Soter Vineyards

By Sunny Brown on February 1, 2009

Category: Winery of the Month

Change is a good thing. In life, if we are not constantly seeking out new challenges we become complacent and bored. In love, if we do not continue to surprise and impress our significant other we lose the spark in our relationships. In business, if we do not strive for the highest achievements possible we lose our drive and determination. It is important to try something new each and every day because without something new the every day turns into the every month and eventually the every year and then our lives are gone in the blink of an eye.

The same can be said about wine. Many people seek out not the best wine, but the newest wine. Wine lovers are bombarded each and every day with a new wine, or a new region, or perhaps even a new varietal with which to tempt our senses. But change need not come at the expense of quality as evidenced by the wonderful wines of Tony Soter and Soter Vineyards. Tony has proven time and again that it is possible to change and adapt and to find new challenges and yet still retain the high level of quality that his wines are famous for. He has also proven that you can go home again.

Tony Soter was a fixture in Napa Valley from almost three decades. A native of Oregon, Tony settled in Napa in 1975 and worked for numerous wineries and vineyard management companies in an effort to learn as much as possible about the science of making wine. In 1982 Tony started a winery called Etude (which means 'study' in French) in an effort to create balanced and harmonious wines from some of the premier vineyards in Napa and Sonoma Counties. In addition Tony acted as a consulting winemaker to some of the true luminaries of California wine: Spottswoode, Chappellet, Araujo and many others.

Life in Napa was good. Etude was known throughout the wine world for elegant and balanced Cabernets, Chardonnays and most especially Pinot Noir. Tony's love affair with this particular grape was already in full bloom. "Pinot Noir is the most appropriate vehicle with which to study wine growing," explains Tony, "precisely because of its demanding nature but also because of its delicacy and transparency." He had even met and married a fellow Oregonian named Michelle. He had hit a home run in winemaking terms- a winery that was well known and had a huge following but still small enough to ensure that quality was the number one priority.

But the siren song of the hills of Oregon rang true in Tony's soul, and in 1997 he purchased a spot of land near the town of Yamhill on the north end of Oregon's Willamette Valley. Willamette sits in a rain shadow created by the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Coast Range Mountains to the west. It also lays at the 45th parallel of latitude, just about on par with Burgundy some 6,000 miles to the east. The result is a region that has long summers of moderate temperatures, very little rain before October, and a stable growing environment. Each of these elements on its own would be good for growing quality Pinot Noir, but add them all together and the result is almost a perfect environment for the fickle grape.

Crafting great Pinot Noir is not without its challenges in terms of production. "The thin skin of Pinot makes it prone to sun burn when hot and rot when wet," says Tony. But it certainly helps to have a half of a lifetime in experience and expertise, an area where Tony feels that knowledge can separate the good grapes from the bad: "I always think the hardest challenges are in the field growing the finest grapes possible given the seasonal variable that mother nature throws at you. We are always trying to balance the conflicting goals of stress management. Smaller, somewhat stressed vines make the best wines. On the other hand a vine that experiences premature or excessive stress will abandon the role of maturing fruit in an attempt to protect its permanent parts for survival. The keys are recognizing signs of stress and its degree and timing. Footsteps in the vineyard are the essentials of success."

And so Soter Vineyards was born, always with crafting the greatest Pinot Noir possible as the primary goal. The first vineyard was a piece of land called Beacon Hill, so named for the lighthouse that sits at the head of the vineyard. The quick draining alluvial soil lead to less leaf and shoot production from the vine, thus forcing the plant to focus all of its energies on fruit production. Though the results from the Beacon Hill vineyard were quite impressive, Tony knew that he could do better, so in 2001 he purchased a property just to the north of Beacon Hill called Mineral Springs. This site is both the present and future of Soter Vineyards, as in 2005 Tony sold the Beacon Hill property to focus on the vast potential that is Mineral Springs.

The first order of business after acquiring Mineral Springs was to set the winery in order. A barn dating back to 1943 which sat on the property was given a complete transformation into a modern winemaking facility, all to Tony's exacting specifications. No expense (for a barn, at least!) was spared in the rehabilitation. State of the art equipment including a mechanized bottling line as well as a small lab for wine analysis were installed in the old barn. Two caves were dug into the hillside nearby to house the barrels of wine after harvest. Only the finest barrels of French Oak and stainless steel were brought to the property.

The quality control spills over into the vineyards as well, as Tony believes in strict control over the grapes, the leaf canopy and ultimately the yields. Less than two tons of grapes per acre are harvested by hand before given a strict sorting on the tirage table. The Mineral Springs vineyard is almost unique in the world of winemaking: Instead of many dips and valleys Mineral Springs consists of one gentle slope that stretches along a ridge from east to west. The vines face due south to catch the optimum amount of sun throughout the course of the day. The soil is a pale sedimentary and alluvial wash which allows for adequate drainage.

Tony also is committed to matching the appropriate vineyard with the correct clone of Pinot Noir. The Pinot family of gapes mutates very easily, and there are now over 200 different clones of Pinot Noir, and each brings a different quality to the table. Some grow with the great vigor, others provide more perfume to the resultant wine, and a skillful vineyard manager can ensure that she or he receives exactly what they want from the vines. As Tony describes it "There are not many clones that I would ever consider as magic bullets...which is to say that they are always successful in yielding complete wines vintage after vintage. That would stretch credibility. Having an array of clones is more than hedging bets on variables each season, however. The various clones have distinct personalities or voices and can bring a dimension to a blend that another clone is incapable of offering."

The overall health of the vineyard plays a big role as well. The Mineral Springs vineyard is L.I.V.E. (Low Impact Viticulture and Enology) certified, a process in which certain practices are outlawed and certain others are mandatory, all in an effort to create the healthiest vines possible. No pesticides, herbicides or fungicides are used within the vineyard. Tony plants beans, peas and other legumes in between the rows of vines as a means to "fix" the nitrogen content in the soil. Tony and Michelle's children have been known to wander through the rows of vines sampling the ripe grapes straight off of the shoots. This is not a place for chemicals.

In addition to fantastic Pinot Noirs Tony also crafts a dry rosé and an unbelievable Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Noir that we affectionately call Soter Pop. Don't let the name fool you- this is a serious and dry sparkling wine that would give many Champagne's a run for their money. The grapes used hail from some of the best blocks of the Beacon Hill vineyard. The wine spends at least three years on the lees gaining in richness and complexity before an incredibly low dosage of only 7 grams of residual sugar per liter is added to jump start the secondary fermentation.

Ultimately, all wines are judged by the company they keep, and the Yamhill-Carlton AVA in which Soter Vineyards sits is a hotbed of exciting Pinot producers: Lynne Penner Ash, Patricia Green and Ken Wright all craft great Pinots from these rolling hills at the north end of the Willamette. But what exactly is it that sets Tony's wines apart from the rest? Perhaps we should let Tony answer that question: "These other producers do not make wines from Beacon Hill or Mineral Springs. So what most sets them apart are their specific origins and the distinctiveness of character of our estate grown vines. The same could be said for the many single vineyard wines represented by these other producers. I count these three as friends and I admire their work yet I make many decisions along the way that distinguish our wines from theirs. These are my convictions expressed as acts of creation. Some people would judge that some of these wines are "better or worse".... while this may be true in some eyes the opposite is likely held by someone else. What all can agree upon is that the wines are distinct and not likely to be confused... both because of the land they come from and the hands they are made from.

"People say our wines have a finely crafted quality.... like a good piece of woodwork with a finely fitted finish. To do so little to the wines and have them seem well finished might sound like a challenge but it is mostly about a few good actions and a lot of patience."

The 2003 Soter Vineyards Brut Rosé of Pinot Noir is a beautiful example of domestic sparkling wine. Made in the Methode Champenoise and given a very modest dosage of 7 grams per liter, this is a dry and lithe wine with lots of fruit and spice. Aromas that range from peach blossom to fragrant raspberries linger above the glass like the first whiff of the lilac tree in my backyard come springtime. The palate is fresh and vibrant, with a clean feel of red fruits and a certain spicy note. Bracing acidity washes through on the finish. Overall this wine has just a touch more weight than your average sparkler, more Morlet than Chiquet, but a delicious wine nonetheless.

In addition to his single-vineyard wines Tony also crafts a Pinot called the North Valley. The 2006 Soter Vineyards North Valley Pinot is a blend of Pinots from both Estate-grown fruit and also grapes purchased from some of Tony's esteemed neighbors. All vineyard management is conducted to Tony's exacting specifications including green harvests, hand selection of berries and very low yields. The result is a wine that is light to medium in body but full of bright red fruit and a long note of spice on the finish. The mid-palate holds considerable weight and a pleasant creamy note before a wash of bright acidity starts the mouth to water. The finish is fresh and clean.

The 2006 Soter Vineyards Pinot Noir Mineral Springs Vineyard is just a lovely expression of Pinot Noir. The nose is absolutely beautiful, with wave after wave of perfume, cola, spice, earth, woodsmoke and rich black fruit go drifting in and out of my sense memory. Soft and silky on the tongue, this wine holds that ethereal quality that is the calling card of a great Pinot Noir- it is neither heavy nor light, neither thin nor fat, but instead a little of everything, with an unmistakable richness dancing hand in hand with a spirited grace. The dexterity of Fred Astaire mixed with the beauty of Audrey Hepburn and doused with a generous dose of J-Lo-like passion. Rich dark fruits, mouthwatering acidity, tongue-coating glycerin- you name it, this wine has it all!

Pinot is not easy, but neither is leaving the home you know for a new challenge. Like many things, the reward for success is far greater than the pain of failure. In that spirit I hope you try a bottle of Tony's wines. You owe it to yourself to try something new.