Guided by a sense of adventure, some research and a love of wine, Susan Sokol Blosser and her husband Bill moved to Oregon in 1970. Fresh out of college with liberal arts degrees and no experience in agriculture or business, the young couple started Sokol Blosser Winery. In doing so, they became entrepreneurial pioneers of the region and played a crucial role in developing the Oregon wine industry.
The Sokol Blossers planted their first vines in the early ‘70s, and Susan worked the tractor with her first son Nik on her back while Bill did the on-the-ground handwork. A few years and two more children (Alex and Alison) later, Sokol Blosser Winery had its first vintage (1977) and Susan, who describes herself as someone who had “only grown a sweet potato in a jar” before they came to the Willamette Valley, became vineyard manager. In 1990 she transitioned to president of the company and was instrumental in making the Sokol Blosser Winery the internationally recognized brand it is today.
In 2008, Susan stepped down as president of the company and turned over the reins to Alex and Alison. I caught up with her to talk about her career today, which includes work on several committees, boards and not-for-profits, finishing her third book, and spreading the word about what makes Yamhill County an amazing place to come eat, drink and celebrate all that is unique about this region.
Jennifer Cossey: You moved here without a whole lot of agricultural experience? Why?
Susan Sokol Blosser: We had more guts than brains! Well, it really is a funny story, I think. Maybe an inspiring one. We decided to grow Pinot Noir because we loved French Burgundy. We decided to locate in Oregon because we thought the conditions were such that it would grow in Oregon, but there was no wine industry yet. The fact that we are still here, that our second generation is running the business, that we are distributed internationally in a small way, and that there are now over 450 wineries in Oregon is something of a miracle.
JC: So nothing other than a hunch and some passion for French Burgundy?
SSB: We did some research. One thing we knew how to do was research. The interesting thing is that when we got here, we found that there were a handful of other couples doing the same thing and that was a surprise. You think you are unique and you find you’re part of a social movement. The whole wine industry used to fit in any one of our living rooms.
JC: How have you seen the industry grow since you moved here?
SSB: Oregon Pinot Noir has an international reputation now and the Oregon wine country pulls in a lot of visitors. The wine industry pumps over $2.5 billion into the Oregon economy, and to have that happen in one generation is pretty phenomenal. It’s exciting to see it grow. I’m looking to what the wine industry can spawn: People are coming to Yamhill County to see wineries, but there is so much more. That is what I am interested in getting people to see — that the wineries are just the entrée. There is so much more going on here and we should celebrate all of it.
JC: After all the hard work, how was it for you both as a mother and as a business owner to turn the business over to Alison and Alex?
SSB: Let me answer the mother part first because that is easier. I am really happy not to be their boss. Being their boss precluded, in a sense, being their mother because that is how they had to look at it. From a mother’s standpoint I have really enjoyed establishing the mother-son and mother-daughter relationship that was suppressed while I was their boss.
From a business standpoint it was really, really difficult for me to give up control. It was something that I wanted to do. I made the decision to institute a transition and I kept asking myself, ‘Why am I having so much trouble with this?’ It was the most difficult thing I have ever done in business but I’m glad I did. I am actually working on a book because it was interesting to me that I had so much trouble with it. I have a working manuscript entitled Letting Go. No one ever talks about letting go. We talk about accumulation of things like education, influence, networking, money, power, friends, etc., but never letting go. I was completely underprepared for what that entailed emotionally for me.
JC: Since passing on your duties at Sokol Blosser, you have been involved in a lot of things, including founding the not-for-profit Yamhill Enrichment Society (YES) in 2011. Tell me about the program.
SSB: Our mission is to design and fund projects in three different arenas: arts and education, food and agriculture, and history and community. We have six projects right now. One is called Books for Babies. It is based on the idea that literacy begins at birth, and every child born at the McMinnville Hospital gets what’s called a board book which is a heavy cardboard picture book with a label on the back that tells parents why it’s so important to read to your child.
For food and agriculture our two projects are Bounty of the County, which celebrates what is unique about Yamhill County in the culinary line, and the other is to work with about 15 other food agencies in a collaborative to deal with problems around food like hunger and food security, public health and a wide range of problems that we want to help with.
JC: Tell me more about Bounty of the County.
SSB: Last year was just one dinner; this year we want people to come out for the day. If you sign up for the dinner you have access to several different farm tours (including vineyard tours of Domaine Drouhin and Bersgtröm) and then drink the wines that night (Sunday, September 8th at Sokol Blosser Winery) so you really have a real sense of farm-to-table. Dinner will be a combination of walk-around and sit-down with 20 plus chefs paired with local farmers producing some specialties that are fresh, local, seasonal and sustainable. We’ll also have professional sommeliers serving the wines.
With Bounty of the County we have two goals; one of them is that the beneficiary of the funds are the enrichment projects that YES does, but we also have an economic development goal. We want to tell the world that Yamhill County is special. And we want to showcase what’s special about it and bring people here, bring businesses here.
JC: What do you hope for the future of the Oregon wine industry?
SSB: People always say, ‘In Oregon you’re where Napa was 20 years ago,’ and the Oregonians tend to say, ‘No, no, we aren’t going to be like Napa.’ But I think that we will in the sense that we will continue to add things around the wineries; add music, add great restaurants, add art, cultural things that people who come to wine country and live here want to enjoy. I think the challenge is going to be to maintain the authenticity, the down-to-earth quality that we have in Oregon, yet grow the culture and art to make it an even better place.
To learn more about the history of the Oregon wine industry, watch Oregon Experience: Grapes of Place.