AdVINEtures has been fortunate enough to meet some of the world’s truly great winemakers. And while many people equate wine with a certain amount of snobbishness, our experience is that generally winemakers view themselves first as farmers and are among the most down to earth people you will ever meet. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a winemaker less pretentious then Rollin Soles of ROCO Winery.
We first met Rollin two and a half years ago at his winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. His genuine warmth combined with his razor-sharp intelligence and wicked sense of humor made that first interview both educational and a ridiculous amount of fun. So much so we asked if we could do a follow up interview with him on a recent return visit.
Rollin is a living legend in Oregon’s wine country who has been making wine for more than 30 years. He recognized early on Oregon’s potential for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but while most winemakers were solely focused on Pinot Noir, he also saw the possibility of making world-class sparkling wine. He honed those skills for more than 25 years as the winemaker for Argyle Winery one of Oregon’s largest and most successful wineries. Among his many accolades, he is 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.
His tradition of making outstanding Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and sparkling wine continues at his own project, ROCO Winery, which takes its name from the first two letters of his name and his wife Corby’s. Corby, a former part owner of Panther Creek Cellars in nearby Dundee, handles the business side of the winery while Rollin attends to the vineyard and the winemaking.
What stood out for us in our initial interview was that after more than 30 years of winemaking, countless awards, and 90+ ratings for his wine, he’s never lost his insatiable curiosity to learn through experimentation nor has he become satisfied with resting on his well-earned laurels. His eyes still light up when talking about wine, particularly the latest method he’s playing around with, and it becomes abundantly clear that he’s having just as much fun making wine now as he did when he started.
At ROCO, his sparkling wine “RMS” (his initials) is made in the traditional Methòde Champenosie, “What’s fun about it for me is that I’ve done this long enough that I’ve gotten pretty confident at working with sparkling wine so I tried to find a dosage that would lift the Chardonnay component because the Chardonnay on its own is just delicious. Surprisingly, given the pear components, this wine has only 30% Chardonnay, thanks to the dosage.” As we taste it together, he then adds with a broad smile in his trademark unassuming manner, “It’s trippy, real trippy.”
Rollin has also been making Chardonnay since the very beginning of his career and he’s very clear about his style of “Chardy” as he playfully calls it, “the way I explain my style to people is don’t expect the typical American Chardonnay. That moves them off the paradigm in a graceful manner where they hopefully take off their California wine goggles and put their European wine goggles on. When they do that, they instantly get this wine.” We then ask him about the the backlash against big, oaky Chardonnays, “Initially I think it started because Somms needed something to talk about although there was some truth to the fact that Americans had done Chardonnay in the same style for a long time. And then concurrent with that, North American wine tastes started to evolve. Pinot Grigio suddenly became very popular. The difference between a PG and a Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay is that they are diametrically opposed to each other so when people started moving to Pinot Grigio, that’s when I got pretty excited because that’s a more mineral style that we can make here. We can’t make Kendall-Jackson style Chardonnay. We tried back in the ‘80’s when that’s what Americans wanted to drink but we were unsuccessful. But now it’s really exciting to make these kinds of wines which are pear and apple and have a line of minerality through them that’s just delicious.”
But he seems to have the most fun working with his Pinot Noirs. He takes great pride in making all his red wines taste distinctly different from each other and enjoys finding methods that will best help him with his approach from a winemaking perspective. For example, he’s a big fan of whole cluster fermentation but dislikes the harsh green notes that a traditional whole cluster can often produce. For “The Stalker” Pinot Noir, he found a technique where it’s not chemically lignified but rather de-stemmed and then re-stemmed (or 100% fermented with the stems). “We separate the berries for cold soak for 10-14 days and during that time we age the stems which transform themselves and ripen. It’s kind of cool to smell them the first couple of days, they smell like Mescal. The next few days it becomes more like a really nice tequila, and then towards the end it’s like walking through a dense deciduous forest in the fall–it gets a really woody, earthy smell. That’s when I put the stems back into the cold soak and the entire fermentation occurs with 100% of the stems. What no one ever talks about in any of the wine books is that concurrent with desiccating those berries, the grape stems are ageing as well; they’re changing colour and they’re changing aromas. And that was going through my mind when I was trying to figure out a way to use grape stems without being whole cluster so I used Amarone as my example. One day it occurred to me that when you drink and smell Amarone it doesn’t smell like whole cluster at all, it doesn’t have any of that green and doesn’t taste stemmy. That’s when I realized there are 2 things going on: grapes are desiccating and the stems are changing in their flavour as well and that’s when I decided to give it a try.”
Surprisingly, not that many people have adopted this technique despite his willingness to share it and the fact that The Stalker is a 90-point wine, “I think some are afraid to try it because those stems can really go up in smoke biologically—they’ll get bacteria and yeasts growing in them – they can become very volatile so you have to be very careful.”
It means a lot of extra work for him but by now it’s clear that the harder he has to think or work has a direct correlation to his idea of fun, “2011 was really late & cool. 2012 was a bit on the warm side but fairly close to normal but what made it ripe for the most part is that it wasn’t a large crop so winemakers didn’t have to go out and thin fruit. 2013 was one of the most perfect growing seasons ever and then it had this giant tropical rain event (8 inches of rain during harvest) which was bad news from the point of view that North Americans don’t know how to react to vintage changes year after year so the ‘13’s have been really tough to sell—not because of the consumer but because of the buyer at retail places. It was almost as if they needed something to say ‘well you shouldn’t drink the ‘13’s because it rained’. The good news is that entities like the Wine Spectator might rank the vintage low but we had more 90 point scores for the ‘13’s than Sonoma did. I love drinking my ‘13’s – they’re so fresh and delightful.” After that he considered the uneventful growing conditions of 2014, 2015 & 2016 to be a little boring. “My joke about 2016 is that it was so easy I did it in a Hawaiian shirt with a Pina Colada in my hand! The good news is that despite having 3 warm vintages in a row, there are differences between them, very much so.”
Among many of the accolades Rollins has received, one of the most telling is the fact that he’s been named one of the 20 Most Admired Winemakers in North America by Vineyard Management Magazine. His desire to improve both his own wine and work with others to enhance the reputation of Oregon wine goes above and beyond simply collaboration. When he does a presentation on behalf of ROCO, it’s always 90% about the region not to mention he has mentored many of the young winemakers that are now rising stars in the industry. But most importantly to Rollin, he’s still learning and he’s still having fun, and while he doesn’t take himself too seriously, don’t for a moment think that that’s how he approaches his wine. His devotion to his craft has made him one of the top winemakers in the world…and the more fun he has as a winemaker, the more we’ll continue to benefit as wine drinkers.