Tony Soter is the founder, with his late wife Michelle, of Soter Vineyards at Mineral Springs Ranch in Yamhill-Carlton, Oregon. Soter is a Portland, Oregon, native who began his remarkable 40-year winemaking career in the Napa Valley. After graduating from Pomono College in southern California with a degree in philosophy, Soter joined the staff at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in 1975 to learn the trade. By 1982, he released his own wine under the Etude label, selling the winery almost 20 years later to Treasury Wine Estates. In the meantime, Soter worked as consulting winemaker for such world-famous Napa estates as Araujo (now Eisele), Chappellet, Dalla Valle, Shafer, and Spottswoode, among others. After almost 30 years in California, Soter moved back to Oregon and founded Soter Vineyards in 1997, where he is still making some of the most heralded pinot noirs in the state.
Read more about Tony in the written interview below:
Karen MacNeil: Pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon are extremely different varieties and they require different skills and mind-sets. Without a formal winemaking degree, how did you manage such an undertaking?
Tony Soter: Maybe because I studied philosophy instead of enology, I didn’t initially accept the customary wisdom, that the varieties were mutually exclusive. But I did have that mindset for a few decades. (Pinot producers are thought to be somewhat eccentric and masochistic.) Over time, I set myself to learning, not perpetuating myths, and realized that one does have to come to pinot noir with a totally different mindset and grasp its uniqueness in order to see that customary red wine making techniques will not yield the best results. I suppose a good woodworker knows that not all materials can be worked the same way.
After 40 vintages, I am still humbled by pinot noir. Together with cabernet sauvignon, the varieties are like the two sides of your brain, or illustrate the feminine and masculine powers. Working with these two grapes can be colorful and fraught with bias.
Suffice it to say that while pinot noir has its unique attributes, its delicacy and transparency
make it a great vehicle for learning the craft, and many of the lessons can be applied across all wine-growing endeavors–even to better cabernet making.
KM: What do you love most about Soter Vineyards?
TS: That we are a place where dreams become manifest. That Mineral Springs Ranch is an integrated organic wine farm putting into practice biodynamic and regenerative principles that help us grow great wines, grains, vegetables, fruits, critters, and people! I love that we have a loyal following of customers who experience our culinary exploits as well as our vinous ones and celebrate our people and methods as well. They support the integrity of what we do.
KM: Is the way-of-life in the Willamette Valley different than what the Napa Valley was like in the 1970s and 80s?
TS: In many ways it’s quite similar…there is a strong sense of collegiality, a fair amount of
humility, still a sense of discovery for both producers and visitors. Having lived three decades in Napa, there is a twilight zone quality of having seen the future. In some respects, being able to
understand the progression is comforting. But I don’t think it will end the same way or that Willamette Valley necessarily mimics Napa Valley into the future even as we acknowledge the early years have many similarities.
A few general reasons: most members of the Oregon wine community don’t want to evolve into the hyper commercialism they see today down south. It’s hard to imagine us having the traffic in terms of numbers of visitors to contend with because the weather is not as pleasant so many months of the year. Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is still just a sliver of the pie in the wine world not withstanding its relative notoriety. Lastly, the nature of pinot noir is not a “get rich” grape. I think and hope it will keep things relatively limited and humble.
“Pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon are like the two sides of your brain, or illustrate the feminine and masculine powers. [Working with these two grapes] can be colorful and fraught with bias.”
KM: Besides Willamette Valley and Napa Valley, what other wine region inspires you the most and why?
TS: Burgundy is still an inspiration because it’s the birthplace of great pinot noir wines.
I love the wines, the folklore, and the relative modesty. I’ll admit it’s not from extensive first-hand experience but rather my own romanticizing. Such is the stuff of inspiration.
There are places such as New Zealand (our fellow travelers in the southern hemisphere) that offer pinot noir affirmations if not inspiration.
And in Sancerre, my friend, J.L. Vacheron, a third generation winemaker, is not just making volumes of standard appellation sauvignon blanc, but with Burgundian zeal is exploring a whole series of wines from the various terroirs of the family domain …and pinot noir too!
KM: Do you remember when you had your first glass of wine and who gave it to you?
TS: In any meaningful way it was in college, in a not-for-credit class taught by Classics Professor
Steven Glass at Pomona/Pitzer. The year: approximately 1972; the wine was an obscure and curiously labeled Italian Merlot of all things. I credit Steve with inoculating me with the wine bug and am eternally grateful. To this day we correspond mostly about wines and wine writing.
KM: I’m not going to ask what’s your favorite type of wine. But what wine or type of wine do you like the least?
TS: Amarone is my favorite wine to pick on. With apologies to the region’s fellow winegrowers,
I just take exception to the notion of making wine from dried fruit (raisins). Mostly it’s a reference to the modern trend of excessive hang time (drying them on the vine) in many regions of the world where the wines go flat, flabby, alcoholic and overly opulent…and lose so much of their individual identity. The criticism is generalized; I’m really just using the historically exceptional Amarone to help illustrate. Too many wines today have overreached—in an attempt to capture richness, they have sacrificed vibrant expression.
KM: In addition to wine, what’s your other favorite beverage?
TS: Good clean water without chlorine and fluoride! Craft beer and spirits with an admitted like of traditional Scotch. I’m as interested in the “how it’s done” as in the drinks themselves. Coffee growing really fascinates me—perhaps in another life.
KM: What advice would you give a young person going into the wine business today?
TS: Follow your nose, explore regions far and wide through internships, and expose yourself to all aspects of the business to see what resonates. If money is more important than passion and pleasure, look elsewhere. In that case just make wine a hobby.
KM: If you could share a bottle of wine with anyone famous, living or deceased, who would it be and what would you want to talk about?
TS: Thomas Jefferson. We would share “claret” from his time and “Napa” cabernet from mine.
We would talk about heirloom plant varieties from vines to vegetables and fruit trees. A keen subject would be comparing our properties (as presumptuous as it might seem)—our cherished 250-acre Mineral Springs Ranch with his beloved Monticello. We would discuss the challenges of running an ecologically and economically sustainable farm without slave labor literal or figurative.
Then we’d change the subject to the charms of Willamette Valley pinot noir, but that would only be a ploy to get him to talk more. Not about growing wine in Virginia but about what the framers (not farmers) had in mind with our Constitution. Especially when it came to balancing threats to its integrity and addressing concerns of liberty, representation, tyranny, and both corruption and functionality of the institution. No matter your persuasion, most Americans today love our aspirations as embodied in the founding documents and yet loath the reality of operational dis-function. I think it would be an interesting conversation.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?
TS: Personally, with my wife Michelle, bringing two children into the world—my daughter Olivia and son Anton. Nothing compares with the immensity of bringing people into the world.
Professionally, the answer is similar—that I might have been an inspiration to many younger winemakers and grape growers through consulting, mentoring, or just going about being an example of the possible. And today this includes the various members of our staff, all growing in their roles and chosen professions.
Cosmically speaking, to have lived a life that involved continuously creating is both a gift and a guarded accomplishment. It’s not the object of any one project as much as the process of preserving the opportunity to be creative, to focus on bringing something new to life.
To meet the needs of existence through celebrating the creative impulse. “So far,” that’s amazing.
KM: Tell us about your wife Michelle who passed away in September 2019.
TS: No attempt to grasp what we have created here at Mineral Springs Ranch (Soter Vineyards) is comprehensible without knowing of Michelle’s influence and inspiration. She was the Muse behind the whole enterprise. Her flights of imagination dragged my veritable dirty boots and purple hands out of the field and cellar up into her world of aspiring to have our life and business mean more to the world than simply a great “New World” place to grow pinot noir.
She was passionate and courageous when it came to eating well, and by that, she meant from the ground up. The garden was prominent as an example of a commitment to organics and pure, close to home, sourcing in which anyone could find comfort. It was both substance and symbol.
And from this garden grew our culinary program and Provisions tasting experience. And to support this program, she nurtured 3 acres of produce farming, 30 acres of organic grains, small flocks and herds of chickens, pigs, goats, and cattle, not to mention the 40 acres of vines.
Personally, she was radiant and charismatic. Easily engaged in conversation, she wouldn’t be shy to preach about the rampant toxicity and vacuous nutritional value of commercial food. Certifying our entire agricultural enterprise as an integrated biodynamic farm was a given, even if it took considerable doing! I can still see her confronting local celebrity chefs about their sourcing to see if they really walked the talk. Growing great wine wasn’t enough of an ambition. Having a tasting room wasn’t enough. Hosting a diner with ingredients that came from afar was not walking her talk. And she knew our customers wanted all this as well. As a “recovering” advertising professional, she understood that people are looking for experiences that resonate with conviction for higher standards and values that are transparent, authentic evidence that affirms their participation as customers. Better yet, as fellow farmers tending to the garden.
One lasting example of her imagination and influence is our annual event known as the Summer Solstice, a carnival of cosmic conviviality celebrating the growing season’s bounty on the longest day of the year. As the sun sets at the end of the meal, the bonfire takes its place as a focal point and we gather to throw bouquets of herbs into the fire to make wishes. And lest we forget our good fortune, proceeds from the event support the less food-secure with donations to the local food bank.
Michelle was out to make the world a better place one palate at a time.