CA Icon Shifts to OR Pinot
by Cole Danehower, © Oregon Wine Report
Tony Soter: Return of the Oregon Native
"I am utterly fascinated by the qualities of good Oregon Pinot noir," says Tony Soter, "they are different than anything we can do in California."
He should know: Tony Soter is one of the most respected winemakers in the business. His consulting clients have included such elite California labels as Araujo Estate, Niebaum-Coppola, Dalla Valle, Moraga Vineyards, Spottswoode, and Viader Vineyard - not to mention his own Pinot noir-focused creation, Etude Winery (recently sold to Beringer Blass).
But now, Tony has taken on a new challenge: making Oregon Pinot noir from his own vineyard in the Willamette Valley. "As clichéd as it may sound," he says, "almost from the beginning of my 25 years in the business, I thought that the dream situation would be to own your own vineyard and make your own wine like a burgundian vigneron on his own domaine."
To help make that dream happen, in 1999 Tony stepped back from his consulting - making wine for others - and stepped up his involvement in making his own wine from his own grapes grown on his own land... in Oregon.
But why Oregon?
"I wanted to make a wine that was different from what we've made in California," he explains. "In terms of tasting descriptors, California Pinots always sort of stay in the red spectrum: raspberry, strawberry - black cherry is as close as they get. Here in Oregon, the flavors are like what grows here: blackberries and blueberries. I find that a really fine and intriguing different expression of the variety, which really fascinates me."
Plus, he just liked Oregon. "I like the Oregon wine industry right now," he says, "it reminds me of being in the business in Napa 25 years ago. And, we have personal roots here because I was born in Portland and my wife was raised here from her second year."
For his Oregon Pinot noir, Tony wants to make "something a little more demanding of the drinker - a wine that will be ageworthy in a kind of classic or traditional sense."
Making Pinot noir in Oregon's cool climate is very different than in sun soaked California - part of the region's appeal for Tony. "I've noticed the grapes taste really good here even when they are in the low 20s (brix, percentage of sugar) - the physiological development of Pinot noir in Oregon is enhanced."
In California, on the other hand, the ample sunlight means that the grape's sugars develop more quickly than the flavors that come with full ripening. "The basic trade-off in California," explains Tony, "is that we have to wait for the flavors to develop."
The risk is that by keeping the grapes on the vine long enough to get good flavors, its possible for the sugar content of the fruit to rise so high that the alcohol potential goes beyond 15% and the wines become out of balance. "Here, you're waiting until the last minute to get sufficient alcohol and worrying about whether the weather will shut you out."
The result of this difference, says Tony, is that "from this kind of climate you can get better color, structure and relatively low alcohol - and I think that's an interesting twist to the nature of the way the wines will express themselves."
But, the same interesting character that the climate delivers in the wine, poses major challenges for growing the fruit. "I viewed getting the grapes ripe year in and year out to be the basic impediment to success in Oregon," Tony says.
To help achieve this, he considered three elements in his vineyard choice.
"One thought was that a low altitude site would ripen sooner than a higher elevation. Then, I wanted to get soil that was not characteristic of what other people have worked with to date. And third, was to apply what I think I know about viticulture in terms of vine management, plant materials, and everything that goes into growing grapes."
He's happy with his vineyard choice. "This site, with shallow, unirrigated soils, should produce a vine of smaller stature that stops growing sooner and hence enhances maturation. The low elevation should be warmer, and we'll be putting vines on rootstock, with Dijon selections, and close spacing." All of these things, Tony believes "should turn out to be incremental advantages in trying to get full maturation."
And so far, Tony is equally happy with the Pinot noir wines his site is delivering. "You can never really tell what you're going to get when you make wine for the first time from a vineyard," he comments. "So I'm a little surprised that the wines I was looking to make - if you can pardon the phrase, a more ‘masculine' style - seem to be coming out in that vein. I don't know how much I've pushed it that way," he muses.
He's learned that in good seasons, like the last three, his vineyard delivers wine that "is substantial and has a kind of beef and structure that I think is somewhat unusual for Pinot noir and very intriguing to me."
Oregon Pinot noir fascinates Tony in part because it challenges the twin muses of intellectual rigor and creative expression. It provides an ideal laboratory for exploring what Tony calls "the excellent dichotomy between what I narrow down to: the hand or the land - which speaks louder?"
"I think it's a bunch of hogwash that the wine makes itself," he says. "It's a quaint thing that the French like to say and a lot of people like to mimic.
Wine is made by the dint of human intent, and our hands are involved in it from every decision we make between the pruning and the corking of the wine. There are a hundred different things you do - in the vineyard and in the winery - that have an influence on the way the wine turns out."
"And so, I've made a study of the technique of winemaking - -that's what Etude is all about - -and I do it with Pinot noir because it is difficult, it is unforgiving, and it is transparent; it conveys the lessons more readily than other kinds of grapes."
In working with Pinot noir, both in California and Oregon, Tony has learned that if he is to make a great wine, he has to combine his respect for the influence the winemaker has, with equal respect for what the land wants to say in a wine.
"Very readily," he explains, "the hand can overpower the expression of the land. Knowing that helps to inform the decisions you make in order to get the best out of the land. It's probably true that I've become a born again terroiriste now that I own property!"
"If I want to make a wine that is unique," he continues, "I'm not going to do it by applying a certain subset of winemaking techniques to create it. I'm going to do it by having my techniques service the clues and inspiration I get from the property."
And that is just what he's doing with his Oregon Pinot noir. "Honestly, as little as you would hope to intervene, you still have to do things," he explains.
"You learn a lot from the wine, and then, hopefully, you become better attuned to its strengths and subtly apply what you know to help the site express itself."
The strengths he's seeing so far from his vineyard confirm his belief in its potential. "I think my ideal Oregon Pinot noir has a lot of blue and black fruits in it, and I'm happy for it to be a little more structured."
A taste of his 1998 vintage shows just such deep dark fruitiness, plus a rich dark red color, and spicy aromas. A strong streak of tannin is readily apparent, as well.
"That tannin is an obvious part of the younger wine," he says, "and a little more like what I remember classic burgundy to be like." He could, he supposes, use his skills to make the wine taste differently.
"I think this property makes a wine that is not much like, say the Eyrie-style that has that beautiful evanescent quality. But could I try to make an Eyrie-like wine here? I could. There are probably a lot of techniques that would take out the guts that this wine has. But would that be the best expression of the site? I don't think that it would."
Pinot noir is not all that Tony is making from his 22-acre vineyard. "The other thing we wanted to do on this site was make a little sparkling wine."
Of course, Tony couldn't be content to make just any sparkling wine. In fact, he has a bit of an agenda. "We're actually trying to ruffle some feathers in the customary way people think about sparkling wine," he declares.
How so? "The most essential point is that I want our sparkling wine to taste like it was grown first, and then made second. We want it to be a satisfying wine that happens to be sparkling - not just fizz."
How Tony achieves this, and the revolutionary approach he is taking to sparkling wine creation, will be the subject of an upcoming Oregon Wine Report feature on Oregon sparkling wine - so look for more details soon.
For a man who has built a formidable reputation making wine for others, his "Soter" label in Oregon is a very personal statement.
"This is a small scale operation where my wife and I get to be hands-on, mom and pop winemakers. This is sort of an ambition for my retirement, that I'll get to be doing more of this and a little less of the high-falutin' executive winemaker and globe-trotting consultant."
And, we'll all have a bit more good Pinot noir as a result!