campbell. Early on, Elk Cove established a reputation for excellent Pinot noir, developing a style of noninterventionist winemaking that Adam continues.
"In the 1997 and 1998 vintages my Dad and I made the wines together," Adam recalls, "and then he fully retired in 1999."
As Elk Cove's general manager and winemaker, Adam initially changed the winemaking process to fit his own conception, though maintaining the essential Elk Cove ethos. "The specifics about what we each chose to do are different," he explains, "but it all comes from the same idea of noninterventionist winemaking."
Adam invested in new equipment, stopped adding stems, and eliminated whole cluster fermentation as he developed his own winemaking style. Even so, Adam maintains flexibility: "last year on some of our favorite lots we decided to use some stems -so I guess I've come full circle!"
"Everything I do," he adds, "is toward taking big, concentrated wines and making them supple and texturally interesting. I really like having high levels of concentration but with a more supple mouth feel. They aren't really soft wines-we get plenty of structure naturally-but I am always trying to make them more supple."
Adam achieves this goal through a combination of pre-fermentation cold soak, some native yeast fermentation, and often pressing off before dryness. "I don't mind some wines even going to barrel a little bit sweet and having them finish in the cellar," he remarks.
"I feel fortunate in being able to work with such great fruit, and to have really good vineyard sites."
The barrel regime is also a key component of achieving Adam's stylistic goals. "You have to follow up with the proper cooperage," he says, "especially with the single vineyard wines using a higher percentage of new wood."
Adam is looking for a "subtle touch for that new oak component" and tends to pick barrels that are less aggressively tannic or oaky. "Cadus is a cooper out of Burgundy that I really like," he says, often choosing barrels that have been air dried.
Elk Cove's Product Range
Adam is adamant about providing consumers with both good value and good quality. Elk Cove offers two production ranges of Pinot noir to accommodate different segments of the market.
By far the largest production-about 80% of their Pinot noir volume, is a well-priced, fruit-forward Willamette Valley blend.
"At that $20 price point we can provide better value than you could at $12 because we can afford to use low yields for a better quality wine," he says.
For instance, Adam describes their vineyard near Yamhill, as a "perfect site, cropped at under 2 tons an acre and with 2100 vines per acre." Grapes from this source comprise the bulk of the Willamette Valley release.
While primarily from estate grapes, Adam does buy grapes to add to the blend. "It is much more of a wine built for earlier drinking, still concentrated, but with less new oak components and more up-front fruit."
Single Vineyard Wines
The remainder of Elk Cove's Pinot noir volume comes from much smaller quantities of three single vineyard-designated releases.
These wines, Adam says, "are I think much more expressive of where they are from-the terroir of the vineyard site-and the are also more personal expressions of what I like in wine."
Adam takes single vineyard designation very seriously. "You don't want to put your name and stake your claim to this being a great site or a great wine for certain qualities, when three years later the vineyard could give you something totally different," he explains.
"A lot of people are doing single vineyard wines from third and fourth leaf vines," he says. "And you know, we've had some incredible wines from young vines-but there's no way you can have a consistent style when you have such shallow root depth. Until you get down deep, you don't know what you have from that site."
"Our single vineyard wines are built for ageing," says Adam, "but that's more out of the nature of the super low yields from great sites-not so much a style I'm trying to put on the wines. All these wines tend to have great length on the palate," he says, "and I believe that comes from the vines being older."
Elk Cove's current single vineyard releases come from three sites. The Roosevelt Vineyard (the youngest vines at 9 years old), La Boheme Vineyard (17 years old) and the Windhill Vineyard (28 years old).
Each of these sites, Adam feels, consistently delivers its own character. Even so, his commitment to quality is more important than his need to release single vineyard wines. "I am fully committed to not releasing a single vineyard wine if the quality is not there-like we did in 1995."
Elk Cove White Wines
Surprisingly to many, over half of Elk Cove's production is white wine. "White wine in Oregon definitely gets slighted because we're so focused on Pinot noir," says Adam. And yet, Elk Cove has built a solid reputation for its Pinot gris, Riesling, and late harvest white wines.
Pinot gris, especially, has become an Elk Cove standout, with consistent bright, fresh, and fruity wines.
"My Dad started making Pinot gris in 1987 and came up with a really good style. With the cool site here we can pick late and never lose acidity in the wines," says Adam. "They really benefit from hang time, stainless steel fermentation, and no malolactic fermentation."
Riesling is another varietal that Adam has found success with. "We have this great 25-year old Riesling vineyard and I had penciled into the budget to graft over half of it to Pinot noir," admits Adam, "but we're having such success with our Riesling program that it kind of saved the vineyard!"
"We're hoping for a resurgence of Riesling," says Adam. "There are a few of us really concentrating on the grape."
By careful vineyard management and low yields, Adam has been able to get excellent concentration in his dry Estate Riesling (about 0.9% residual sugar), his sweet late harvest Riesling (about 6.5% residual sugar), and his unctuous Ultima Riesling (about 20.8% residual sugar).
"I feel fortunate in being able to work with such great fruit, and to have really good vineyards," says Adam. "We have a great opportunity to grow this business."
Three years ago Adam committed to an investment program that allowed Elk Cove to grow. "We built a new barrel cellar, expanded production, hired new people, and made the financial investment needed to expand."
"Pinot noir is becoming more of a hot varietal," he notes, "so I'd like to expand our production of the Willamette Valley wine-I could see growing up to 10,000 cases of that wine, with total production somewhere between 20,000-24,000 cases."
To sell all that wine, Adam has built a strong distribution network. "We have made a real effort to refine who we sell to," he says. "We want to sell to really good, mostly family-owned, small, high-end distributors around the country. I think we need people who can hand sell, and we need people who are preferably Pinot noir geeks-like we are-those are the people who are going to be passionate about the wine.
Being passionate about the wines... that's a very important thing to Adam Godlee Campbell. "When you are passionate and consumed with something, you tend to find your own way with it," he says. Clearly, Adam has found his way with Elk Cove Vineyards!
About Elk Cove- Facts and Figures
Elk Cove Vineyards and Estate was established in 1973 by Pat and Joe Campbell, on a secluded property in the North Willamette Valley. The first planted vineyard was on a gentle south-facing slope which drained into a steep canyon. The sunny hillsides were planted to early ripening varieties such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Riesling. The first year of commercial production was released in 1978. Estate vineyards now cover over 100 acres on three separate sites in the Northern Willamette Valley.
Steep south facing slopes, of Willakenzie and Laurelwood soil types with excellent drainage, provide the perfect environment to grow the world class wine grapes that are the basis for creating Elk Cove wines. Proper site selection and meticulous vine management along with harvesting at very low yields creates the concentration and depth of flavor that are hallmarks of Elk Cove wines.
There have been great changes at Elk Cove in the last few years. New winemaker Adam Campbell (son of the owners) introduced new equipment and methods that have reaped great rewards in wine quality. Recent (2001 and 2002) reviews of Elk Cove's Pinot Noirs and white wines have renewed and increased interest in their products. In the winery Adam employs gravity flow and gentle handling to protect the inherent qualities of the Estate grown fruit.
Planted in 1974, purchased by Elk Cove in 1996
Red-shot volcanic soils (Laurelwood) on very well drained gentle south-facing slopes
Planted 7' x 7'
Farmed organically since 1999 (pending certification)
La Boheme Vineyard
A proprietary selection of cuttings from the original Pommard planting on the Estate
Planted in 1985
Very deep and well drained Willakenzie soils, consisting of silty loam (decaying basalt on old ocean bottom)
Planted 3' x 8' and 6' x 8' on very steep south-facing slopes
Elevation ranges from 550' to 800'
A further selection of Pommard clone cuttings from the La Boheme Vineyard
Planted in 1993
Soils are well-drained silty loam (Willakenzie)
Planted 3'x 8' on steep south-facing slopes overlooking Williams Canyon
Single-caned trellising - always thinned to one cluster per shoot