Relative to the rest of the world, the wine industry in the United States is still very young. This is especially true of the wineries of the Northwest. Several of the pioneers of the industry in Washington and Oregon are still active in those industries, or are a mere generation removed from involvement. The origin stories of most wineries and the industry in general, are still fresh and continuing to grow into a legacy as the next generation starts to assume the mantle of shepherding the industry into the future. One living example of this is the Sokol Blosser family.
Bill Blosser and his wife Susan Sokol Blosser are the epitome of pioneers, having taken the step of planting vines in Oregon at a time when the state had no existing wine industry to speak of. Having migrated from California, the couple arrived in Oregon in a Volkswagen Camper in 1970 and planted their first Pinot Noir vines on a 5 acre piece of land in 1971. In 1977 they completed construction on Sokol Blosser Winery and released their first vintage. Since those first vines were planted in the early 70’s, the estate has grown to 87 acres and they have added Pinot gris, White Riesling, Müller-Thurgau, and Muscat to their wine portfolio. The Oregon wine industry that they helped to create over 40 years ago has also continued to evolve, and the task of continuing the legacy of their parents has fallen to brother and sister Alex and Alison Sokol Blosser.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Alison Sokol Blosser at the 2012 Wine Bloggers’ Conference a couple of weeks ago, and we discussed her family’s history, the Dundee Hills AVA, and of course, Pinot Noir.
Among the many contributions that Sokol Blosser Winery has made to Oregon wine, their commitment to leaving a small ecological footprint might leave the biggest footprint on the industry. Culminating in their certification as an organic vineyard in 2005, the winery has a long track record of pursuing sustainable viticultural practices. Additionally, Sokol Blosser was the first US winery to receive LEED Certification, and has received a number of awards for sustainability, including being named as the “Green Winery of the Year” in 2007 by Sunset Magazine, and garnering an Oregon Sustainability Award from the Oregon Secretary of State. Many wineries make claims about sustainability, but Sokol Blosser’s track record of environmental responsibility rings true in a way that you seldom see. Even the most hardened cynic would find it difficult to label their record as mere marketing fluff.
“I’m totally biased about the Dundee Hills.” Alison admitted with a smile as she poured a taste of 2009 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir. “It’s the premier sub-appellation in the Willamette Valley.” There is good reason to support Alison’s bias. Many of the pioneers of the Oregon wine industry built their reputations in the Dundee Hills, including David Lett and Dick Erath, not to mention Alison’s own parents. Add prestigious wineries like Domaine Drouhin, Archery Summit, and Domaine Serene to the rich history, and the Dundee Hills has a lot to hang its hat on. The deep red Jory loam soil and relatively warm climate help to create the unique terroir of the AVA. Alison’s excitement and passion about her home region is evident as she talks about the elegance and earthy minerality of the wines produced within the region.
Although Sokol Blosser is by no means a single varietal producer, there is also no doubt that Pinot Noir is the workhorse of their portfolio, and Alison’s love for the variety is evident when she discusses it. “The terroir and Mother Nature are both very important with Pinot Noir, and when it comes to the winemaking you just try to be as hands-off as possible and let the fruit speak for itself.” From the organic vineyard practices to the conservative oak programs that they use, Sokol Blosser is focused on producing wines that convey the character of the vineyard. As with anyone who has subjected themselves to the struggle that is inherent in working with Pinot Noir, Alison’s love is colored with a touch of masochism. “There is so much that can go wrong every step of the way.” she says with the laugh of a person who has a few vintages under her belt. The implication in her laugh is that the same elements that make Pinot Noir such a sublime variety are also what make it a potential heartbreaker as well.
While the history and story of Sokol Blosser make them intriguing, the quality of the wines that they produce are ultimately what continues to make them a success. I tasted four different wines while I met with Alison, and each was expressive and interesting in their own way. The 2010 Willamette Valley Pinot Gris was my favorite Pinot Gris that I tasted while I was in Oregon, with perfectly balanced acidity and an elegant minerality that I rarely find in a Pinot Gris. The 2011 Pinot Noir Rosé was a refreshing delight, while the 2009 Dundee Hills Pinot Noir was the perfect mixture of soft red fruit and earthy character. The 2009 Big Tree Block Pinot Noir was the real show stopper, however. This single block Pinot is named after a large Maple tree that once grew in the block. It is a more powerful and intense Pinot Noir than the Dundee Hills Pinot, but still has the subtle character that makes Pinot Noir from this AVA so lovely.
As Oregon continues to grow as a wine region, it is good to see the next generation of this family winery maintaining the legacy that their parents started. For any region to move forward, you need a combination of new blood and of conscientious caretakers for existing wineries. Thankfully, it appears that the Sokol Blosser legacy is in good hands.