In 2000, Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen invited some of his closest friends to C.A.M.P. at his ranch outside of Medina. “It was coffee, alcohol, meat, and I don’t know what the ‘P’ was,” Keen says. “Don’t make any guesses there, okay?” At C.A.M.P., Keen’s friends took turns sharing their crafts with the group. Among them was a radio host, a home builder, and, of course, musicians—most notably the singer-songwriters Terry Allen, the West Texan who doubles as a visual artist, and Chip Taylor, who penned the hit song “Wild Thing.”
Rollin Soles, who ran in the same circle as Keen and fellow singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett while attending Texas A&M in the late seventies, was also there. When his turn came, Soles and the group headed to Keen’s “scriptorium,” a one-room rock building on a hillside overlooking thousands of acres of Medina River bottom land for a moment of indulgence. “He goes into this beautiful, spiritual explanation of how wine is made,” Keen says. “And we all drank wine and had our own private tasting with Rollin. It was one of the greatest moments I’ve ever had.”
College Station’s role in launching the careers of Keen and Lovett is well documented, centering on a now legendary front porch at the Church Avenue house Keen rented, but few people realize that one of the porch denizens became one of the most celebrated winemakers in the U.S.
Soles was an integral part of establishing Oregon’s Willamette Valley as a bona fide alternative to Napa Valley. Argyle, the winery he cofounded in the late eighties, is also the only American winery in the world to be included on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list in each of three categories: red, white, and sparkling wine. And it was largely due to Soles’s vision and determination.
Soles, who grew up in the Dallas–Fort Worth suburbs, was first exposed to vineyards and wineries when his family relocated to Jerez del La Frontera, in Spain, when he was in elementary school. As with fellow alums Keen and Lovett, though, Soles’s passion didn’t crystallize until his time at Texas A&M.
Edgar Meyer, a biochemistry professor at A&M who was at the forefront of three-dimensional molecular modeling, had taken Soles under his wing. When Meyer learned of Soles’s plans to backpack through Europe the summer after his junior year, he connected the young microbiology major to his wife’s cousin Hans Ulrich Kesselring, who made wine at his family’s estate in eastern Switzerland.
Instead of continuing with his plans to backpack, Soles hunkered down at Schlossgut Bachtobel, Kesselring’s property overlooking the Alps, for ten weeks that summer. Six-and-a-half days a week he got his hands dirty working the vineyards, learning about what he calls “farming on the edge”—the precision techniques required to make cool-climate varietals in an environment where there is not optimal sunlight and heat to ripen the grapes. This would prove vital to Soles’s future success in the Willamette Valley, where the conditions are similar. “Whenever things get really tough [in Willamette Valley], I just think about Switzerland,” Soles says.
During his senior year of college, Soles applied to burgeoning graduate programs in viticulture (the study of grape cultivation) and enology (the study of wines) at Cornell University and the University of California–Davis and was accepted to both. Soles chose UC-Davis, the Harvard of American winemaking, and enrolled in 1978. He made his first trip to the Willamette Valley in 1979 as a grad student. Named after the river that runs through it, the area is a roughly 125-mile stretch in western Oregon, from south of Portland to around Eugene, flanked by mountain ranges. Soles was gobsmacked. “I drove into the Willamette Valley and I immediately knew that this was the place I was meant to be,” he says. “It’s gorgeous. The potential I figured was going to be extraordinary, which it turned out to be, and the people that were in the vineyards and in the wineries here in the early days were an inspiration.”