ROCO Winery’s founder and winemaker, Rollin Soles, makes an impression as soon as he walks in the room. We arrived at his tasting room outside of Newberg, at the north end of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, at 9 a.m. for our appointment with him on a rainy Saturday morning in March. Rollin arrives a few minutes later and takes over the room before he says anything. He has a triathlete’s lean body, a big handle bar moustache, broad smile and a twinkle in his eyes that make you think he would have some great stories to tell. Even though he left Texas almost 30 years ago, he still has plenty of a Matthew McConaughy like drawl. We waited for the “allright, allright”… but it never came. Underneath the drawl, and the twinkle and the warmth is an educated, and articulate man who is passionate about wine and is making some of Oregon’s finest Pinot Noir.
ROCO is his current project and 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. They purchased their Wits End Vineyard in what is now the Chehalem AVA in 1987, shortly after Rollin moved to Oregon from a career making wines in Switzerland, California and Australia. He partnered up with then Petaluma Group owner Brian Crosser to form Argyle that went on to become one of Oregon’s largest and most successful wineries. But Rollin is a modest man so he does not tell you that. He also does not tell you that his former roommate in Texas was none other than musician Lyle Lovett. No, Rollin Soles has more important things on his mind than rock stars and past successes: he is focused on making the finest wines he can.
There are many dimensions to Rollin Soles but the one we will focus on here, the one that we think manifests itself most in his wines, is that he is an innovator. We start our tasting with his 2013 Chardonnay. As we are tasting he tells how they were “the first to plant clone 95 (Dijon) in Oregon. The former standard had been Selection 108 or UCD 4 and 5 as they are more commonly known outside Oregon. UCD 4 and 5 were the wrong selection for Oregon, they ripened too late for most Oregon vintages.” He was also one of the early adopters of Stelvin screw cap closures which became the standard at Argyle in 2002. He continues to be an advocate of including some stems in his reds and has even gone so far as to dry out some of the stems for a few weeks, along the lines of what is done with traditional Amarone. “It was an experiment I tried after spending some time with a fellow winemaker from Amarone. I found that if you leave the stems to air dry for several days to two weeks, they will lignify a bit producing less green flavors than most stem inclusions.”
Tasting through his lineup we pick up a signature style. ROCO wines deliver precise balance where the focus is on refinement; they have an understated stylishness. The wines convey powerful flavors without being heavy. The Pinots especially have that ethereal lightness that is nearly impossible to describe; a delicate texture coupled with intense flavor. “Subtlety” is a strong temptation to use, but ultimately it does not work as an adjective. I wrote it in my notebook at the time, and while it describes some of the wine’s character, it falls short by omitting the profound effect of greatness that is so difficult to achieve through understatement. Restrained does not work. Elegant and finesse have become trite. Take the religiosity out of “Angels dancing on the head of a pin” and somehow, despite its vagueness, the essence of ROCO’s wines is described. Though we tasted the wines on their own at the tasting room, we can only imagine how delicious they would be with food. ROCO’s beautiful tasting room is a little off of the beaten path but it is worth the effort to find. These are some of the finest wines coming out of the region.
This traditionally styled Chardonnay offers apple and pear delivered in a medium body with a tangy finish. Background notes of almond gradually morph into marzipan as the wine breathes. The palate is round and smooth but there is a crispness to the finish that creates tension and vibrancy.
Very Good+ – US$ 40 at their tasting room
2011 Clawson Creek Pinot Noir
Purchased grapes from a vineyard owned by Angela Estate and planted to Dijon clones 115, 777 and Wadenswil , this wine tells the story of the 2011 vintage with its lighter body. Cherry and cranberry flavors and hints of baking spice marry together to form a moderately complex wine that is graceful and impresses with its slightly retrained style.
Very Good – US$50 at their tasting room (Sold out)
An interesting contrast to the prior vintage: more body and a nice pepper note on the finish. Here the cranberry cedes the focus over to the cherry notes, and while this vintage is fuller it remains agile and graceful. While we think a larger group of tasters would be divided on which vintage they preferred, we gave the slight edge to the 2012.
Excellent – US$50 at their tasting room
This is the wine where he includes the dried stems. In our book, this experiment works. A lovely soft entry is balanced by a good grip upon the finish. The cherry fruit receives plenty of support from the spice component (think allspice and pepper). The body is medium and allows the flavours of this wine to come through with intensity. We pick up hints of tobacco leaf and tangy raspberry on the long finish. Further development will no doubt come with additional time in bottle. From Wits End Vineyard and Marsh Vineyard (Yamhill-Carlton AVA).
Excellent+ – US $50 at their tasting room
Here the dials are all turned up. Terrific intensity of flavours, this time moving more from the red to the black end of the spectrum: think black cherry and boysenberry. Lots of baking spice and a certain savoury note. A minerally edge peaks through on the finish. While powerful descriptors are accurate, they don’t tell the full story because this wine, true to the ROCO style, is graceful and poised. That flavour intensity without any accompanying heaviness is a Pinot-lovers dream. $75 is a lot to ask for a New World Pinot, but we bought some, without hesitation!
Excellent/Extraordinary – US $75 at their tasting room.