David Adelsheim was instrumental in importing clones of Pinot noir and other cool climate grape varieties from Europe to Oregon in the 70’s and 80’s. This was a boon for Oregon, as growers now had more ability to control crop size, specific aromas or tannins, time of ripening, sugar and acidity levels, and disease pressure than ever before.
What is a Clone?
With grapevines, a clone is simply a new grapevine replicated from a known “mother” vine by taking a cutting from the “mother” vine or one of its cloned, identical descendants. Virtually all grapevines are created this way, from cuttings rather than from seeds, so that the progeny are identical to the parents, going all the way back to the “mother” vine.
However, genetic mutations can creep into the replication process, giving rise to a new “mother” vine and a whole new group of clones (that is, if a grower or researcher finds the new “mother” vine to have distinct characteristics worthy of preserving).
Individual clones of a grape variety (Pinot noir, for instance) are prized for particular attributes, such as crop size, specific aromas or tannins, time of ripening, low or high sugars or acidity and sensibility to disease.
Early history of Oregon work with clones
When the first post-prohibition plantings of winegrapes took place in Oregon in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was no appreciation of the potential importance of the differences between clones. Early growers simply ordered “Pinot noir” or “Riesling” and paid attention only to obtaining vines that were free of virus. In 1973, that all changed with a tasting of Pinot noir wines organized by David Adelsheim in which the aromas and other wines characteristics were linked to the Pinot noir clones from which they were produced. The immediate result was a rush to plant the “Pommard” clone (UCD 5) of Pinot noir which seemed to give more lush fruit aromas than the “Wädenswil” clone (UCD 1A).
Charles Coury (another early Oregon grower) and Austin Goheen (a researcher at the University of California, Davis) encouraged Adelsheim to look into the availability of additional clones of Pinot noir and other cool climate grape varieties when he went to Burgundy to work in 1974. He found a set of Chardonnay clones that ripened earlier than those in Oregon, heard of a new collection of 205 Pinot noir clones being planted for study, and got access to a set of the best clones of nine Alsatian varieties. Over the next ten years, he worked with Ron Cameron (a plant pathologist at Oregon State University) to get the University a federal permit to import grapevines, set up a quarantine and disease evaluation process, and create an industry program to evaluate new clones. New clones started to arrive in 1975 and continued through 1987. In that period, the OSU program provided six clones (three important) of Chardonnay, thirteen clones (three very important) of Pinot noir, and the first known Pinot blanc, Gamay noir, and Auxerrois plants in America.
As the OSU program was ending, Adelsheim encouraged the Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis to work more closely with French and other international vine researchers to find ways to bring the best grapevine material to America. They negotiated a way to import clones from the ENTAV-INRA research programs in France and collect royalties from sales of their material to help cover some of the costs of their immense research.