By W. Peter Hoyne
I found it humbling to try and encapsulate the life and iconic achievements of winemaker Tony Soter, who established his own namesake winery, Soter Vineyards in the Yamhill-Carlton region of Willamette Valley in 1997. I met with Tony a few years back at his Mineral Springs Ranch and winery atop a sloping hillside near the vineyards. He is quiet, soft-spoken and rather modest considering his long list of accomplishments.
Tony’s beginnings in wine were less than typical as he received his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Pomona College near LA and never received a degree in winemaking. While in college he developed a fondness for wine through tastings that were arranged by one of his professors. After college he started working in winery cellars, quickly rising to winemaker status. He built a successful wine consulting business in the 1980’s and captured headlines throughout Napa. Tony brought Cabernet fame and recognition to a lineup of elite Napa Valley wineries including Spottswoode, Viader, Araujo, Dalle Valle, Shafer and a host of others. As he crafted Spottswood’s first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1982, he also founded the Etude Winery label in Napa, Carneros. At Etude he would focus on artisan crafted Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.
After selling Etude to Beringer Blass in 2001, many believed that this might be his swan song at the age of 47. Instead Tony stayed on as a consulting winemaker while continuing to develop a vineyard in Oregon that he had purchased earlier.
As he departed California and his successful consulting firm, Tony pursued his passion for growing Pinot Noir in Willamette Valley. He was destined to return to his native roots in Oregon with his wife Michelle and develop the vineyard program at Soter Vineyards. He admits that he prefers making Pinot Noir because it is more challenging.
Tony owns a 240-acre parcel of land with 30 acres planted to Pinot Noir and 2 acres of Chardonnay, which are dedicated to his sparkling wines. The vast majority of the remaining acreage is used for vegetable gardens and grazing pastures for sheep and goats. In actuality, he grows enough food to feed everyone on his property. Since his early beginnings at Spottswoode he believed in the benefits of organic farming even though few followed that direction at the time.
Regarding his winemaking style he wants his wines to be a “moving experience with a sense of wow and awe, but not with a two by four.” To do this he uses less new oak. Tony is a mature winemaker who “creates nuance’s in a wine that are expressive of their origin” with a respectful approach to farming and the land. He doesn’t embrace the idea that a wine makes itself, although he is a minimalist who is committed to creating an “authentic style” with wines that are “elegant and aromatic.” As his winemaking has spanned nearly four decades, it seems obvious that Tony Soter has raised the bar wherever he resides, including Willamette Valley.