Life is a highway, its many twists and turns lead you in different directions, but if you follow your heart down a certain path with determination and hard work anything is possible. One of the modern day examples of this success in the California wine industry is the scholarly and mild mannered Tony Soter. Soter came out of Pomona College with a degree in philosophy to take his first wine job as a cellar rat at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in 1974. That was a six-month stint and from there were a couple of other short stints at Stonegate and Spring Mountain where he learned some tricks of the trade from Chuck Ortman. From there he went to Chappellet and worked with another one of the top minds in California winemaking Joe Cafaro. When Cafaro decided to go on to something else, Tony had already handed in his resignation and was on his way to his first leading role as winemaker at Keenan Winery, but at the last minute Donn Chappellet talked him into staying, a statement to the desperation of the wine industry for warm bodies during that period.
Soter remembers this time as a great learning experience, as he describes it; "I learned a tremendous amount about how to operate a decent-sized winery, so in 1981, I decided to hang out my shingle as a consultant." Soter’s list of consulting clients is like a who’s who of the California wine industry including: Araujo Estate, Dalla Valle, Moraga Vineyards (the only non-Napa winery), Niebaum-Coppola, Spottswoode and Viader, to name a few. We respected him mostly for his motto of: "I work with people who are serious about making red wines from their own grapes." Soter's associate in the consultancy at that time was Mia Klein, who also had her own small winery, Selene Cellars. Soter is the kind of mentor that made it clear that Klein was not an assistant but a co-consultant. "I couldn't cover all the bases in that group without her," he said. "The idea, too, is that we give the client more comfort, they know that as busy as everybody is, they'll have someone to talk to." Only people with true confidence in their own ability can inspire others to perform at their peak and to do this you must put them on your own level.
The wine industry is full of horror stories about consultants whose approach is "my way or the highway" but Soter said it would be a "disservice to my client if I tried to impose a Soter style across all the properties. Besides that, I wouldn't find it very interesting. On the contrary, I look at the property, taste the grapes and try to figure out how the wine should taste, based on what's there. I also always like to be involved in the grape growing." Following his philosophy that each estate should be treated distinctly and not given the "Tony Soter Stamp", basic winemaking techniques change from winery to winery.
Tony started his own label in 1982 focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. The name he chose, Etude Winery, describes his learning process in the wine industry. Tony explains, "It's built around the theme of the meaning of the word in French, which is 'study.' In classical music, etudes are practice pieces for performers containing some sort of technical challenge. The better pieces are played for artistic merits as well. The analogy for me as a craftsman of the winegrowing art is that I should focus my attention on aspects of the craft.” Soter's focus at Etude has always been Pinot Noir because he considers it to be the most technically challenging grape varietal. "Pinot noir is a great vehicle for studying the effects of winemaking. It's transparent. You can readily see what went into making the wine what it is. Also, Pinot Noir doesn't suffer fools. Make a mistake with Pinot Noir and it shows. You can make an ordinary Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot or Zinfandel or Syrah and it can still be fun to drink, even if it isn't a great wine. If Pinot Noir isn't really good, you'd rather be drinking another red wine,"
He sold Etude in 2001 to Beringer Wine Estates to pursue his true passion Pinot Noir, in a place where many consider the new world Mecca for this varietal, he literally bet the farm on Oregon Pinot Noir. His Oregon quest began in 1997 when he and wife Michelle found a 45-acre parcel in Oregon's Willamette Valley. The vineyard is located on the north fork of the Chehalem Valley, six miles east of the town of Yamhill and ten miles northwest of Dundee. Planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the vineyard totals 22 acres. His neighbors include some of the top names in the Oregon wine industry; Beaux Freres, Brick House and Willakenzie. Soter drew upon the 25 years of winegrowing experience in his careful farming of this vineyard that was originally planted in 1988. New vines were added in 1998 and 1999, cover crops have been planted to add enriching nutrients to the soils and to assist in erosion control. Recently the Soter’s were given an Oregon “L.I.V.E.” farming certificate, which acknowledges the sustainable farming practices that have been employed since the Soter’s purchase of the land. The vineyard management is entrusted to Joel Myers, his associate winemaker and James Cahill oversees the daily operations at the winery.
The site of Mineral Springs, located east of the town of Carlton, is a source of great excitement to Tony Soter. This is the home base of operations for Soter Vineyards; it is the site of their prize vineyard, winery, tasting lodge, and eventually the Soter home. In short, it is the entire domaine.
Planted to 32 acres of Pinot Noir, this beautiful ridge top just east of the town of Carlton has commanding views of the valley, with mature stands of oak trees and Douglas firs lining the road. Beginning in 2005, the vineyard is producing nicely distinctive fruit. Becoming stewards to this Oregon land is, in a sense, a return to early familial roots. Both Tony and Michelle spent much of their early lives in Oregon. Tony was born in Portland and spent his first ten years there. Michelle was raised in Portland and left when she was eighteen. With two young children, the Soter’s had a desire to own vineyards and create a land-based winery to pass on to the next generation.
North Valley Pinot Noir sees less new oak than the flagship wines. It is made in a more accessible and versatile format that will give pleasure early and over the medium term. For North Valley Wines, Tony has partnered with some of the area’s most meticulous and talented growers to assemble wines that reflect the region. The goal is simple: world-class, sustainably produced Pinot Noir that faithfully represents the inherent purity and delicacy that typify the wines originating in this corner of the world they call North Valley.
Tony Soter, a passionate winegrower, has long been committed to sustainable farming. He continues this mission today with his role in guiding the Oregon wine industry’s pursuit of verifiable carbon accounting and the proliferation of certified sustainable winegrowing. Planet Oregon is his chance to make wines for a broader audience and make a bigger positive impact on the planet. He wants Planet Oregon wines to embody the conscious choice we all have to endorse and support sustainably produced wines.
It is from the rolling hillsides and diverse soils of the North Valley that veteran winegrowers James Cahill and Tony Soter, along with North Valley partners, Brian Sypher and Michelle Soter, source certified sustainable vineyards of real "Cru" quality for these personality-driven wines. Meticulous, hands-on attention to farming practices throughout the growing season from flowering through harvest, and minimal handling in the winery, assures a resulting level of quality normally associated exclusively with estate grown wines - in fact, they think of each vineyard site they work with as if it were a "satellite estate property", as a statement of Soter’s genuine commitment to making the best wines that they can even if the fruit is not from their estate.
WINE WATCH REVIEW: This North Valley Reserve is a selection of the best barrels that go into the North Valley Pinot Noir. The 2016 was fermented with 15% whole clusters and aged in 40% new French oak. Aromas of wild strawberry, red plum, cherry and vanilla bean spice on the nose with hints of flowers and a touch of earth. Bright and fruity on the tongue with smooth velvety tannins, anise spice and a nice touch of lightly toasted oak spice. The finish is long and layered, velvety with subtle tannins and a firm hand of acidity holding things together nicely. Finish 45+ MOST EXCELLENT TASTING DATE 7/5/19