I had a great time visiting with Alex Sokol Blosser (left) recently. One of the wonderful things about Oregon wine country is the commitment so many winery owners, winemakers, vineyard managers, and winegrowers have to sustainability. No one I know is more of an adherent to this philosophy than Alex and the entire Sokol Blosser winery.
Now, granted “green” is so overhyped these days as to become nauseous (it seems like everything these days is a “green” product . . . no matter how tenuous the brand extension to get there!). And Alex is definitely sensitive to issues of “greenwashing” (the use of “green” as a marketing theme to promote a company’s products or brand where the validity of the claim is suspect or downright nonexistent). But there has long been an ethic of organic farming in the Willamette Valley and a sincere concern about preserving the soil for future generations. There is no greenwashing at Sokol Blosser or most area wineries and vineyards: here, it is the real thing (and to learn more about it, I suggest you visit the LIVE site . . . the first and oldest sustainable wine certification authority in the nation.)
Sokol Blosser is a somewhat under-the-radar leader in this area. Susan Sokol Blosser (who with her then husband Bill put their first Pinot noir vines into the Jory soil in 1971) has been committed to true sustainability for years, and that philosophy is now carried on by sibling co-presidents of the winery Alex and Alison Sokol-Blosser. Yet the winery has never really used their organic/sustainable focus as part of their marketing efforts. They are only now beginning to put it on their labels, not so much as a badge of honor, but as an aid to consumers looking for organically-produced wines.
Alex and I went on a tour of the vineyards where he explained the various facets that go into sustainable farming. It is complex . . . very complex, and there are few absolutes. Sokol Blosser has been certified organic since 2005, but they--like most--are in a constant state of transition and tradeoff as they also strive to bring all aspects of their business up to the highest standards of so-called “greenness.”
In many ways it was instructive to hear Alex talk about some of the failures of pioneering the transition from conventional to sustainable. Like the inability to find a recyclable use (other than as firewood) for the trees they had to fell when clearing newly-purchased vineyard land (see photo at left). Or the failure to be able to institute 100% recyclable labels and liners. Or being forced to use Roundup and Garlan to clear blackberries from said land.
But it was also inspiring to hear Alex talk about the possibility of someday moving to a no-till vineyard operation, or the new solar panels they have installed to take up about 1/3rd of their power requirements (visit their site here to see the current power contribution solar is making to their operation). Or the myriad smaller ways in which they are attempting to meet Oregon Governor Kulongowski’s “Carbon Neutral Challenge Initiative.” Each year the winery produces a Sustainability Report that documents their progress and frustrations.
It was clear by both the emotion behind his words and the expertise he showed as he talked, that Alex and the Sokol Blosser team truly walk the talk of sustainability.
But does it show in the wines?
The honest answer, I believe, is: who knows? Just as it takes many years for a vine to mature and a vineyard block to start displaying characteristics of terroir, so I am sure it takes many years for wines to begin to show the impact of moving to completely organic and sustainable methods. (The photo at right is of Sokol Blosser Pinot noir vines in early August, 2008)
What I can say is that I was impressed with the wines that I tasted with Alex and winemaker Russ Rosner. Over the years I haven’t tasted that much of Sokol Blosser’s single-variety wines—they are famous for the popularity of their Evolution and Meditrina blends, but their higher-end Pinots have been limited in production and, frankly, I haven’t seen that many around. This is going to change, says Alex. They now feel their vineyards have made the transition to organic and are beginning to produce at their peak, plus the winery has just put in a new Dundee Hills vineyard that will add capacity in a few years.
The 2005 Dundee Hills Pinot noir I tasted seemed like a textbook wine for the vintage and location. It was taught and concentrated, with strong acidity well-balanced by red fruits. There was a forest-floor quality that I love in Pinot, and seem to find less and less as so many Pinots seem overripe and over extracted. This was not of that genre: it had layers of flavors and a good earthy/herbal quality.
The 2005 Estate Cuvée showed a bit more polish and was a bigger overall wine. Yet it still had finesse, with a silky texture carrying blackberry and anise notes, and plenty of firm acidity. Perhaps a bit more tight than the previous wine, it is one that should age quite nicely—but I enjoyed it immensely as it was.
The 2006 Dundee Hills Pinot noir had a more blowzy character, again in keeping with the vintage, with a rich lushness to the flavors. The fruit seemed sweeter, yet there were also hints of that earthiness that complemented the deep blackberry/black cherry quality.
I also sampled their Pinot gris, which I found wonderfully enticing, with bright freshness and potent fruitiness. The other wine that really took my attention was their 2007 Rosé of Pinot noir: wow! This was fresh, flavorful, with depths and length not normally seen in most roses. It was a stunner!
In fact, all these wines were excellent. In some ways, it made me think twice about what Sokol Blosser was doing. With a relatively small production of high-end Pinots, I haven’t had a broad tasting experience with Sokol Blosser, even though they are one of the founding wineries of the area (their first estate vines went into the ground in 1971). But being equally impressed with the commitment and actions they are showing on the sustainability front, and the actual wine in the bottle, Sokol Blosser is definitely back on my radar as a top-flight producer of great Willamette Valley Pinot!