Alumni Profilesspring2007

Not Your Father’s Vintner

 

Susan Sokol Blosser MAT ’67 with winemaker Russ Rosner, and her children, Alex and Alison Sokol Blosser, who are taking over management of the vineyard.Susan Sokol Blosser MAT ’67 with winemaker Russ Rosner, and her children, Alex and Alison Sokol Blosser, who are taking over management of the vineyard.


Susan Sokol Blosser was pictured in her vineyard for the Oregon Business magazine feature “CEO of the Month” in October 2003. Susan Sokol Blosser was pictured in her vineyard for the Oregon Business magazine feature “CEO of the Month” in October 2003. Photo credit: Doreen Wynja

   

It’s early March at the Sokol Blosser winery in Oregon’s Dundee Hills, and the rows of gnarled vines are bare; buds are not yet visible on the pruned canes. In a few short months, though, the vineyard will be a dense canopy of tiny grape clusters nestled among thick green leaves. It’s a transformation that Susan Sokol Blosser MAT ’67 knows intimately, one that she has observed for decades while building the reputation of her vineyard’s high-end Pinot Noirs, as well as her own reputation as a leader in sustainable agriculture.

As she sits in the rustic tasting room of her Willamette Valley winery, she talks about transitions. It was 1971 when Sokol Blosser and then-husband Bill Blosser planted their first vines. “I had never grown anything but a sweet potato in a glass,” she remembers. At first, her role was pro forma, running the tasting room and doing the books. But when she took over managing the vineyard in the 1980s, she was hooked. “I’ve never been the winemaker,” she says. “My real interest is in the vineyard. I could never have imagined that I would develop such a deep connection to the land. I could have lived my whole life in the city and never known.”

Bill eventually withdrew from the business and she took over as president in 1990. Under her leadership the winery made a public—and early—commitment to sustainability; many others have since followed. Sokol Blosser wines are certified organic; the winery’s new below-ground barrel cellar is LEED certified, and in midsummer, its domed “living roof” is bright with wildflowers.

Ever-restless, Sokol Blosser is now exploring biodynamic cultivation. “Our culture is so human-centric,” she explains. “I want to understand the part we play in the ecosystem.” Still, the wine marketer is never far removed from the wine maverick. “While sustainability has always been one of our values,” she says, “our key mission is to make fabulous, sought-after wines.”

Bay Area wine writer Tim Patterson ’68 thinks she’s succeeding. “Sokol Blosser Pinot Noirs may not be the trendiest in Oregon, and that’s just as well,” he says. “They are certainly among the most reliably tasty year after year, bringing out the traditional varietal character of the fruit.” Patterson notes one exception: the vineyard’s Evolution blend, a white that he calls “anything but traditional, mixing flavors rarely found in the same glass into a harmonious, fascinating whole.”

Sokol Blosser tells the story of Evolution No. 9—one of the vineyard’s most lucrative ventures—in her new book, At Home in the Vineyard (University of California Press, 2006). It’s part business book, part regional history, part memoir.

In fact, only a handful of people could have traced the growth of Oregon’s wine industry, and Sokol Blosser is one of them. She was there from the beginning—when a handful of scrappy young winemakers started planting new vines among the old hillside hazelnut orchards, and all the vineyard owners could fit into a single living room—to the present, with nearly 300 wineries, many of them earning international acclaim. Her book relates the early struggles—locals complained of being overrun by “winos” and protested the “Californication” of rural Oregon—and it also traces her personal journey from wine industry neophyte to seasoned business executive. “Mine is such an improbable story,” she says. “I’m living proof that you can do anything with a liberal arts education.”

At Reed, one of Sokol Blosser’s classmates was Stephen Kafoury MAT ’67. The two were together on the day that Kafoury’s wife, Gretchen, called to say she was pregnant. That baby, Deborah, grew up to be a member of the Oregon House of Representatives (1999–2004), and its youngest-ever Democratic majority leader; she also married Sokol Blosser’s son, Nik, who runs an environmental consulting firm.

“At Reed,” Sokol Blosser says, “there are only two degrees of separation.”

—Rebecca Koffman

 At Home in the Vineyard is available online at www.sokolblosser.com and from online bookstores. Sokol Blosser will read from her book and pour wine at Reunions 2007.