On his very first visit to Oregon, Rollin Soles fell in love with the Willamette Valley. “I knew in my heart that this is where I belonged.”
That fateful trip happened almost four decades ago, in 1979. Soles was born and raised in Euless, Texas, and earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Texas A&M and a master’s degree in enology and viticulture at the University of California at Davis. His love of the science of grape-growing and winemaking were firmly in place by the time he first set foot in Oregon. Now, he knew exactly where he wanted to grow his grapes and make his wine.
“The next years were a dive to get vineyard and wine experience,” he recalled. “I came up with a plan to grow grapes and make wine in the Willamette Valley.”
In 1986, Soles came to Oregon for good. He purchased land near Newberg the following year, a gorgeous piece of property that drapes down the southwestern slope of the Chehalem Mountain Range at 400 feet elevation. The land would be ideal for growing wine grapes. But planting it would have to wait. Soles was already deeply immersed in another project—Argyle Winery, which he founded in Dundee in 1987.
Argyle would go on to become one of the most celebrated wineries in the state—arguably, in the nation. But these were early days, long before the Willamette Valley was proven as an ideal place to grow pinot noir, or even before pinot noir was a well-known wine varietal, renowned by critics and beloved by wine lovers. “My joke was that one small California winery produced all of the pinot noir that America drank,” said Soles, who is as known for his wit as he is for his handlebar mustache and cowboy hat.
“We had an extra tough time of it,” continued Soles, speaking not only of his experience but that of all the winemakers in the region. The rich soils of the Willamette Valley were perfect for growing pinot noir. But the vineyards had to be established from scratch. Experimentation was required, which led to failures and new beginnings. “It blows my mind what we were up against. There were so many strikes against us. But there was nobody more creative, with more passion, than Willamette Valley winemakers.”
The collaboration and companionship within the Willamette Valley winemaking community through those early years is what Soles credits with his survival, and that of others, followed by the subsequent development of the region as a verifiable destination. “We always made space in our lives to lift all of us up at one time. We started doing things collectively that would make Americans like pinot noir. All of the hard work was totally worth it,” he said. “Working together—it was phenomenally gratifying and always had an authentic ring of togetherness.”
Argyle grew to an undeniable success, producing dozens of award-winning wines, focusing on sparkling chardonnays and pinot noirs. Soles could easily have rested on his laurels, winding down the years in the barrel room of Argyle. But his Chehalem Mountain land was calling to him. He and his wife Corby had never even gotten around to planting a vineyard, and the land lay in wait.
“Sometimes there are good things about not having immediate gratification,” said Soles. In the decades that had passed, the wine industry had dramatically changed. “At that point, viticulture had completely utterly improved. And, I’d been farming for twenty-five years.”
In 2001, Rollin and Corby planted the Wits’ End Vineyard on what would become ROCO Winery (RO for Rollin and CO for Corby). “I was able to work with clones I’d used for decades,” said Soles. “I planted on root stocks—we never would have dreamed of doing that in the 1980s. We planted rows with close spacing, which means more leaves, which absorb more sunlight.”
The grapes were pinot noir; the wine was excellent. Two years later, ROCO Winery produced the first vintage of Private Stash pinot noir, showcasing the very best of Rollin’s small-lot winemaking skills in a bottle that was eventually served in the White House. “We were so lucky that we didn’t plant until 2001,” he said. “We ended up getting the best out of the Wits’ End Vineyard.”
Again, success was in hand. Again, Soles could have simply continued doing what he was doing, but innovation is in his blood. “With ROCO, the saying ‘never say never’ has never been more true,” he said. “I was just going to make pinot noir. But then Corby said, ‘I kind of like chardonnay.’ So, we planted chardonnay. We began doing new things with sparkling wine. Then we made a tiny bit of rosé.” He laughed, marveling at the journey he’s taken and continues to take. “We’re releasing the first ever ROCO rosé this year! I call it ‘mission creep’. I’ve been able to take what I’ve learned and tweak it, give it the unique ROCO style.”
After more than three decades of growing wine businesses from bare earth, marketing wines to the world, adapting and changing and growing, one singular challenge has been a constant for Soles. “The weather,” he said. “The weather of the Willamette Valley has been the most challenging aspect of my work here. The growing seasons are so different in the Willamette Valley, from one to the next.”
And yet, ever the seeker of challenge and innovation, Soles sees the flip side of his primary antagonist. “It’s caused me to be a better grape-grower and winemaker. Without the weather, I wouldn’t have attained the same level of excitement. If we have an easy growing season, I love them, but then I feel a tinge of disappointment that I didn’t get to go toe-to-toe with nature and respond.”
As the Willamette Valley has come into the light, wineries have sprung up all around and wine lovers have poured in, but community is still at the heart of the matter for Soles. ROCO donates wine and money to local nonprofits, contributing to the betterment of the Willamette Valley, and Soles continues to speak out for the wines that he makes and that his compatriots make. “If we speak with one voice to consumers, it brings more attention to us all,” he said. “For the tiny size of the Willamette Valley vineyard acreage, we do get more attention. We punch above our weight.”
The ROCO logo is an illustration of a bird in the style of an early Native American petroglyph. Rollin and Corby Soles have always enjoyed the outdoors and camping with their three children (now grown). “It brings a whole new flavor to camping and enjoying the Pacific Northwest if you think as if you were a human being 10,000 years ago,” said Soles. “Imagining where petroglyphs might be, finding evidence of human life, adds a new layer to our time outdoors.”