A business can’t simply rely on its heritage and history to succeed. It must have high-quality products, services, and ideas. For Sokol Blosser, one of the oldest and longest-running wineries in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, all of these qualities have fueled the family business for the last half-century.
Sokol Blosser began producing what would later become acclaimed Pinot Noir wines from the Dundee Hills and Eola-Amity Hills AVAs in 1971. Launched by wife and husband Susan Sokol and Bill Blosser (who had married in 1966 after both graduating from Stanford University), the winery produced its first vintage in 1977. It quickly began winning awards and set standards in the industry.
In 2008, after 37 years running the business together, Bill and Susan passed the reins on to two of their three children, Alex and Alison. Alex Sokol Blosser is the head winemaker, while Alison is CEO. The brother and sister share the title of co-president, and truly feel they are second-generation stewards of the brand — and land.
Sustainability has been a key driver for the Sokol Blosser siblings. Their winery has numerous certifications, including being salmon-safe and USDA organically farmed. Its underground barrel cellar became the first-ever LEED-certified winery building in 2002 in the U.S. In 2015, Sokol Blosser achieved B Corp status, which continues to guide the family’s commitment to the environment.
With Alex and Alison at the helm, Sokol Blosser winery has continued to produce award-winning Pinot Noir, and has added a variety of colder-climate whites, as well as a range of sparkling wines. In 2020, Sokol Blosser introduced a new brand, Evolution boxed wine. Its 2019 vintages of Evolution Lucky No. 9 White and Evolution Pinot Noir, in 1.5-liter box format, are a first for the family brand.
“If you’d asked me 12 months ago if we’d ever put wine in a box, I’d say, ‘hell, no,’ Alison Sokol Blosser says. But if you asked her today if she’d do it again? The answer is in upcoming launches in 2021: Evolution Chardonnay, as well as Evolution Big Time Red. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she refers to Sokol Blosser’s boxed wine offerings in pairs: “The Evolution [Lucky No. 9] White will have the [Big Time Red] pair, and the Pinot Noir will have the Chardonnay pair,” she says.
Below, Alison and Alex share with VinePair what drives the siblings to create compelling wines, how they’ve survived and evolved in a global pandemic, and what the future holds for the Sokol Blosser legacy.
1. What’s the best part of your job?
Alex: The best part of my job is harvest. I love harvest. When you’re a winemaker, you so rarely are able to focus on making wine. So much of the rest of my year, I’m working on spreadsheets, planning, looking at vineyards — there are many aspects to winemaking that’s not making wine. It’s the toughest part of the year, but it’s the time I can really just do the one thing I love.
Alison: What gives me the most joy is when I hear from customers who have had an amazing experience with our wine. Whether it’s someone celebrating a milestone and a bottle of our wine was on the table, or a wine club member serving in the military in Europe who wanted to get wine to share with others stationed there. [That wine club member] then sent a picture of all these guys in their military uniforms drinking Sokol Blosser. We were part of their lives in an intimate way without being there. We were on the table and part of those memories.
2. What’s a setback you faced in your career, and how did you get past it?
Alison: For me, the biggest setback was almost a year ago — March 17  — and having to lay off about a third of our staff. There was so much uncertainty and fear. It was a very humbling and hard moment to have to lay off people we care about. Thankfully, we’ve been able to bring back most of them. The silver lining is that all of those challenges set us up for better success for the next 50 years.
Alex: It was when our mom fired me. She didn’t fire me because I was a schmuck. This was in the mid ‘90s. The winery wasn’t 100 percent family owned; we owned 51 percent of it. The other partners said [they] couldn’t have more than two Sokol Blossers working full-time. Our mom hired me as cellar master, and then the next day had to fire me. That was a shock.
3. What’s the biggest challenge you or your business have faced since Covid, and how did you address it?
Alison: The challenge of laying everyone off was precipitated by losing 50 percent of our sales — losing all of our on-premise business, cruise and airline business — overnight. We had to preserve the business to be able to come through on the other side.
Alex: Our vineyard crew continues to get older. We knew at some point we’d have to switch to mechanical harvesting, even for our higher-end Pinot Noir. It’s a quarter-of-a-million-dollar investment, and the technology is amazing. Mechanical harvesting is the future.
4. What’s a significant shift your business has made in the last six months that you had never considered before?
Alison: If you’d asked me 12 months ago if we’d ever put wine in a box, I’d say, ‘hell, no.’ But we did it and did it quickly. We green lit that project April 1 and shipped in July. We also had a lot of pivots on the consumer sales side, [and] virtual events we had never done before. Now Alex and I are Zooming into consumers’ homes, doing virtual tastings for people, leading them through a tasting. That’s been fun, and now we have tasting kits with 50-milliliter wines. And we had a flash sale. We thought it would be cool for our 50th anniversary to sell one of our Pinots today for the same price as one of the first: our 1977 Pinot, we sold for $6.75 a bottle. I think we sold 970 cases in two hours. We thought we’d sell 300 cases. It was fun.
Alex: We were going to spend a lot of money throwing a lot of parties. The celebration of an anniversary is the celebration of all the shared memories we have. We can’t throw parties for distributors, sales reps, customers … so $6.75 a bottle is what we can do.
5. What opportunities are there for up-and-coming talent in your industry?
Alex: We need strong backs in the winery for every harvest. This was the first harvest in 10 to 15 years we didn’t have international workers. We may be up against that in 2021. Let people know we need harvest interns. Apply now. Long hours. Cold beer.
Alison: Normally, I’d say we have a shortage of hospitality folks who want to work in the tasting room, but that’s closed now. We anticipate we’ll open early summer, and when that happens, we think there will be a shortage of great candidates. Everyone will be hiring. That’s an amazing opportunity [for them].
6. What’s next for Sokol Blosser?
Alison: What’s most immediately next is we’ll be expanding the box wine. Longer term, Sokol Blosser is naturally limited by what we can produce on our land. We have to continually push the envelope on quality. With Evolution, we have more flexibility and want to grow that brand. The consumer is willing to be adventurous and try something new. It’s up to us to figure out what that something is. It’s going to always be quality.
Alex: And we’re looking at potentially buying another vineyard or winery. That’s an opportunity over the next coming years.
Alison: We’re fully planted out. Expansion means to expand somewhere else. Our parents bought in the Dundee Hills when it was affordable. We got priced out of our own neighborhood.
Published: February 15, 2021