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In 1961, Richard Sommer, an agriculture student at the University of California, Davis, took a leap of faith.
His professors told him Oregon would never be good wine country. Sommer ignored them. After scouring Southern Oregon for a suitable site, he chose a Melrose farm where he planted 13 acres in the era’s most popular wine grapes — Riesling and pinot noir.
About a year from now, the state agency Oregon Travel Experience will erect a marker at the edge of the HillCrest Vineyard on Elgarose Road, acknowledging it as Oregon’s oldest estate winery and its founder as the first to grow pinot noir grapes in Oregon.
Charles Humble, spokesman for the Oregon Wine Board, a state agency that markets Oregon wineries, said Sommer’s decision to plant in Oregon played an important role in creating what is today a $3 billion business in Oregon.
“He gets credit for being the godfather of a pretty significant industry in Oregon,” Humble said. “Oregon owes a lot to Richard Sommer and his pioneer spirit.”
Present-day HillCrest owner Dyson DeMara acquired the vineyard in 2003, six years before Sommer died.
He recalls him as a bit eccentric, a tinkerer and a quiet man, who lived alone and had never had children.
DeMara’s certainty that Sommer was the first to plant pinot noir grapes in Oregon led him to seek recognition for the winery’s founder after the city of Forest Grove advertised itself in 2011 as, “Forest Grove: Where Oregon pinot was born.”
DeMara worked with the wine board and Linfield College to research the issue. He also persuaded the state House to pass a resolution honoring Sommer as the first pinot noir planter.
Researchers concluded that Sommer planted his first vines at HillCrest four years before fellow Californians David Lett and Charles Coury planted vineyards in Corvallis and Forest Grove, respectively.
DeMara still has a map Sommer drew in 1962 showing his plan for the vineyard and a few bottles of 1967 pinot noir bottled after the first vines began to produce.
At its height, the vineyard had 50 planted acres. Today it has 21.
Most of Oregon’s pinot noir is produced in the Willamette Valley, but DeMara said the Umpqua Valley wineries benefit from mountains and hills that have deposited layers of soil on the valley floor.
“All of that gives you different soils, which gives you the taste of the grapes,” he said. The county boasts about 150 soil types.
DeMara said Sommer’s selection of a site with excellent soils lent the grapes a flavor that needs no enhancement. While many wine manufacturers use additives, DeMara prefers to keep things natural. It is the nature — both climate and soil — of the Umpqua Valley that gives the wine its taste, he said.
“The great food products are really simple and wine is the same way,” he said.
DeMara said he believes wineries like HillCrest can help spur tourism and bring money to the Umpqua Valley.
While high-priced wines suffered when the economy dipped in 2008, the $25 to $30 a bottle wines like those produced in Oregon continued to sell well, DeMara said.
“These wines have never lost their momentum,” he said.
DeMara said the historical marker is a fitting tribute to Sommer’s place in Oregon history. He said he was thrilled to find out Sommer’s contribution would be recognized.
“I was on a high. To me it’s all about doing the right thing for Richard and his family and that’s a good feeling,” he said.
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