HillCrest Hones the Cutting Edge

"New owners blend tradition with innovation at Oregon's oldest winery."

Dyson and Susan Demara have been a couple with wine on their mind for some time.  Their grape-laden journey began in Northern California where they owned a 16-acre vineyard in the Napa Valley for seven years.

Dyson cut his winemaking teeth with the famed Robert Mondavi Winery and Pine Ridge, (then run by Gary Andrus, who also founded Archery Summit, and now owns Gypsy Dancer).  He also went to Europe and studies at Austria’s famed wine school, Kloster Neuberg.

Susan trained as a chef with the Western Culinary Institute, which brought the DeMara’s full circle in their love of wine and its best and highest use – as an accompaniment to good food.

But the urge to make their own hand-crafted wines led them to pull up stakes and leave the Golden State for the more intimate wine world of southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley.  Several varieties that interested them were already being grown there.

In July 2003, the DeMaras bought HillCrest Vineyard, the oldest of Oregon’s modern-era wineries.  Dyson is already proving a worthy successor to trailblazing pioneer Richard Sommer who founded HillCrest either in 1959, 1960, 1961, 1963 or 1965, depending on the source of information.

Since taking over HillCrest, DeMara has set people back on their heels with the distinctive style and character of his wines.  Bold, forward and overflowing with varietal flavors, they make the statement that this self-assured young winemaker is every bit as innovative as Sommer was in pursuing a course that will set him apart.

"Our philosophy is old world in the vineyard and in the winery," he said. "The vines are dry farmed, low yield and all organic.   We're as hands-off as possible in the winery.  Gravity flow, no filtering.  We manually press everything by taste.  I want the wines to develop their own unique personality." 

Though winemaking is his turf, DeMara is the first to say that the new HillCrest is a famliy affair.  His wife and their children-Hanna, 12, Parker, 10 and Tucker, 8-all help out.  They graft, plant and pick.  They work the sorting line, rack, pump over and bottle the wine.  

To get the kids to buy in, he rewards them with twice a year trips.  "When we took them to Disney World, we all enjoyed it." DeMara said. "Then Susan and I treated ourselves by going to dinner at Bern's Steak House in Tampa.  They have a 1.1 million-bottle wine cellar."

As a founding member of Oregon Artisan Family Wineries, the DeMaras are totally committed to making HillCrest a showcase of the smaller is better approach. It's also an intensely personal one.

Every new wine is like a new baby.  The current HillCrest offspring are Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, Riesling, including a Riesling ice wine, Viognier and Valdiguie.  Valdi...what?

For years the so-called Napa Gamay grape was thought to be Gamay Beaujolais or Gamay Noir from France's Beaujolais region.  That is until DNA plant testing came along.

As with humans, every plant has a unique organic signature and, once the grape was subjected to laboratory analysis, it proved to be an exact match for Valdiguie (val-deeg), a varietal originating in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France.

Although it does yeild light, fresh, fruity wines similar to Beaujolais, Valdiguie stands on its own and DeMara plans to make it more than a mere curiosity.  "It's prolific and mildew resistant," he said. "So there's an opportunity to make a delightful wine that can be enjoyed young."

As of April of this year, producers are no longer allowed to label the wine as Napa Gamay.  Instead, they must call it Valdiguie.  Though the name is totally unfamiliar to all, but the most well-informed wine folks, DeMara considers that an advantage.

"People are naturally curious.  They're going to ask, 'What's that?' Then, we'll give them a taste and take it from there."

Less fuss.  Fewer Problems.  Happy consumers.  Quick cash flow.  Sounds like a wine marketing dream come true. Now if he only had more of it.  But quantity is not a priority at HillCrest.  Total production for 2006 will be 1,400 cases.  The current plan calls for topping out around 2,000 cases annually, much of which will come from those old, dry-farmed vines planted by Richard Sommer.

"I love to work with different wines," DeMara conceded.  "In addition to what we're now making, we're also going to have Grenache and Malbec.  Then there's the six acres of old vine Valdiguie.  I'm pretty sure Richard got the cuttings from Louis Martini in the Napa Valley."

"Oh, and I almost forgot about Teroldego," he said. "We have some of that too.  It's a red variety from Trentino-Alto Adige."

Though not one of the more well-known Italian grape varieties, to be sure, Teroldego has its admirers.  With juicy-berry flavors and a distinctive spiciness; some liken it to Zinfandel.  But crisp acidity differentiates this Tyrolian red-called Teroldego Rotaliano-from its California cousin, lending it a very food-friendly profile.

Looking at the overall picture of the new HillCrest, there can be little argument that DeMara, like his predecessor, marches to his own, very individualistic beat.  As for that lingering question of the winery's year of origin, in an interview, Sommer said that he came to the Umpqua Valley in 1957 after graduating from U.C. Davis.

It wasn't long before he ran across a tiny vineyard planted primarily to Zinfandel.  As it turned out, this half-acre plot of ancient vines belonged to the Doerner family, whose Oregon wine lineage can be traced back three generations.

The family patriarch, Adam Doerner, was a German immigrant who moved up from California in the 1890s.  Following the lead of fellow Germans Edward and John van Pessl, who were the first to introduce vinifera vines in the area, he too planted cuttings, which he had acquired from the Beringer brothers of Napa Valley fame.

All this confirmed Sommer's belief that warmer-climate varietals could be successfully grown in Southern Oregon.

He made a little wine from Doerner vineyard grapes following one vintage.  He couldn't recall if it was 1957 or 1958.  HillCrest Vineyard became bonded winery No. 44 in 1961 and he made his first wine under that name in 1963.  Sommer may have come to souther Oregon in the late 1950s, but, despite the persistent publication of differing dates, 1961 and '63 are the actual milestone years.  Whoever conjured up 1965 must have been thinking of David Lett.  

- By Karl Klooster, Oregon Wine Press | May 2007