“I remember that story just slightly differently…”.
A family gathered, reminiscing, telling stories. It’s a joyful place to be, as a guest listening as a family shares their stories, with joy and fondness. It’s especially joyful when the family sharing the stories is one of the pioneers of wine in the Willamette Valley.
I was lucky enough to attend a virtual tasting with the Sokol Blosser family. Susan, Bill, Alex, and Alison (assisted by the wonderful Liz Barret), invited a group of wine writers to taste through 4 of their wines as they shared stories of the history of their winery and celebrated 50 years in the Willamette Valley.
When I first became interested in wine, we planned a trip to the Willamette Valley. Before going, I had picked up the book, “At Home in the Vineyard: Cultivating a Winery, an Industry, and a Life” by Susan Sokol Blosser. She shared both the trials and tribulations of being one of the first handful of winemaking families to plant in what is now such a well-known region. I was completely taken in by her story.
The story of Sokol-Blosser
The Sokol-Blosser story begins as Bill says with “Dreamers who loved wine.”
Susan’s father had a cellar and many amazing bottles of Burgundy, that the two were lucky enough to experience. Bill spent a year in France. When the two graduated from Stanford and married, both with liberal arts degrees they had the feeling that they could do anything. What they decided to do was move to Oregon and grow Pinot Noir. They began planting in 1971 in the Dundee Hills, 34 years before the area became its own AVA.
In 1977 they had their first vintage. There was no wine industry in the region at that time. As to sustainability? Well, they were farmers first, so sustainability just seemed common sense. You take care of the land if you want it to produce well, and you avoid chemicals because you are raising kids on this land!
The property they found in the Dundee Hills, was the closest thing to a Burgundian climate in the new world. It was an abandoned prune orchard and they bought it just 2 weeks after the birth of their son Nik.
They got in at the right time for land prices. The family joked that while they would love to buy more property to expand the vineyard now, they are priced out of their own backyard. The Dundee Hills when they started had a handful of growers, today there are close to 65.
Not only did they get in at the right time for land prices, but they were also starting as the local Oregon bean farms were converting to bush beans! This meant a plethora of leftover wire and posts were available for grape trellising!
As they shared vintage photos with us Bill was teased about his beret, which he brought back from France. Susan said he would only take it off to shower or sleep. Bill claims
“I had to wear it in the vineyard because the vines demanded it!”
They pushed forward, planting vines, welcoming Alex to the family, building a winery, opening a tasting room (the first in Oregon), gaining international recognition, and then having Alison join the family!
Susan became the President of the winery in 1991 and Bill returned to using his Stanford degree for urban planning.
The 2nd Generation of Sokol Blosser
The children were raised to choose their own path and of course, none of them thought that included working at the family winery. Bill and Susan knew first-hand how tough this business was and wanted their kids to have a life! They had not planned the business as one to hand down, they were just doing their thing. Nik really did escape, and Alex with his BS in Philosophy (don’t laugh it is a Bachelor of Science degree from Portland State) and Alison were determined not to come back.
Nonetheless, the vineyard drew them back in. (Really, where can you find a cooler job?) In 1998 Alex returned, and in 2004 Alison did also. Finally, in 2008 the two took over the daily operations. They joke that their mom always says it took two of them to replace the one of her!
The Historic Accolades and Firsts
But that’s just the short story, of course, they skipped many of the accolades, so I’ll give you a quick list here:
- 1979 International recognition at the International Wine & Spirits Competition in London.
- 1983 honored by the US Soil and Water Conservation District for Susan’s work with experimental cover crops to control erosion on hillside vineyards.
- 1996 The first winery to be certified “Salmon-Safe”
- 1997 joins LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology) through Oregon State University
- 2002 their underground barrel cellar is the first winery building in the country to be LEED-certified and they start to transition to organic farming.
- 2007 they add solar which provides 1/3 of their total energy needs.
- 2015 they become B Corp Certified
Of course, there is more. Bill was active in the Development of the Oregon Winegrowers Association, the Oregon Wine Board, the Yamhill County Wineries Association, the International Pinot Noir Festival, and the Yamhill County Tourism board.
Susan led on the environmental front with her work on cover crops and leading the business into the triple bottom line concept of people, planet, and profit.
Okay, you get the idea…they have been leaders in the wine industry in Oregon, a state that leads the nation when it comes to wine industry standards for quality and sustainability.
Alex is now the winemaker, a position he took over in 2013 when their previous winemaker Russ Rosner retired after 15 years with Sokol Blosser. Alex was also involved in the process of submitting the 6 sub-AVAs Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Yamhill-Carlton, Chehalem Mountains, and Ribbon Ridge, beginning in 2002.
Alison is the person guiding the winery strategically. She puts to use her knowledge of PR and marketing. She led our tasting as only a little sister could, sharing photos of Alex asleep in the sandbox as a child and commenting on his numerous baseball analogies. We left feeling like we had been sitting around with the family for a bit of nostalgic storytime, and what a story it is.
Of course, there were also the wines!
As if enjoying the stories of the history of Sokol Blosser, straight from the mouths of the people who lived it was not enough, we were also sent 4 wines from the vineyard. Their Sokol Blosser Bluebird Cuvee Sparkling Wines, the 2018 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, the 2018 Old Vineyard Block Pinot Noir and the 2012 Big Tree Block Pinot Noir. So we were able to taste a bit of the history with them.
(*These wines were received as media samples, but all opinions remain our own)
Sokol Blosser Bluebird Cuvée Sparkling Wine 2018
We toasted with this traditional method sparkling wine at the top of the session. Sokol Blosser has long supported the Prescott Western Bluebird Recovery Project. The Western Bluebird artwork on the label was designed by Jared Tuttle. If you visit Sokol Blosser you might see the 15 bird houses around the property providing shelter and a breeding habitat for these beautiful birds.
The wine is a blend of grapes from Oregon and Washington including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of course, but also, Müller Thurgau and Riesling as well as a bit of Early Muscat.
Alex told us that the idea is to blend the best of Germany and France and then the Early muscat is added to lift the aromatics (just 2 to 3 %). They like freshness in this wine, with purity of fruit.
The wine is definitely aromatic, those notes of Riesling and Early Muscat giving the sparkling wine fruit notes. We paired this with an early dinner of spring rolls, fried chicken, and mac & cheese (all great pairings for sparkling wine.)
1,000 cases produced, SRP $32
Sokol Blosser Dundee Hills Estate Pinot Noir 2018
This wine is sourced from the 90 acres around the winery in the Dundee Hills, all certified organic. They did a lot of ambient yeast in 2018 because the fruit was so clean. They do punch downs for cap management and ferment in open-top fermenters then press off into barrel for about 16 months.
It is is a blend of Pinot Noir clones including 115, 667, 777, Pommard UCD4, Wadenswil 2A, and Gamay Beaujolais (which is a weird name for a type of Pinot Noir). This saw about 20% New Oak. 2018 was a great vintage with a balanced of ripe fruit, good acid, and good tannins. 2012 was similar.
This wine has notes of black cherry and cranberry and wonderful notes of mushroom and forest floor.
4,798 cases produced, SRP $42.
Sokol Bosser 2018 Old Vineyard Block Estate Pinot Noir 2018
This 50th Anniversary wine has a retro label, an ode to the original Sokol Blosser label from the 70s.
The vineyard was replanted on to new rootstock in the mid-90s, due to phylloxera (they were the 2nd to get it in the region).
After replanting, they looked at the blocks which had been producing stand-alone wines. This the Old Vineyard block which was their first planting. It is a combination of Wadenwil 1A (the Lett clone)& 2A, Pommard and Pinot Droit. Pinot Droit is an upright clone of Pinot Noir. This has a bit more weight and intensity with more color from the Pinot Droit, red fruit from Pommard, and density and spice from the Wadenswil, when it gets ripe.
You’ll find notes of cherry, pomegranate, spice, and leather.
There were just 496 cases made of this wine, and the celebration bottling retails at $60.
Sokol Blosser 2012 Big Tree Block Pinot Noir
2012 was like 2018 in that it was an amazing vintage. It was also Alex’s first vintage as winemaker and he didn’t think he would see another like it.
Alex had a baseball analogy (Alison teases him about these analogies, but she also does give him props, that they are all unique, he doesn’t repeat them!)
“The winemaker, he or she, they are the batter and Mother Nature is the pitcher…as a batter, you have to make adjustments every year, because you are never going to see the same pitch twice. And if you see the same pitch, you make the pitcher pay. In a vintage like 2012 and 2018, that’s a pitch we’ve seen before, so you hit it out of the park.”
One sip of this wine…it is complex and you can taste the age, but there are still plenty of fresh primary fruit notes. In 2012 they went without rain for a month. From the end of September, they were dry and could pick whenever they wanted. Alex says it was like being in California! They had the ability in this vintage to ripen the grapes as much as they wanted to, there was no rushing to pick to avoid the rain.
The Big Tree Block is 5.27 acres at 450-500 ft elevation in Jory soil. The clones are 115, 777, and Pommard. Just 300 cases were produced. It spent 17 months in 42% new French oak.
$70 upon release, this library wine now retails at $95, and it is worth every penny. This is a magical wine. Tart cherries, blueberries, baking spice, and those beautiful notes of wet leaves…I savored this glass.
The next 50 years at Sokol Blosser
Now they get ready for the next 50 years. The goal is to keep Sokol Blosser family-owned and operated and that means continuing to make wines that consumers seek out.
Quality and sustainability are at the forefront. Last year they started distributing the Evolution wines in box! These are more sustainable than glass., and they can share this at an accessible price point! Recently, they were recertified by B Corp for the 3rd time and their score went up 25%. (Congrats!)
They are experimenting with new varieties for them, like Gamay and Sav Blanc, and continue to move forward with their Sparkling wine program.
As they plant they are looking at new rootstocks which will be helpful with climate change. They planted a test block this spring, putting the same Pinot Noir clone on a bunch of different rootstocks that they do not already use, to see how it does. They want to set the next generation up for success as they will deal with more of the effects of climate change than we are currently.
As they slowly reopen they look forward to increasing the quality of the wine/food/hospitality experience. So if you find yourself able to travel, you might consider a trip to the Willamette. Stop in for a glass of sparkling and stay to enjoy the Pinot!
Currently they are open Thursday to Monday 10 am to 4 pm by reservation only. Call ahead or visit the website to see what their current hours are for tastings and if you need a reservation, as these things are changing as things reopen.
5000 NE Sokol Blosser Lane
Dayton, OR 97114 USA
More on Oregon wine Country from Crushed Grape Chronicles
- Oregon’s Utopia – A bit of vineyard perfection in the Ribbon Ridge AVA
- Alloro – Stunning Wines from Oregon’s New Laurelwood District AVA
- Découverte! Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Dundee Hills and Mediterranean Salmon #Winophiles
- Oregon Wine & Biodynamics with Troon and Winderlea
- Girardet Vineyard – Sustainability in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley
- Cowhorn – well of course it’s biodynamic…
Robin Renken is a wine writer and Certified Specialist of Wine. She and her husband Michael travel to wine regions interviewing vineyard owners and winemakers and learning the stories behind the glass.
When not traveling they indulge in cooking and pairing wines with food at home in Las Vegas.