Argyle Winery: Rollin Soles, Winemaker
Oregon Wine through the Eyes of a Texan, by Ellen R. Shapiro
reprinted with permission from the wonderful egullet.com, great source for all things food.
I WAS skeptical when in the early 1990s I heard murmurings about the vineyards and wine production that was slowly attracting attention and gaining some recognition in Oregon, specifically in the Willamette Valley. At that time it was mostly sommeliers, serious collectors, eccentrics, and of course the growers who were confident that the local grapes were on par with those of Burgundy and Champagne. Word was slow to get out to consumers, though, partly because of small production, partly because the industry was (and is) still growing, and partly because restaurants weren't including (and many still don't) Oregon wines on their lists.
Argyle's Vineyard, First Leaf
But perhaps the most important variable in my skeptic's equation was that I had never been a fan of Pinot Noir. I'm a "big" red wine sort of girl and favor Bordeaux and other heavy hitters with serious extraction and tannins to spare. I've always perceived red Burgundies to be thin (other than the really expensive ones) and often downright weird tasting (especially the really expensive ones). So when I started hearing about these Pinots in Oregon -- even on very good authority -- I was less than convinced. Even if they were good by all the official industry technical standards and measurements, I was still likely to find them unpalatable -- to me, the bottom line. If it's not to my taste, no matter the virtue, I'm not going to drink it.
Thus I arrived five years ago in Oregon at the Argyle Winery on the doorstep of a stranger -- a winemaker with a Texas accent no less -- with more than a bit of a Francophile chip on my shoulder. I hadn't sought out the place; I was there only because a friend, Joseph Nase, at the time the highly regarded sommelier from Lespinasse restaurant in New York, had insisted with the force of law: "If you're driving through Oregon you've got to meet these people." That's when it gets a little dicey for those of us who obsess about hurting other people's feelings: You've got an introduction; you're a special guest. So what happens if the wine is awful? You smile politely and try not to gag?
We were standing in the parking lot, my husband and I, trying to decide which way to turn and how to find this guy named Rollin to whom we'd been referred, and I felt a hand on my shoulder. "How're y'all doin'?" I turned around and was greeted by a Texas size smile illuminating a well tanned, slender face with what I'd categorize as a handlebar moustache minus the handles. Steven and I exchanged the glance we've developed over many long road-trips to indicate that we had at the very least found our entertainment for the day -- whatever the deficiencies of the wine, this guy would clearly be the source of great storytelling material.
"Y'all are friends of Nasey?" This, apparently, was a nickname for Joseph Nase (we later learned Rollin also calls him "Joe-sip").
"Y'all want some coffee?" As far as I could tell, this guy didn't need any more caffeine.
Over a pot of what he called "black stallion," Rollin filled us in a bit on the history of Argyle and the wine industry in Oregon and followed it up with an offer to show us around the vineyards and the winemaking facility. And so began our relationship with Rollin Soles, the winemaker at Argyle Winery.
In order to understand the wine, you've got to understand Rollin (at least a little; he's a complex fellow).
As a biochemistry student in Texas, Rollin didn't have much of a life plan. Mostly he had an irrepressible wanderlust. And like many semi-aimless university students, his plan was to spend the summer after his junior year backpacking around Europe. Hearing this, Rollin's biochemistry professor -- a mentor of sorts -- gave him a gentle nudge and extended an invitation for a short stay with some relatives who had a vineyard in Switzerland.
Rollin spent the summer at a vineyard that was built the same year George Washington became President of the United States, and he fell in love with the idea of wine and winemaking. As he puts it, "I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew there were very few ugly places where they grow grapes."
He graduated from the U.C. Davis oenology program in 1980, and around that time Rollin first discovered Oregon and started thinking seriously about its potential. But it took until 1986 to get more experience and earn the trust of the people who were in a position to put money behind an operation like Argyle in a then-underdeveloped wine region.
So Rollin worked for wineries from Napa (his first job was with Wente Brothers) to Switzerland to Australia and slowly assembled enough support to purchase an old nut-drying facility in Dundee, Oregon (one of Argyle's Pinot Noirs is today called "Nuthouse"). He bought one piece at a time until he owned the whole thing, and he started making wine.
The thing that's evident in every word Rollin speaks is that he makes wine because he loves it. He came to winemaking by happenstance, but there's nothing impromptu about the wine he's producing at Argyle. He's a gregarious, friendly fellow but is modest by all accounts -- it took us five years of annual visits, countless pots of black stallion, and who knows how many bottles of "juice" (this is how wine people refer to wine) to finally nail the guy down and get him to give me, from start to finish, some details of his winemaking philosophy and the story of growing grapes in Oregon.
Terroir, like Pinot Noir itself, was something I'd never been sold on. It always seemed a fiction, one the French in particular would bandy about as proof of the superiority of their wines. But as Rollin explains it, the concept makes sense. It is not so much a magical sense of place as it is a determined and consistent one.
The important thing about Argyle wine is that it has an identifiable taste -- it has a sense of place and identity. Wine, according to Rollin, should be grounded so that it tastes like the place from which it came -- the earth, air, sun, and stock it grew out of. In other terms, it would be like the familiar game of trying to guess where a person is from based upon his accent. The accent provides a characteristic, something identifiable, something that ties that person to a specific place.
It's the same (or should be) with wine and terroir -- the taste of the earth, the taste of the place from which the fruit originated. In wine terms, contributing factors to terroir are going to be root stock, where the grapes are grown, how much light and heat they get, what the farmer is doing, and the other mechanics of production -- just how with people the contributing factors would include the environment in which they grew up, their gene pools, education, and shared life experiences.
If you were to sample a ten-year lineup of Argyle wines you would certainly see differences between the vintages, but you would also see that no matter the differences they're all related; they're all brethren. It's just as it would be with a family if you lined up the relatives. Sure they're different, but they look like they've got the same root stock; the same terroir. Thanks to repeated tastings with Rollin over the years, my reluctance to embrace the notion of terroir has been seriously eroded.
From the vine to the bottle
As Rollin tells it, to produce a worthy bottle of wine countless factors come into play. It's not one specific thing that makes the final product great; it's the confluence of all variables. You might have great root stock, but with no rain the promise of great wine drops off exponentially. Or you might have great root stock and plenty of rain, but not enough sun. The winemaker is constantly battling to create a bottle of wine that, from the outset, has the deck stacked against it. There are those ideal years when all the weather conditions magically coalesce so that from the harvest to the barrel to the bottle the quality and fate of the wine is primarily in the winemaker's hands. But the reality is that Mother Nature rarely obliges -- especially not so far north.
Some winemakers, however, aspire to be slightly less dependent upon the vagaries of meteorology. TheyÕre taking steps to make the farming somewhat more predictable with the hopes of a fruitful harvest and the opportunity to let the winemaker flex his or her creative winemaking muscles. As it stands, Rollin is the only winemaker in the region who is employing a number of these techniques even though, to a layperson like me, it seems obvious that everyone should follow suit. But everyone isn't Rollin and that's part of what I think makes Argyle unique and one of the best producers in Oregon or any other state.
My experience of wine had always been from drinking it out of sealed, labeled bottles, and as a city girl it's always been easy for me to forget that wine is an agricultural product, and that vintners are first and foremost farmers. Rollin, however, sees it primarily from the perspective of agriculture -- from where he stands, everything else flows from that.
In the beginning . . .
Argyle's wines are good. You don't have to take my word for it -- all the serious wine industry sources say so too. (Harvey Steiman of Wine Spectator writes, ". . . Argyle has become Oregon's premier winery.") I'm no expert after all, and not even a super-experienced drinker. For me, the experience of enjoying a bottle of wine is about more than just technical virtue or a numerical scale (92 points from WS for the 1989 Extended Tirage Brut, by the way). It's about my own memory and body of experience. The more Argyle wine I drink, the more I learn to appreciate its subtlety and character, the differences and similarities from vintage to vintage, and its terroir. I have a relationship with the wine, and with the winemaker.
When I drink Argyle's wines, it always takes me back to touring Rollin's vineyards and watching him touch, examine, and smell his vines, all the while telling stories. (While most of my neighbors in Manhattan are driving around in Land Cruisers, Rollin is content to tour the unpaved farm roads of the Willamette Valley in his Camry.) My favorite of these stories -- the one I could listen to every day -- involves a couple of goats:
In 1986, when I settled in the area, I rented a house in a Rhododendron garden. I had all this land that I was going to cultivate with vines but first I had to get rid of the blackberry bushes that were taking over the land. These bushes -- if you could call them that, they were really more like trees -- were high as a house and thick as mud. So I asked around and I got, on good authority from locals who sounded like they had a deep connection with the region, the advice that I should get myself some goats to eat up the berries.
I went inquiring at the local grade school. I had heard the school was just desperate to get rid of a pair of goats that were living there. What with summer vacation coming up, these poor goats had nowhere to go. Now I suppose hindsight is 20/20, but now I realize these goats must have gotten grown up on all the shit that kids in a schoolyard would feed them -- you know, candy bars and ice cream cones -- because these goats were b-i-g. They were bad-ass goats. All the better, I thought, to eat my berries.
So I took these goats and I penned them in with the blackberry trees. I let them wander about freely with those berry trees and returned to check their progress later that afternoon. Well hell if those goats hadn't so much as touched one of my berry trees. They were eating grass, twigs, the fence, a tin can -- but they hadn't touched any berries. So, I figured, I can outsmart these dumb old goats. I'll build ramps so they have clear access to the berries -- and nothing else. I staked those goats down, each with a bowl of water. Fresh blackberries and water, what could be bad about that?
Well now I'm determined. I come back to check on them half an hour later and I'll be damned if those damn goats hadn't wrapped themselves up around and around those stakes so that they had used up all that rope I tethered them with and they both looked up at me pathetic like each with one glassy eye, their heads twisted to one side on account of them having no rope to spare: "Naaaaaa, naaaaaa, naaaaaa, naaaaaa," they went. And I swear I'm not lying, neither one of them had eaten a single berry.
I had those goats for two years, maybe three. It seemed like forever. They were so funny -- the stuff those goats would do was funnier than heck. The places they'd pop up, you'd never expect them to be. They liked to climb up on things that were precipitous. I had this big old beat up Chrysler parked out in a field. I'd be out there checking out the soil or something and there they'd be, Bip and Bop, climbed up on top of that old Chrysler like a couple of lookouts. They'd climb up on a big crag and I'd see them looking out over the horizon like a couple of explorers surveying the land.
Right about that time, in addition to Bip and Bop, I also had Billy Bob. Billy Bob was a dog, a white boxer, and he was dumb as dirt. I'd take Billy Bob out in the fields with me to survey what was going on and as soon as Billy Bob would turn his attention away to watch a ground squirrel or something, one of those goats would materialize out of nowhere, come up behind him and wham! Bip would ram Billy Bob right in the butt. And he'd just stand there that dumb dog, all like, "Huh?" Bip and Bop they just wanted to play. So then Billy Bob, he'd do his best to pay some attention for a while and then he'd go ahead and get distracted again and forget the goats and wham! Bop would smack Billy Bob in the butt. Those goats sure were funny.
Now we also had some horses at the time. And Bip and Bop they knew the lay of the land. They would jump down into the horses' pen and I'd catch them eating all best grass. And I started thinking to myself, I was like "I didn't come here to raise goats." Anyway, even if the goats did eat the berries, they'd just grow back. I hadn't thought of that when I let myself get tricked into getting these goats. So I started thinking about getting rid of them.
We advertised the goats in the paper -- each goat two bucks or something like that. I knew if they were free, someone would pick them up for some kind of laboratory testing, so I charged a couple of bucks. Right off the bat I got a call from a guy I could barely understand. All he asked about was how much they weighed and "what we were feedin' 'em on." I could just see him sitting there with his green teeth all sharpened, a bib around his neck and a knife and fork in his hands anticipating the future meals our goats would serve. Alexa, my daughter, was crying "They can't eat them Daddy! We can't sell them to this guy if he's going to eat them."
But he was our only call from the ad so I gave him directions and told him how to get to us. I said if you're the first one to get here, the damn goats are yours. But while we were waiting for the guy with the green teeth to show up, we got another call from a guy asking all sorts of other questions not pertaining to weight and feed. He sounded promising enough and Alexa was satisfied with this guy. I told him I had just gotten another call from a guy who was already on his way and if he wanted my goats, he'd have to come straight away.
So the second guy showed up first with a van and trailer. Turns out he was a saddle maker. Said he had a property with blackberries on it and he wanted the goats to eat up the berries. And I looked him in the eyes and told him, "Yeah buddy, those goats they'll just eat the shit out of those blackberries."
I had a friend visiting. We told the guy to pull his van on around to the pasture and we'd round the goats up and get them in his trailer. Now the goats weren't penned at the time but we figured with the two of us it would be no problem to grab them. Well, those goats saw that van pull up, they put two and two together and they took off -- they weren't going get caught. Those goats were funny -- clever buggers.
So the two of us, me and my friend, we gave chase to Bip and Bop. We started running around the pasture trying to round up those goats. And the guy -- the one who wanted the goats to eat his blackberries, not the green teeth guy -- he was sitting in his van watching us and he got so excited about the chase that he decided he wanted to join in too. So he gets out of the van and we look over: Turns out the guy's got no legs. He's got these two prosthetics.
The blackberry guy, he's thump thumping around the pasture on his fake legs chasing the two goats. At one point he makes a dive for Bip or Bop, I can't remember which one, and one leg goes flying off in one direction and another goes another way. So now my friend and I, we're chasing goats and legs. Finally we three catch the goats and load them into the trailer. Then we've got to go and get the guys legs so he can reattach them. What a scene. Those goats were funny.
And then, right as the guy with no legs pulls away down the drive with the goats, the guy with the green teeth and the knives and forks pulls up asking where the goats are at. We pointed at the back of the trailer driving out down the road. You could see him salivating and everything. Man, he sure was pissed. But we saved the goats from being his supper.
Those goats were funny.
Sushi & Oregon Bubbly: Together at last
If you thought the best wines for Asian food were Rieslings and Gewrztraminers, think again. Argyle winemaker Rollin Soles, Ellen Shapiro, Steven Shaw, and a few shocked and amazed guests, recently sat down to an epic, Monty Python-esque feast at the local sushi hangout in Corvallis, Oregon, wherein we paired just about every kind of sushi known to humankind together with the full line of Argyle sparkling wines. Turns out, sushi and bubbly were made for each other.
Though sushi comes in infinite variety, these three basic subdivisions work well for bubbly-matching purposes:
(1) With mild fish such as fluke, yellowtail (hamachi), crab and shrimp, the citrus and melon flavors in ArgyleÕs 1996 Blanc de Blanc (100% Dijon clone Chardonnay) picked up the delicate, briny, oceanic essence of the fish, while the focused mineral acidity of the 1997 Brut played beautifully against the vinegary sweetness of the rice (it also went great with those little green salads with their sweet-acidic carrot-ginger dressing).
(2) Some of the more strongly flavored fish, like mackerel and salmon, demanded Pinot power and worked best with 1996 Knudsen Vineyard Brut (70% Pinot Noir; 30% Chardonnay).
And (3) for the sweeter, more vigorous items, like glazed eel, pickled vegetable rolls (oshinko, kanpyo), fresh sweet shrimp, and most rolls made with spicy Japanese mayonnaise, the way to go was something with both some Pinot and a little age on it, like the 1989 Extended Tirage Brut (60% Pinot Noir; 40% Chardonnay; ten years on yeast lees in the bottle).
Actually, all agreed that the Extended Tirage worked great with everything, but it showed its best with the more robust courses. All those full-flavored items also worked well with the regular Brut and the Knudsen Vineyard Brut (a terrifically versatile wine -- it's hard to find a food this doesn't go with), whereas some at the table thought the sweetness proved a bit much for the Blanc de Blanc.
As for what to drink with miso soup, sometimes even winemakers choose beer.
Ellen Shapiro is eGullet.com's Adventures in Eating coordinator Photos: All at Argyle Winery, by Ellen R. Shapiro