Greater good

0612 GreaterGood 05The earth-friendly wisdom of Tony and Michelle Soter has created Planet Oregon, a pinot that blends quality with ecology.

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Tony and Michelle Soter returned to their Oregon roots to make fine pinot noir, including the blend they’re sampling in their Carlton vineyard, North Valley Rosé.
// Photo by Joseph Eastburn

When Tony Soter returned to his native Oregon with a few decades of high-end winemaking in California under his belt, the Portland-born winemaker was already recognized as one of the most talented in the U.S. But since he’s been back — part-time since 1997 and fulltime since 2007 — his reputation has been further enhanced by the exquisite pinot noirs he has produced at Soter Vineyards, a 20,000-case winery in Carlton.

His fine wines have garnered prizes and accolades. And since Soter’s stated mission in moving back to Oregon was to produce world-class pinot noir, it would appear his mission has been accomplished.

But that was before his ecological awakening, a dramatic shift in his worldview that ultimately resulted in a completely unplanned product called Planet Oregon.

“The idea of Planet Oregon,” says Soter, “is in part to take the values of guarding the ecology and doing the right thing and putting them in people’s faces.”

You might call Planet Oregon the People’s Pinot. Its purpose, besides making a top vintner’s pinot noir available to consumers for a relatively low price, is to educate consumers on just what it takes to produce an environmentally friendly bottle of wine and why it matters.

At $20 a bottle, Planet Oregon is a fraction of the price of Soter Vineyards’ top of the line, the 2008 Mineral Springs Pinot Noir, which goes for $85, an estate wine made exclusively from grapes grown at Mineral Springs Ranch, the home of the winery. “We aspire only for the absolute best and cost is no object for Mineral Springs Pinot Noir,” says Soter.


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Making Planet Oregon pinot noir became a pet project after the Soters decided to spread the gospel, one bottle at a time, of eco-friendly wine making.
// Photo by Joseph Eastburn

Planet Oregon, on the other hand, is basically a vehicle for sharing with consumers the earth-friendly wisdom Soter and his wife, Michelle, gained from the Carbon Neutral Challenge, a 2007 program sponsored by the Oregon Environmental Council (OEC) and the Oregon Wine Board. But before taking the challenge, Soter thought he was already ahead of the game.


“I’ve been doing organic grape growing since the mid 1980s in Napa,” he says. “I certified several vineyards there and I’m bringing the same sensibilities to what we do here.” But in spite of his good intentions, his concept of sustainability was limited.

He credits veteran Oregon winemaker Susan Sokol Blosser “for opening my eyes to the greater meaning of sustainability,” and OEC executive director Andrea Durbin for encouraging his leadership role in the Carbon Neutral Challenge. Soter Vineyards was one of 14 wineries of an original 30 that were able to complete the arduous 18-month challenge. The challenge not only changed Soter’s outlook but the way he did business.

“Here we have somebody who is one of the world’s best winemakers who’s firmly committed to stewarding the land and resources in a wise way and integrating all of that in a fine wine,” Durbin says.

Carefully monitoring inputs and outputs and considering the impact of every decision, Soter increased recycling and composting, installed solar panels and a more efficient cooling system for fermentation tanks, and retrofitted pumping systems with energy-efficient motors. The weight of the wine bottles was reduced almost by half.

Durbin says other Oregon industries are also reducing their carbon footprint, seeking to do the right thing while reducing energy and fuel bills. In the Oregon nursery industry, 20% are currently participating in a carbon challenge, while members of the state’s craft-brewing industry are bellying up to the bar for a challenge of their own.


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Soter credits Oregon winemaker and sustainability advocate Susan Sokol Blosser “for opening my eyes to the greater meaning of sustainability.”
// Photo by Joseph Eastburn

Outside of his winery, Soter is making an impact by informing wine growers that when he buys additional pinot noir grapes for Planet Oregon and for his North Valley label, he will buy only from vineyards that are certified sustainable.


“That’s how growers can buy into the Planet Oregon concept, by selling grapes to us,” he says. “We want to see more certified sustainable acres and we also want to send a message that it’s high time consumers had a chance to have sustainability as an added value.”

To that end, in April New Seasons and some Fred Meyer stores put up special displays for Planet Oregon. There are now 17 other Oregon wineries certified through the Carbon Neutral Challenge program.

Soter wears his heart on his whimsical Planet Oregon label that delivers a message about the value of his earth-friendly product. The label also informs consumers that $1 from each bottle is donated to the OEC. In February, he and his wife made a $5,400 donation for 2011 sales.

“By big business standards, that’s certainly small potatoes,” Soter says, “but it’s a significant commitment and it’s putting our money where our mouth is.”

Soter is gradually boosting production and distribution of Planet Oregon, going from last year’s Oregon-only 500 cases to 600 cases for sales in Oregon and Washington this year. The following year’s sales will be in 10 states and eventually Planet Oregon will take on the nation.

At 60, Soter has found true fulfillment in blending quality with ecology. “I’ve never been happier in the wine business,” he says.

Susan G. Hauser previously has written about truffles for Oregon Business. Reach her at [email protected]. 

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