We’ve had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Oregon wine trailblazer Rollin Soles on three separate occasions. The reason we rank him as one of our favourite interviewees is that his knowledge and experience is not only an absolute treasure trove to mine as wine writers, but he delivers his nuggets of wisdom in the most unpretentious and straightforward way. Despite our two previous conversations, Rollin still managed to take us aback during our most recent meeting…twice.
The first, was the moment we saw him walking toward us at his winery, ROCO, in Newberg. While he was no longer sporting his trademark handlebar moustache, there was no mistaking his warm disposition and the ever-present mischievous twinkle in his eye.
The second surprise for us was that despite having earned every right to relax a little and, quite literally, enjoy the fruits of his labour, he’s still driven by an unrelenting curiosity after close to 4 decades of winemaking: “I’m always in the mode of ‘how could I have done it better?’
Rollin and his wife Corby moved to Oregon in the early 1980s and they, along with a few visionaries, recognized early on the potential for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the northern Willamette Valley.
But while most winemakers at the time were solely focused on Pinot Noir, Rollin also saw the potential of making world-class sparkling wine. He honed those skills for more than 25 years as the winemaker for Argyle, one of Oregon’s largest and more successful wineries.
His reputation for making outstanding Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and sparkling wine has continued ever since at ROCO, which takes its name from the first two letters of his name and his wife Corby’s.
The accolades he’s earned over the years are too many to list but include the unprecedented honour of being the only winemaker in the state to have produced wine ranked among the Top 100 Wines of the World by Wine Spectator an impressive 13+ times. It’s that consistency in quality that has truly set him apart. He sums up the secret to his success in 4 words: keep an open mind. “The most important thing I’ve learned over the years is to open up my mind and keep it open.”
“What’s fun is, as you get to be an old person, you get an opportunity to look at past experiences in a different light and think ‘I remember somebody saying this’, and it has new meaning compared to when they said it back then.”
As an example, Rollin tells us about his time in Napa Valley, when André Tchelistcheff (arguably the most famous wine consultant in the world), became a mentor to him after he graduated from UC Davis. “I remember one of his big deals was to talk about lactic acid. And I still remember [at the time] thinking why, what’s the big deal?”.
“But if you think about it, if you’re growing grapes and they’re at the edge of where they can possibly get ripe, you’re probably going to end up with juices in those grapes that are going to be really high in malic as well as tartaric – two primary and natural acids of a grape. You go into the cellar, you ferment them and now you’ve got alcoholic, high malic, high tartaric wines. And then you do malolactic fermentation, you add a bacteria that’s going to consume malic and spits out a CO2 molecule, and it spits out a lactic acid molecule. Well, if you taste the same amount of malic in water as lactic in water, they still taste really acidic, especially malic. But the lactic while still acidic, has a textural thing to it that is almost creamy.”
“When you grow these grapes in a region like we are here in Oregon where you can’t ripen Syrah, Tempranillo, and Sauvignon Blanc consistently, you’re going to end up with Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that are really high in malic. So, when you put the wine through full malolactic, you’re going to end up with really high lactic, and lactic is a textural feeling. And these [ROCO] Chardonnays which are full malolactic, taste like they’re high in acid but if you measure it, it’s not that high and then when you put it in your mouth, the middle palate…you get that lactic hit and that lactic is a mouthfeel.”
We talked with him while sipping a glass of his highly acclaimed RMS Sparkling wine (‘RMS’ being his initials). The quality level is sensational, ranking among our favourite new world sparkling wines anywhere.
The running theme continues with Rollin as we talk about his use of dosage (a mixture of sugar and wine added to Méthode Champenoise sparkling before final corking).
“With Dosage there are 2 things to keep in mind. Number 1: the lowest dosage isn’t always the best one. It’s the biggest mistake that a winemaker could ever make because then the second thing kicks in, which is you miss the opportunity to keep an open mind with exploring what dosage can really do. I want a dosage that…fills in that middle palate and gives you generosity and richness and enhances the length. If it does something good for the aromatics that’s a bonus, but it’s the middle palate and the long, clean finish that’s critical.”
“And to make it where somebody thinks that I either low dose or I don’t dose is awesome. That’s the intent. Working with dosage has handed me humility over and over again, learning how to do dosage with an open mind.” To which he quickly adds with a big smile, “it’s pretty fun.”
Rollin brings that same sense of open-mindedness when producing his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines. The way he makes ROCO’s “The Stalker” Pinot Noir is a lesson in itself; the only winery in the world making this wine in a very particular way.
The grapes are de-stemmed and then he takes those stems and puts them on top of the grapes while they’re fermenting. Approximately 5-7 days later, when the stems get softer and more brown, they’re re-introduced into the wine to provide complexity without tannins being the dominant flavour, thus taking away the greenness that can be present in whole cluster fermentation.
“We’re essentially ageing our stems. When you age them, the stems go from bright green, and then over 7 days they become brown. We wait until those stems are brown before we push them back into the berries. So, this is the only red wine in the world that’s been de-stemmed and re-stemmed!”
To sit down and spend time with Rollin isn’t just a masterclass in winemaking. If you pay attention, his philosophy in the winery quite easily translates to a well-grounded approach to life: keep an open mind and get out of your own way.
2020 ROCO RMS Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Wine
Wow! What a great way to start a tasting. We have never felt that Champagne was receiving any significant threat to its clear dominance in this category. Well, Oregon is working hard at changing that. And ROCO is leading that charge. Medium gold in colour, this comes across as very dry and quite youthful in character. Delicious now, but we think even better things are in store for collectors with patience and a cold cellar. The flavours lean towards citrus and green apple with a mineral-infused finish. Acid is medium+ and body is medium. Hints of brioche intermingle with brine and shell notes. Complex, elegant and delicious! Excellent (USD$75 at the winery)
2020 ROCO RMS Brut Rosé Sparkling Wine
This blend is 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. Salmon pink in colour, this wine shows lovely notes of strawberry, cranberry and apple skins. Behind those primary flavours are hints of watermelon as well as bunches of mixed flowers. Medium body with medium acidity there is very good texture to this wine; it shows both breadth and depth. Rollin might punch me for saying this, but I actually pick up just a hint of something akin to a Jolly Rancher on the finish. I mean that in a good way. But he will still probably punch me the next time we see him…Excellent (USD$65)
2021 ROCO Pinot Nero Bianco
100% Pinot Noir with minimal skin contact yields a white wine of medium gold colour. The dominant flavours are apple and various melons (think honeydew and cantaloupe). Hints of flowers and honey come out with additional air time. Medium in body, this is very satisfying wine, and has the stuffing to go with many different dishes. Hints of apricot come through on the long finish.
Very Good+ (USD$40)
2019 ROCO Chardonnay Marsh Estate
Exotic notes of apple and peach are the first sensations we register. With some swirling honeysuckle and hazelnuts show through. Medium body and medium acid, this wine shows great balance. The finish is long minerally. Excellent (USD$50)
2021 ROCO Chehalem Crossing Pinot Noir
This is ROCO’s first vintage from this estate and the success with this vineyard is undeniable. Here the focus emphasizes dark fruits: black cherry, blackberry and raspberry. Hints of cracked pepper and baking spices add lift to the weight of the fruit. Though still in its youth, it is very approachable today. The balance is just where it needs to be and lends a smoothness to the mouthfeel.
Excellent (USD$60 at the winery)
2021 ROCO The Stalker Pinot Noir
Full disclosure: The Stalker has always been one of our all time favourite Oregon Pinot Noirs. We had a 2012 The Stalker just over a month ago and it was singing! Still probably had another decade of great drinking in front of it. While this young Stalker was not as complex as that 11 year old, it shows the promise to develop along the same lines. With this wine Rollin dries the stems on mats, similar to what is done with grapes to make Amarone. Once the stalks have lignified and lost some of their green character they are added back into the must. “De-stemmed and the re-stemmed” as Rollin says. The result is a very complex wine that starts out with dark cherry notes and then moves into that panoply of scents you pick up walking through a dense forest on a fall morning. Medium+ body & medium+ tannin, this has the structure for the long haul. Excellent+ (USD$50 at the winery-particularly good value for this quality level)
2018 ROCO Private Stash No. 16 Pinot Noir
This is such a complex wine! A barrage of red and black cherry forms the initial impression. That is quickly joined by rhubarb, forest floor and spice notes. The texture is dry but generous. Tannins are present and show ripeness without astringency and create focus. This wine is generous in its proportion but manages to keep everything in balance. The finish is minerally and goes on and on, probably 45 seconds or more.
Excellent+ (USD$110 at the winery ($110 may seem a lot for a New World Pinot, but this is worth it)
13260 NE Red Hills Rd, Newberg, OR 97132
T: (503) 538-7625