Perched on top of a vineyard-lined hill sits a converted barn that is now the beautiful tasting room of Soter Vineyards, one of the very top wineries in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Surrounding the tasting room is a grove of old oak trees that provide shade and frame the view of the Yamhill-Carlton AVA in the valley below. As we approach, out from the tasting room comes a smiling Hallie Whyte, Director of Sales and Operations, with two glasses of Rosé to greet us. It is the perfect way to begin a fantastic tasting of some of Oregon’s very best Pinot Noir.
Soter Vineyards is the creation of Tony and Michelle Soter, two Oregonians who married, moved to California where Tony became one of the top winery consultants and winemakers, and then returned to Oregon to pursue their passion: sustainably farmed, handcrafted wine. Tony moved to Napa over 40 years ago where he quickly learned the wine business by just doing it: he had a degree in philosophy, not enology. Obviously a quick study, he was able to create his own label, Etude, in 1980. At Etude (the French word for “study”) he made Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. As a consultant he helped make the wines at many of Napa’s premier wineries: Viader, Spottswoode, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Aurojo, Chappellet and others. He was known for his hand with Cabernet Sauvignon, (the 1997 Viader Proprietary Red was an outstanding example of his talent) but it was Pinot Noir that most fascinated him. In 1997, while still consulting in Napa, Soter’s great notion was to set up Soter Vineyards by purchasing what is now known as the Beacon Hill Vineyard near Yamhill in Oregon. In 2000 he sold Etude to Beringer and began the process of simplifying his busy life by reducing his client commitments in Napa. In 2001 he purchased the Mineral Springs Ranch: 240 acres of oak wooded areas and grazing lands that are now planted to 30 acres of Pinot Noir and 2 acres of Chardonnay. He sold the Beacon Hill Vineyard in 2005 but still buys fruit from them.
Hallie takes us into the converted barn which is now a very comfortable and beautiful tasting room. A kitchen sits at one end of the room; at the other is a large rock fireplace with couches flanking the adjacent coffee table. Large windows look out on to oak groves and the neat rows of vines running down the slope. It is an exquisite location to drink wine.
In comes Chris Fladwood to join us. Chris makes the Mineral Springs wines at Soter: Mineral Springs Ranch Pinot Noir and the Mineral Springs Brut Rosé Sparkling. (James Cahill makes the North Valley wines). Chris is a young and affable person, very down-to-earth in what we have come to realize is a classic Oregonian trait. His wine education actually began while he was a soldier, stationed in Baghdad. Chris told us “We received care packages, sometimes from people you knew, many times from people you had never met via churches or other organizations. I received a care package that had a winemaking book called From Vines to Wine (Cox), a good read for an introductory on making wine–and a nice change from the frequent package containing romance novels and socks! I was in Baghdad for over a year and it was so hot there the pages were falling out and the binding was giving up, but I read the book 3 times over and it was fascinating.”
Chris has an optimism about him that is quite infectious; he has an ability to see nearly everything in a positive light. He goes on to tell us: “That was Event A of a series of fortunate events.” One day Chris was sitting outside reading it when his squad leader walked by. He noticed the book and because he absolutely loved wine asked him where he got it. Chris sheepishly replied that he didn’t really know anything about wine, he was just reading the book. After that, his squad leader would make a point to talk to Chris about wine as he knew about all the great Chateaux and the different regions all over the world via the Navy. Hearing about these places very much lit a fire that kept Chris interested in wine. When he left the military he knew he wanted to go to school and chose Pullman in Washington State to study plant science.
“I learned there was a winemaking program in the horticulture department so I started studying that again by chance and it just kind of clicked. I went to France for an internship and very much made the transition from being interested primarily in growing to winemaking. I did that for a few months and it was great. I got paid nothing—they fed me and housed me. It was long hours and I would pass out exhausted at the end of the day and it was glorious.” When he returned from France, he knew he didn’t want to be anywhere else than Oregon and began his internships. “Oregonians are very Oregon-centric – we love our state. I did an internship at Shea Cellars, went to New Zealand and did an internship in Central Otago for 4 months and then came back home to a message waiting for me from a friend at Shea Cellars that said he knew someone looking for help with harvest and I was introduced to James (Cahill) & Tony (Soter). I’ll never forget walking up the hill with them and when I saw Mineral Springs I realized that this isn’t just a winery, this is stunning. You can’t help but see that vineyard and think that it has to make great wines. They agreed to hire me for 8 months on a trial basis and thankfully it’s been 8 years. To this day I still don’t know who sent me that book.”
Under the Soter Vineyards umbrella, there are actually two labels: Mineral Springs and North Valley. North Valley is Soter’s project with James Cahill. They make wines from grapes purchased from select vineyards that represent different AVAs within the northern part of the Willamette Valley in their Origin series: Dundee Hills, Yamhill-Carlton, Eola-Amity Hills and Ribbon Ridge. There is also a Pinot Noir that is a blend of various Willamette Valley AVAs as well as a North Valley Reserve Pinot Noir and a North Valley Chardonnay and a North Valley Reserve Chardonnay. Each wine is made to bring out the terroir of the specific site, just as the Mineral Springs wines reflect the home vineyard.
We wanted to get Chris’ view on the current vintages. “When I look at 2014 vs 2015: 2014’s are opulent wines, very expressive and easy to understand. The 2015’s are more sophisticated, a step down from such opulence, and closer to what I would refer to as classic Oregon. They’re still wines with a lot of generosity –for me there was definitely a learning. 2014 & 2015 are probably the 2 closest vintages that I can recall. Every vintage here in Oregon is remarkably unique and the wines do taste different however the 2014 & 2015 vintages were remarkably similar. 2014 was warmer with more sunshine but very much even, balanced sunshine. It resulted in really bright fruit and plenty of generosity.”
“In 2015, we recognized early on it looked a lot like 2014 and we responded to it smarter with what we did in the vineyard in the cellar. We ended up with a more elegant wine that has a very dark core. I think also that we managed to get a more profound earthiness in the 2015 than the 2014, and that happens to be one of the attributes I love about the Mineral Springs wine. The earthiness is definitely there in the 2014 but it has a lot of fruit on top of it so maybe we don’t quite see it in its youth. Once the fruit settles down in 10 years that earthiness will probably reveal itself a little more. So the 2015’s to me are one nice step toward a bit more elegance.” 2016 is looking even better according to Chris, very much a vintage that will be unique in so many fashions that are only positive. “In 2016 we pretty much only saw things we liked, very classic Oregon and quite similar to 2008 & 2012.”
All of the wines we tasted at Soter, the Mineral Springs and the North Valley, both white and red were spectacular wines. Soter is definitely at the very top of the quality scale in Oregon wineries. Their tasting room at of Mineral Springs is a gorgeous and very comfortable place to enjoy tasting their wines. Tastings are by appointment only (contact information follows the tasting notes).
“Sometimes a Great Notion”, if you have not read it or seen the movie, is the title of a book by Ken Kesey. We thought there are a lot of parallels between the Soter Vineyards story and the book, which happens to be one of our favourites, and hence the title for this article. Kesey, like Soter is an Oregon native. The book focuses around a man who leaves Oregon to pursue an education and career and feels compelled to return to his Oregon roots. “Notion” did not quite receive the fame of Kesey’s first book, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, but it was the second book that received the greatest critical acclaim and was his personal favourite.
2014 Soter Vineyards North Valley Chardonnay
Flavours of green apple and pears mix with mineral notes to create a refreshing and complex wine. Notes of wet stones come up with a bit of exposure to air. The body is medium and there is medium+ acidity. Lemon and citrus notes linger on the long, crisp finish.
Very Good + (US$30 at the tasting room)
2014 North Valley Pinot Noir
Deep red colour. Aromas of dark cherries and hints of earth. The cherry and earth follows on to the flavour profile where they are joined strawberry, vanilla and cracked pepper. On the finish we detect notes of bitter dark chocolate. Medium body showing good structure, this wine should age well, possibly for a decade.
Very Good/Excellent (US$35 at the tasting room)
2014 North Valley Reserve Chardonnay
Pear and green apple combine with a racy acidity to create a complex wine with a sharp focus. The medium body shows a nice texture that is punctuated by a mineral streak. Flavours of honeydew melon show up after swirling. Terrific balance.
Very Good/Excellent (US $55 at the tasting room)
2014 North Valley Origin Pinot Noir Dundee Hills
Dark red wine that shows very good colour. Medium red cherry notes mix with an earthiness that typifies the Dundee Hills AVA. Hints of clove and baking spices dial up the complexity. Medium + body and medium acidity. The finish is long and mineral-infused.
Excellent (US $50 at the tasting room)
2014 Soter Vineyards Mineral Springs Ranch Pinot Noir
Gorgeous notes of cherry and raspberry combine with baking spices to greet your nose well above the glass. The aromas follow onto the flavour profile where they are joined by a panoply of vanilla, cola, cherry liquer and cracked pepper. The texture is soft and silky; the sort of texture that creates die-hard Pinot Noir fans. Like all great Pinots, it has a lightness that combines with power and intensity that you know when you encounter it but it is nearly impossible to put into words. Among the very best New World Pinot Noirs we have tasted.
Excellent + (US $65 – this is particularly good value for this quality level)
2014 Soter Vineyards Sparkling Rosé
Strawberry, rose and violets make for a very pretty and floral nose on this aromatic sparkler. Hints of yeast and bread dough combine with subtle cherry notes on the palate. There is a nice, creamy texture which is perfectly counter-balanced by the fine mousse.
Very good+ (US $65 at the tasting room)
Mineral Springs Ranch
10880 NE Mineral Springs Rd
Carlton, OR 97111