Rollin Soles, Top Oregon Vintner, Dishes On Argyle Wine, Nuthouses, and His Kinky Neighbor

Categories: Booze Hound
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Rollin Soles, the man some say put Oregon on the winemaking map.
From the time Rollin Soles first laid eyes on Willamette (rhymes with dammit) Valley in 1979, he "fell totally in love with the place." By 1987, "feeling like one lucky cowboy," the Texan-bred Soles started Argyle Winery (joined soon after by partner Allen Holstein). Argyle's first Chardonnay landed on Wine Spectator's "Top 100 Wines of the World" list; since then Argyle has had its red wines and sparkling wines make the same list, the only winery to ever achieve this triple crown feat (red, white, sparkling).

Now in its 25th year, Argyle farms more than 600 acres of land spread over four vineyards in the Willamette Valley's Dundee Hills and Eola-Amity Hills. To commemorate this quarter century anniversary, Argyle has released a "Silver Series" trio of single vineyard 2009 Pinot Noir (available as a boxed set for $125 at argylewinery.com). It is also offering Big POP!, its inaugural vintage Argyle Library Brut that has been aging in the bottle for 25 years ($150, and disgorged on demand, post sale).

At the end of this post we'll let you know where you can purchase Argyle wines locally, and which restaurants and bars have it on their menus. First, however, we'll give you a taste of Rollin Soles, who is as interesting as the wines he makes. We got together at Confiteria Buenos Aires Bakery & Cafe over some coffee and facturas, and Oregon's most celebrated and most mustachioed winemaker talked about wine.

New Times: What were Oregon wines like in 1987?
Rollin Soles: Well there really is such a thing as diamonds in the rough. They uncovered a few diamonds here every once in awhile, so the '77, '78 '83, '85 vintages were pretty damn extraordinary. I remember visiting some wineries and they had Riesling with beautiful apricot aromatics to them. And Pinot was the first time you'd ever see black cherry-like flavors, and then you'd taste it and it would be juicy -- not stringy, tough, American-style over-oaked and over-everything Pinot. But mostly I liked it (Oregon) because it was such a damn beautiful place. I said, "I'll make this work no matter what.:

And so you did. Your Argyle wines are among Oregon's most renowned.
We're like one hand clapping in the wind in Oregon. There's nobody else our size, and we're not really big. If you're tasting a lineup of sparkling wines, you'll taste ours and go, "That's from Oregon." That really tastes like Willamette, like Oregon, the clear streams ... it really does taste like that. Especially if you're in our area and have tasted our pears and our raspberries and extraordinary strawberries ... if you eat these fruit and then taste my sparkling wine, you'll go, "Yup, it really has a sense of place."

What's the most important part of the process in terms of ending up with a great wine?
There are all the nuts and bolts of viniculture and all, but the bottom line to remember is that you can take anything, like walnuts, or fruit like peaches, apples, or pears, and of course it holds for grapes - you harvest these things at the very end of their growing season, meaning no light or heat can further ripen them, you make those nuts, fruits, grapes much much better, extraordinary -- there's something about it where they get ripe flavor but retain their high natural acidity or retain the minerality to them that's just zippy and zingy and wonderful. That's why if you go to France and Italy, I think over hundreds and hundreds of years, they have figured it out.

In Oregon you have to struggle with the viticulture just to get the damn grapes ripe. It's like writing. You start out with the little details because you don't know the big picture yet. Then once you get the big picture you can line those little details up even better. And once you have that stuff lined up, the result can be magical...You can open a bottle of this wine and sniff it and go "wow!", like you can open a book and read the first chapter and just go, "Yeah!"  I don't care what the subject matter is, if it's well written...

You have a saying, "Brut makes it better," presumably meaning it makes the reds and whites you produce better. How so?
With sparkling wine, there are so many steps where you can get it wrong. For starters, there's a tiny window when you're supposed to pick them for the wine to be really excellent. And once you pick them at just the right time, what you're using out of the grape is hardly anything. You don't use the skin, don't use the juice just inside the skin, you're not using the seed like you do with the red wine. You're just using the clear juice in the center of the grape. There's no protection against micro-biological things, and oxygen ... you're using only the open, unprotected juice that can totally get screwed up at that point.

Then you have to blend Pinot and Chardonnay -- the only beverage in the world you have to do that. Black grapes and white grapes, they're not meant to go together. Then you have to consider what it's going to taste like three or four years down the road, with a billion bubbles in it. How's that going to taste? Then you have to get the balance perfectly right. You have to taste the difference between Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, and there's so tiny a difference between them it really tunes your palate like a son-of-a-gun.

When making red wines, where you're blending like with like, it's like a holiday for me. The pinnacle of blending is sparkling wine, by far.

How much time do you take deciding on the name for your wines?
One thing that drives me crazy about Americans, and it comes up every election cycle, is how Americans really don't care about history. So you look at France and Italy as our model for our wine and our viticulture.

In France and Italy they name their different wines after the vineyards. But that vineyard in France and Italy has been called that name for 500 years. Then you fast forward and here we are on the west coast of the U.S., and those vineyards have been there for five years. And wineries making wine out of those vineyards, that haven't seen even one generation yet, and you're naming that wine after that vineyard as if it's been there for 500 years. It didn't fit right with me. So I didn't call my wine after its vineyards name. I'd go, "This wine is a big and bold and chunky Pinot, and it doesn't fit in with my more elegant Pinot." So I called the chunky one "Nuthouse" and the more elegant one "Reserve."

As it turns out, the chunky Pinot Noir always comes from the same vineyard, so it's good news/bad news. The good news is I feel better about myself. But really, who gives a shit about that? The bad news is that people want to know what vineyard they came from even if it doesn't have a history. So probably in the future the Nuthouse label will segue into becoming the Lonestar Vineyard because that's where it coming from for the last twenty years.

Do you have any cute animals on any of your labels?
We have a squirrel on the Nuthouse label-- one is a Chardonnay and one a Pinot. Oregon grows all the hazelnuts for America, and the building I took over and put the winery in used to dry hazelnuts. I like to say I took the nut-drying equipment out and left the nut -- once a nuthouse, always a nuthouse.

Have you thought of promoting your wine via argyle socks?
(Laughs) I actually did. I was going to get the logo on argyle socks years and years ago. I had a buddy who was in the clothing business -- still is -- and I got a hold of him, he was going over to Hong Kong and I asked him to get a quote for me for socks. He said, "How many do you want?" And I go, "I don't know, about 500." So he goes over there and gets me this quote, and comes back and the quote is for 500,000. They only think in thousands. That was the minimum. I thought, "What the hell am I going to do with 500,000 argyle socks that say Argyle on them?" It was a non-starter.

Favorite foods to match up with your specific wines?
Matching food with wine is tricky. I know enough where I don't stumble over myself too often, but I still do. I had somebody tell me they'd been drinking my Pinot for years, but they'd had it recently and there was just something wrong with it. First thing I asked where, "What were the circumstances? Were you three sheets to the wind, and was it 3 o'clock in the morning? Who were you sharing the bottle with, and what did you have it with?"

In Oregon we like to have salmon with our Pinot Noir, and there's a huge gap in salmon -- Pacific, Atlantic farmed, spring run, fall run, and all have different fat levels. If you have a salmon with low fat with a Pinot Noir, it will actually make the Pinot have a metallic taste to it. And that's what happened. I found this out when I asked a chef buddy of mine and he said 'I can't believe you're asking me this, because it took me years to figure it out myself.' You really need the salmon to have some fat to it for it to work.

Now, if you have one of my chardonnays with mashed potatoes, and maybe add some olive oil and goat cheese to the mashed potatoes...oh my god.

Do you drink much wine?
I drink my fair share. It's fun. I mean love it. It was a good career choice for me.

As opposed to becoming a country singer like your former college roommate and buddy Lyle Lovett?
He's a very humble, gentle, wonderful guy. I love meeting up with him, he's always so kind. A few years ago -- you know sometimes my wife doesn't understand my sense of humor, she's from Chicago and Texans just have a different way of looking at things -- well, my wife and I were with Lyle on the bus, and he and I were going off on each other. It was a crack-up. My wife shakes her head and goes 'Oh my god, two peas in a pod." Lyle looks at her and says, "This is what we in Texas call a sense of irony."

Isn't Kinky Friedman another ironic Texan?
Kinky Friedman lives down the road from me. He runs an animal rescue service. Kinky's a nut case. A full blown nut case.

Will 2012 be a cool or warm year in Oregon?
Dude, it better be warm. We've had two really cool growing seasons in a row. Last year was the coldest on record since 1954. We were pressing our Pinot Noir on Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It was brutal. We had to cut away two thirds of the fruit and leave it on the ground. There was so little heat and sunlight we needed to concentrate it on the center grapes.The last two years have been crushing.

Where to find Argyle wines in the Miami area:
Retail: Whole Foods, Milam's Market, Total Wine.
Restaurants: St. Regis Bal Harbour, The Palm, Morton's, Fontainebleau, Prime One Twelve, Smith & Wollensky, Trattoria Il Migliore.

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