Tasting with Tony Soter or How to Make a Classy Pinot

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The United States is a funny place to make wine. Even as it has several increasingly famous regions that many others in the new world envy, it has also developed a bit of a reputation for big jammy fruit bomb wines. This has earned the main regions in the U.S. great praise, but it has also become a bit of a tide against which the new breed of American wine maker is struggling to show that California, Oregon and Washington can make as diverse a set of wines as anywhere in the world.

One such man is Tony Soter, who gained fame making cult wines for Napa icons Araujo, Niebaum-Coppola, Shafer, Spottswoode, Viader and Dalle Valle, and running his own Etude winery. Since then Mr. Soter moved back to Oregon – his home state – to have a hand at making Pinot Noir. I had a chance to meet Mr. Soter at a recent tasting in Vancouver, drink his wines and learn a little bit about what his Oregon project is all about.

Of Blends and Specificity

First off, these are not wines made in the big slutty fruit style of many Pinot Noirs from the U.S., including Oregon. Rather, these are balanced nuanced wines that reflect their vintage very well and yet maintain a sexy silky texture that makes them very pleasurable to consume.

The North Valley is Tony’s take on making an Oregon blended Pinot Noir similar to a regional bourgogne from France. However, rather than using lower quality fruit to make this blend, as is all too common in Burgundy, Soter has contracts with some very excellent vineyards in what he considers to be the best districts of the Willamette Valley. Since each sub-region in the Valley produces Pinot with distinct strengths but lacking in other areas, Soter assembles the various juice into a blend that he thinks reflects the best example of a blended Oregon Pinot given the particular vintage.

The Mineral Springs Ranch, on the other hand, is from Soter’s own estate fruit and is meant to be an expression of the unique terroir of his estate. Located in Yamhill-Carlton, Soter’s Mineral Springs vineyard sees early ripening generally consistently, which for example allowed the winery to pick before the 2007 rains hit and make very good wines as a result. With quick draining ancient marine sedimintary soils, which push the vine’s physiology towards ripening more quickly then less well drained soils, Yamhill-Carlton is a superb site for Pinot Noir.

But as in all of Oregon it takes a restrained approach to make wines with character. I won’t tell you that these wines follow strict ‘natural wine’ or biodynamic principles. But you know what? Tony Soter has been making great wine for a very long time. It’s clear he knows what he’s doing. So using dry ice to help cold soaking, controlling fermentation temperatures, and other techniques all seem to do a very good job in producing wines of both character and regional specificity. And I can’t say no to that.

I think Tony has achieved success with both of these Pinot Noirs and they accurately reflect what he is seeking to express. As such, they are two very different wines but both have tremendous personality and are delicious each in their own way.

The Wines

North Valley Pinot Noir 2007: Very expressive, fresh and evocative. The palate is angular but pretty with good body and minerality and impressive concentration for the vintage. This is all about balance and silky drinking. Very Good+ to Excellent. $50 at Marquis Wine Cellar.

North Valley Pinot Noir 2008: The concentration here is much greater and the fruit much riper than the 2007. The fruits tend more towards dark fruits vs. red fruits but this is still nicely expressive. There is a lot of density to this wine, but I found it much more drinkable now than many 2008’s. Give it a couple more years and this will be fantastic. Very Good+ to Excellent. $43 at Marquis Wine Cellar.

North Valley Pinot Noir 2009: Spicy, with good fresh blackberry. This is still a fairly huge wine and is a little hot on the finish for me. I think this needs more time. My palate prefers the 2007 and 2008 over this. Very Good to Very Good+. Coming soon to Marquis Wine Cellar.

Mineral Springs Ranch 2009: Spicy but also minerally. A wine that is rich and creamy on the palate and yet sports very good acidity, which keeps this wine fresh and adds to its length. Clean and pure Pinot with good tannins structure, this wine should age and smooth out very nicely. I would love to taste the 2007 and 2008 of this wine. Very Good+ to Excellent. Coming Soon to Marquis Wine Cellar.

Little Creek Napa Red 2007: Primarily Cab Franc, this has classic rich black fruits but also herbs and underbrush that is uncommon for Napa Cab Franc. A very long finish. An easy to appreciate wine but a little alcoholic for me unless it were paired with a good dose of protein. I do love its expression of the grape, and have no doubts this is extremely serious Cab Franc from California. Very Good+. $85 at Marquis Wine Cellar.

In conclusion, every single wine was of outstanding quality and each vintage and wine will appeal to different palates. Basically, based on what I tasted, you can’t go wrong with a Pinot Noir from Tony Soter.

Posted in: Features, Tastings


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