The News Review - HillCrest Winery, Preserving a Legacy

Dyson DeMara fights for 'where Oregon pinot was born' designation

HillCrest Vineyard owner Dyson DeMara bubbles over with passion when he talks about his predecessor, Oregon pinot noir pioneer Richard Sommer. The founder of the Roseburg winery had a posthumous challenge to his legacy when the city of Forest Grove in February adopted a slogan touting itself as "where Oregon pinot was born." The city's catch phrase nettled DeMara. After six months of lobbying, DeMara was successful last week in persuading members of the Oregon House of Representatives to pass legislation honoring Sommer. He is now officially designated as the man who planted Oregon's first pinot noir in Roseburg 50 years ago. "It's important that Sommer's legacy is remembered," DeMara said standing in the winery. "It's important that the truth is not spun." DeMara said Sommer, who died at 80 in 2009, would be grateful. "In the last few years of his life, I could tell he felt forgotten," he said. DeMara, who purchased the vineyard from Sommer in 2002, said Forest Grove's slogan is historically inaccurate because the Willamette Valley's pinot vineyards weren't planted until 1965. Attempts to reach Forest Grove's economic development coordinator, Jeff King, were unsuccessful. California native Sommer moved to an old Roseburg turkey farm in 1961 to plant a vineyard, despite warnings from his professors at the University of California Davis. They said Oregon's climate was too cold for wine grapes. Two other California transplants, Charles Coury and David Lett, are often listed alongside Sommer as Oregon pinot pioneers, though historical accounts don't have Lett and Coury coming north until the mid-60s. Coury founded a vineyard in Forest Grove, and Lett founded The Eyrie Vineyard in Dundee, both sometime in 1965, though it is debated which of the two planted first. DeMara said when he made his case to the House of Representatives, he brought with him Sommer's planting map from 1961, a bottle of HillCrest's 1967 pinot noir and two books documenting Sommer as the first pinot planter. The Original resolution called Sommer "the father of the Oregon wine industry" and the "first wine pioneer to come to coastal Oregon from California." To get a unanimous vote, however, it was revised to ay Sommer "was the first post-Prohibition wine pioneer to come to Oregon from California." His title of the industry's "father" was taken out altogether. DeMara said he would have liked the line to stay, but not risked having the resolution tabled until next year. "All of the other accomplishments mentioned in the resolution are just a long form of saying he's the father of the Oregon wine industry," DeMara said. DeMara said getting the resolution signed helps pay tribute to Sommer and recognizes the Umpqua Valley as an innovative wine region. "I came here to be a part of a legacy, and this is a major step toward that," he said. In an email to The News-Review, House Co-Speaker Bruce Hanna, R. Winchester, agreed with DeMara, saying the resolution is about recognizing the roots and economic impact of a thriving industry in a struggling rural area. "This measure not only honors Richard Sommer's pioneering work to grow fine wine grapes in the Umpqua Valley, it pays hommage to all of the wineries that now grow and produce world-class wines in the Umpqua and throughout Oregon," he said. Photo by Michael Sullivan/The News Review. Article Written by Anne Creighton/The News Review 2011