ROSEBURG, Ore. — When Dyson and Susan DeMara were in the market for a vineyard or property on which to grow winegrapes, their focus was on an “old school” operation.
“I’m a huge believer in dry farming, like in Europe,” Dyson DeMara said. “We were also looking for a hillside site with super powerful nature in order to make a fine wine.”
DeMara added that he and Susan didn’t want a financial partner.
Dyson had worked for 20 years in California’s corporate wine industry and he was ready for a small community, family-owned vineyard and winery.
The DeMaras’ thinking was similar to that of Richard Sommer, the founder of HillCrest Vineyard, a hillside vineyard a few miles west of Roseburg. The DeMaras purchased the vineyard and winery from the Sommer family in 2003.
Dyson and Susan are honored to carry on what Richard Sommer started when in the 1960s he planted a variety of winegrapes, but mainly Riesling and Pinot noir, on 8 acres that was previously a turkey farm.
“Richard was a world class grape grower,” Dyson DeMara said. “He believed in minimal input, in natural farming.”
Sommer planted his vineyard despite being advised by his University of California-Davis viticulture professors that Oregon’s wet and cold climate was not conducive to such a venture. But he succeeded, bottling the first commercial Pinot noir in Oregon with a 1967 vintage.
Sommer, who died at age 79 in 2009, has been officially recognized as being the first post-prohibition wine pioneer to come to Oregon, being the first to plant Pinot noir in Oregon, being the first to use stainless steel tanks in winemaking in Oregon and co-founding the Oregon Winegrowers Association in Roseburg in 1965.
HillCrest Vineyard is the state’s oldest continuously operating vinifera winery. Vinifera is a common European grape vine that is the chief source of Old World wine varieties.
Since purchasing the vineyard, the DeMaras have had to remove most of Sommer’s vines because of their age and the infestation of phylloxera, an insect that kills the root system. There is one row of Chardonnay of Sommer’s original plantings still in the ground and still producing grapes.
Through the efforts of the DeMaras, HillCrest Vineyard has been certified as an Oregon state historic site. It is the only winery in the Pacific Northwest that has such a designation.
“People visit us because it is the oldest vineyard and winery in Oregon and because of its Old World ways,” Dyson DeMara said. “We talk about Richard Sommer here and we honor him.”
There are outside signs signifying the vineyard and winery as being Oregon’s oldest and there are framed articles in the tasting room explaining Sommer’s wine accomplishments.
“Richard had been forgotten for a while, but he’s now fixed in Oregon’s wine history,” DeMara said. “What he did is unsurpassed by anybody in the Northwest.”
The DeMaras have expanded HillCrest to 34 acres and are growing 65 winegrape varietals, some in just one row and some over several acres. The winery bottles 2,000 cases a year from the HillCrest grapes. The couple also recently purchased the 25-acre Misty Oaks Vineyard and Winery and plan a tasting room opening next summer. That vineyard is about 10 miles from HillCrest.
Dyson and Susan DeMara do all the winemaking, but have been joined on a full-time basis by their daughter, Hanna DeMara, this summer. She is a graduate of Udine Winemaking School in Italy and has worked in the industry in Italy, Argentina and Germany. The DeMaras’ son, Parker, helps on a part-time basis in sales.
“What was used in winemaking 100 years ago are the only things we use here now,” Dyson said. “What is most interesting about wine is its legacy and we want to remember and honor that here.”