Sonoma County region
Irreverent Adler Fels Succeeds by Bucking Conventional Wisdom
“Why?” “Who says it has to be done this way?” “Has anyone tried it this way?” “It will probably work better if . . .” You can almost hear David Coleman’s brain churning away, questioning, testing the conventional wisdom, wanting to find another way. To the people who know David Coleman, that’s typically the way he approaches just about everything. In the wine industry, known to be somewhat stodgy and conventional, that kind of thinking borders on blasphemy. Why do you have to have wine labels that are white and square and nondescript? Why do you have to grow your own grapes to make great wine? Why do you have to be an enologist to make great wine? The answer to these and many other questions David has asked along the way is, “you don’t.”
David’s first foray into the wine industry was while he worked as a graphic designer for a Santa Rosa ad agency. He was in the right place at the right time when he bumped into Dick Arrowood, owner of Chateau St. Jean Winery. “I asked him if he needed any design work done,” David recalls. “That was back in the early 1970s when decisions about wine labels and package design meant simply which font to use for the winery name. It was pretty much all vanilla looking,” he says.
David got the job and turned the wine industry on its ear by unveiling a revolutionary label with a die-cut arch and gold foil embossing that stood far above the crowd. “Why didn’t we think of that!?” was the collective cry from other wineries. From that point on, the wine industry had a whole new attitude.
David went on to design hundreds of other wine labels, carving out a huge niche business and earning dozens of awards along the way. One day in 1979 after seven years of designing other wineries’ labels he decided to design his own. “Is there a reason why I can’t “design” award winning wines?” he asked himself.
Instead of looking for fertile wine producing land in Napa or Sonoma to buy, David and his wife Ayn opted to purchase grapes and bottle their first vintages out of the family garage. Their sprawling Tudor style home is fashioned after a German castle and situated 1,500 feet above the Sonoma Valley. They named their start up winery, “Adler Fels”, (German for Eagle Rock), after a giant bolder located on the cliffs near the winery. The facility is in a constant state of construction as they try to maximize efficiency. “Over the years we’ve built and remodeled so many times we’ve lost track!” David quips. David has come to realize that he mostly loves the mechanics of winemaking. Looking back, it turns out that what actually helped him become successful in the wine business was not knowing very much about winemaking.
“I didn't go into this with any preconceived notions of how things had to be done; since I didn't have any experience I didn't know there were any rules”, said David. He was not content to blindly do things without questioning the process. He was used to breaking traditional rules in design and he took that same philosophy and applied it to winemaking. Out of this relentless questioning process came a number of innovations that helped David Coleman create high quality, distinctive wines.
One innovation was the creation of a Variable Capacity Fermentation Storage Tank that features a free-floating top that adjusts to the level of the wine inside the tank. It utilizes a stainless steel lid designed to move up and down inside the tank, like a piston inside a cylinder, to whatever height gives an exact fit and the best protection from oxygen. This innovation has totally eliminated the need for pumped in nitrogen and CO2 that can impact the quality of the wine. The original prototype used a gasket salvaged from the inside of a B-52 bomb bay door! The gaskets and tanks are now manufactured commercially and have become an industry standard.
Another unique procedure initiated by David, addressed the way the grapes that he was purchasing were picked. Instead of using huge one or two ton gondolas that most wineries use, he insisted that grapes be picked and placed into shallow cranberry bins, approximately 12 inches deep. The shallow bins prevent the grapes from being crushed under their own weight and substantially reduces oxidation. Once the grapes reach the winery, they are de-stemmed and placed in Coleman-designed drain tanks to separate the free-run juice for fermentation. Ultimately, the juice is sent into the temperature-controlled variable top tanks or oak barrels for fermentation. David and Ayn have steadfastly refused to grow grapes of their own.
“Estate bottling is nonsense. There is more than enough good fruit out there, and so many diverse micro climates in Sonoma County to take advantage of,” says David. “Just because you grow your own grapes doesn’t mean they’re great. I have the luxury of buying the fruit that I like from where I like,” he reasons. The fruit he uses comes from diverse sources throughout California depending of course on the type of wine he is producing. The Russian River area, Sonoma Mountain and the Sangiacomo ranches in Carneros are among his favorites.
The fruit selection and unique production methods have consistently paid off with Sweepstakes awards, Best of Class awards and barrels full of Gold Medals in competitions year after year. Their efforts have also caught the attention of many corporate and private investors over the years wanting to ride the accolade train. “I was recently offered a buyout price I couldn’t refuse,” David told us earlier this year. Alas, he finally succumbed to temptation and sold the business for an undisclosed sum believed to be well in excess of $10 million to Adams Wine Group. David continues to work with the new owners as a consultant. “I’m not out of it entirely,” he says, “But now I can look at things a bit more objectively and with a lot less stress!”
David Coleman - Designer, Winemaker, Husband
Some winemakers come to their profession out of a passion for wine, some come about as a part of a family tradition, others find the occupation to be the culmination of a life-long dream, and then there is David Coleman. The founder of Adler Fels came to the wine business out of a love of design, of machinery, and a simple curiosity about the process of winemaking.
It began in 1971 when David, who had graduated from M.I.T. with a Chemical Engineering degree and a design degree from the prestigious Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design, moved to Santa Rosa, California to be the creative director of a small advertising agency. Prior to this fortuitous move, David had designed furniture, first in Chicago and then in Laguna Beach. He found the jobs boring and felt that the agency might provide the creative freedom and challenge he was looking for. The agency was smack dab in the middle of wine country so it didn’t take long to land a few winery accounts. It was here that David designed his first wine labels. Skilled at creating innovative bottle art that utilized a revolutionary new die cutting and foil stamping process, he soon gained a loyal following. Building on David’s reputation the agency flourished, capitalizing on the niche business of wine packaging design. His success in this field captured international attention, and over the next seven years he produced scores of award-winning wine labels.
In 1978, while David was still designing labels, he met Ayn Ryan a native Californian who had grown up in her family's vineyards under the tutelage of her grandfather, Edward Merzoian (founder of Elmco Vineyard and Cameo wine label). Interestingly, her uncles were also in the business, having started Chateau St. Jean Winery in Kenwood, CA.
David the ‘East Coaster” and Ayn the farm girl from Porterville in the San Joaquin Valley, were married the next year. About a year later while at a business dinner with one of David's winery clients, David suddenly announced he and Ayn were going to start a winery! While the announcement came as a total surprise, Ayn supported the idea, and before long, they had created architectural plans for their new winery.
For the next couple of years David worked at the agency and then studied winemaking during the off hours. Meanwhile he and Ayn purchased property in the Mayacamas Mountains high above the Sonoma Valley and started building their home. The design they envisioned was a castle-like motif, inspired by David's extended stay in Germany where he was stationed in the military. As the house was built and as winemaking became more a way of life, David and Ayn found themselves either tearing down and rebuilding, or remodeling to make way for more winery space. With each passing year, this frenetic pace continued as production evolved from an initial 1,000 cases into 10,000 to 15,000 cases annually.
Sadly, the pace at a 10,000 case winery doesn't leave much time for trivial pursuits, and David's other love, golf, often takes a back seat. Always the innovator, David has learned to cope, by installing a golf tee on his deck, from which he can pause every once in awhile to drive a ball or two into the canyon below. Visitors are welcome to join him, and the balls and clubs are provided.