Rollin Soles, owner of ROCO Winery, saunters onto the patio of his tasting room where my husband and I are sipping glasses of his 2012 Willamette Valley pinot noir in the afternoon sunlight. He removes his cowboy hat, takes a seat and asks us where we’re from. When we say Austin, a big smile spreads beneath his signature handlebar mustache and he reveals what his hat and accent were already hinting at: he’s a fellow Texan.
Out of the 400-plus wineries sprinkled throughout Oregon’s Willamette Valley, known as one of the world’s premier pinot-noir-producing regions, ROCO Winery (rocowinery.com) warrants a visit for two reasons: Soles and his wines. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes chatting with the native Texan to find out he’s got a personality just as big as the reputation he’s built over his decadeslong stint in the Willamette Valley and a way of conversing that is just as enjoyable as the 92-point, Wine Spectator-rated pinot we are sipping.
Raised near Fort Worth, Soles earned his bachelor’s degree in microbiology at Texas A&M, where his neighbors were Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen.
“We were unlikely Aggies, and all three of us are grateful that we have been able to pursue our creativity and craft while making a lot of people happy,” Soles says of the icons who have remained lifelong friends.
While his career has taken a less-musical route, it’s been a fruitful one for Soles, who considers himself fortunate to have found his calling early on in life — during the summer of his junior year, when he had the chance to work with one of Switzerland’s greatest winegrowers and early leaders in sustainable farming, Hans Kesselring from Schlossgut Bachtobel.
“It was one of those things when you get out of high school and go to college and have no idea what you want to be, and it is a lucky accident if you can find it,” says Soles. “I found an abiding love of the culture of fine winemaking and fell in love with pinot noir while gazing at the Swiss Alps in the distance.”
Before planting roots in the Willamette Valley, Soles earned a master’s of science in enology and viticulture at the University of California at Davis and spent his early winemaking years working at some of the world’s finest wineries spanning California to Australia. A Willamette Valley resident since 1986, Soles first visited the Oregon wine region in 1979 and immediately fell in love. He co-founded Argyle Winery with the 1987 vintage, subsequently launching the pinot noir specialist ROCO Winery in 2003.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s when early pioneering winegrowers proved there was potential for great wines in the Willamette Valley.
“People thought you couldn’t grow grapes here successfully, and these guys proved everybody wrong,” he explains.
But Soles was among the second wave who brought the needed capital and expertise to take the Willamette Valley wine industry to a higher level of quality and recognition. Over the past 30 years, viticulture in the Willamette Valley has been revolutionized.
Throughout this time, Soles has continued to produce wines that are ranked among the Top 100 Wines of the World by the Wine Spectator — 13 including ROCO 2008. He’s the only Oregon winemaker to hold this distinction and the only winemaker in the world to garner Top 100s for wine categories of sparkling, white (chardonnay) and red (pinot noir) wines.
In 2013, Soles left his lead winemaker role at Argyle to focus exclusively on his project with his wife, Corby: ROCO Winery, derived from the first syllable of the couple’s first names. Their 20-acre vineyard, Wits’ End, is located in the Chehalem Mountain American Viticultural Area and supplies one-third of ROCO’s wine needs. They purchased the land in 1987 and raised cattle and hay on it until they planted it with the latest, best clones of pinot noir in 2001. Now, with the 2013 Vintage, ROCO makes about 7,000 cases a year.
“Predominately pinot noir with a smattering of lip-smacking chardonnay and méthode champenoise sparkling wine,” Soles says.
The acclaimed pinot pioneer is also a serious chardonnay maker. His first Top 100 in Wine Spectator was for his 1987 Willamette Valley chardonnay.
“I love drinking it. I love making it,” says Soles. “There is a reason that the most expensive white wines in the world are chardonnay.”
The Willamette Valley produces a unique chardonnay style that emphasizes richness in flavor without losing its mineral connection to the soil, Soles explains.
“My joke is that my chardonnay is the most un-American style chardonnay made in America,” Soles says. “We capture lovely, fresh, ripe pear, honeysuckle and roasted hazelnut flavors, yet hold onto that mineral backbone that allows chardonnay to transform itself with food.”
Today, despite its size, the industry experience behind ROCO has allowed the winery to sell its wines in 37 states and five different countries.
“We are itty bitty,” he says. “A small Sonoma would be 10 times our size, so this kind of distribution is, well, it’s unheard of.”
Soles says he likes to think that his ROCO wines are the crystallization of he and Corby’s lives.
“When I’m growing and making these wines, I really do see contributions from Switzerland, South Australia, Napa and a lifetime of working collaboratively with my Willamette wine-growing friends,” he says. “Oh, and a nice piece of that Texas sky.”