Wine Through an Oregon Lens

A snapshot of the humble beginnings of the historic Hillcrest Winery.
© Hillcrest Winery | A snapshot of the humble beginnings of the historic Hillcrest Winery.
A well-traveled producer is bringing an international flair to a southern Oregon estate.
By Liza B. Zimmerman | Posted Sunday, 01-Nov-2020

Born and raised Mormon, Dyson DeMara certainly didn't expect to go into the wine business. However, back in 1982, the surprise delivery of a 1979 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon – a gift from his mother in law – changed all that. For him, since then, there has been no looking back.

He also didn't expect to end up working in the Napa Valley four decades ago. "When you said Napa Valley in 1982 everyone thought mental hospital," he notes of the Napa State hospital facility, opened in 1875, which he bets will someday become a resort with well-heeled paying customers.

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He gave up pursuing a degree in finance at Berkeley in 1984 to take a plum job with Pine Ridge. The winery was founded in 1978 by Gary Andrus and Pine Ridge's parent company which owns a number of Napa Valley vineyards as well as having sibling properties in Santa Barbara; the Willamette Valley; and Walla Walla, Washington, among other places.

DeMara had had the chance to work harvests all over the world with Andrus, as well as during his time at Mondavi from 1992 to 2003. "Everyone I worked with had tentacles in Europe," he said relative to his good fortune to have traveled to all these countries and wine-producing regions. He used his hiatus between Pine Ridge and Mondavi in the late 1980s to finish up his degree at Berkeley.

After drinking a 1979 Faiveley Mazis-Chambertin – with a mushroom and venison steak from a deer that he had just freshly killed – he was sold on the idea of producing Pinot Noir. Being a so-called "dirt guy", he was attracted to Oregon's southern Umpqua Valley. He says that this region has, "the most complex soil matrix of any wine region in America and maybe the world. Napa is unusual at 32 and Douglas County in the Umpqua is comprised of 150 different soil types."

When Richard Sommer – a University of Davis graduate who planted the first Pinot Noir in the state of Oregon in 1961 at the Hillcrest Estate – could no longer run the estate, the DeMaras were lucky enough to purchase it in 2003 and they felt like they were buying a piece of history. When Sommer had Hillcrest bonded, it became Oregon's first Vitis vinifera-producing winery.

Historic beginnings

DeMara has reveled in the luck of his historic purchase and has delighted in telling the Hillcrest story and has said that being a part of this legacy "sends shivers up my spine". In terms of first winemakers bringing Pinot Noir to Oregon, Sommer was followed by two men. Charles Coury moved to Oregon in 1965, convinced of Pinot Noir's potential. He was a meteorologist who strove to match the grape variety to the climate. He also operated a nursery and the "Coury clone" is still planted today. In 1978, he jumped ship, moved to California and founded a brewery. The other founding father of Pinot Noir in Oregon, David Lett, often called "Papa Pinot", was another University of Davis graduate who brought Pinot Noir cuttings from California – also in 1965 – and planted them in the northern Willamette Valley.

When Sommer ran the estate, Pinot Noir was, and still is, the dominant variety in southern Oregon and it remains the number one variety for Hillcrest. DeMara estimates that Pinot Noir accounts for roughly 60 percent of the Umpqua's acreage; a number that Steve Renquist at Oregon State University has recently confirmed as a fairly solid estimate.

DeMara's love of the style of Pinot Noir made in the Umpqua stems from his belief that it is the "middle ground between the northern Willamette Valley and California's Russian River." He adds that Pinot Noir from the region embodies the "Russian River with the elegant perfume of Oregon".

For Dyson DeMara, purchasing Hillcrest was a proud moment.
© Jak Wonderly | For Dyson DeMara, purchasing Hillcrest was a proud moment.

A launching pad

When DeMara bought the Hillcrest estate in 2003, one might have thought he was going to shift his focus to producing only Oregon wines. However, his corporate decades spent making wine everywhere from Patagonia to Priorat, left him still intensely invested in many of the world's other vineyards. During his time at Mondavi he had also worked with the Frescobaldi family on the Luce and Lucente wine launch as well as with the Chadwick family in Chile and Trapiche in Argentina.

Over his career, he has taught wine classes in 17 countries and was one of the first Westerners to step up to the podium at the University of Beijing Agricultural School and Mondavi's marketing team in Asia also invited him to various Asian speaking and educational gigs. Most of them were multi-day trade seminars and all of them gave him a perspective on wine production in different countries.

So, in addition to producing Pinot Noir, Syrah and Bordeaux varietals – among others – on the Hillcrest estate, he is still making wine in half a dozen other countries and importing them directly for his wine club members.

He decided to start producing wine in Europe when he was shocked that his customers came in and said that they didn't like or understand European wines. So he decided that he could be the one to supply them with Old World gems that suited their palate, rather than having them order them from some fancy wine store in neighboring Portland or Seattle.

Making wines through what he calls "an Oregon lens", has allowed him to keep up with his international travels. He considers himself a "product of his environment and, as a result, has a Pacific Northwest palate". These ventures have also allowed him "to see friends as well as to really immerse himself in other regions and ways of winemaking: many of which are unknown in the New World". Two of his children have worked in the Mosel in Germany and his daughter spent a number of years at wineries in Northern Italy.

A simple formula

DeMara currently makes wine in three countries: Germany, Spain and France. He recently stopped producing wines in Italy and Austria, as he found the most recent vintages of Austrian Zweigelt to be inconsistent, and found Sicily to be an economically challenging place from which to ship small quantities of wine. He currently harbors a serious desire to produce unusual yet traditional varieties, such as Schioppettino, out of the northwestern Italian region of Friuli.

Both the Oregon and international wines are only available for sale direct-to-consumer at the winery. Not fond of bells and whistles, he simply sells them all at bottle prices varying from $28 to $45, as he only produces 2000 cases of Oregon wines and 100 to 200 cases each of the imports. Wines are shipped to members five times a year.

Because of Covid, he hasn't been able to get to Europe for the harvests, but has confidence in his partners who are helping him make the wines. He tries to integrate flavors he likes into the international wines, giving them what he calls "an Oregon accent". He adds that he tends to make "wines that are fresher with more acid and more softness in the wood influences". Sometimes, in regions like Spain's Priorat area, he also reduces the final alcohol levels.

"Drinking 100-point wines is a lot like drinking Scotch: it is hard to finish a bottle," he notes about overly oaky, high-alcohol wines. However, many consumers, just like himself, fell hard for their first over-extracted bottle of Silver Oak.

He adds that "all great wines are perfectly flawed". So, he says it is a pity that every wine that some noted flying winemakers make "tastes the same". So, for him, "unadulterated wines speak the truth" (notwithstanding that occasional alcohol-reduction in Priorat).

Bottom line, he notes, is that "if you drink enough you want to be able to drink a whole bottle". Which, sadly, he adds is not easy to do with Silver Oak. He adds that, ironically, magazines such as the Wine Advocate and Wine Enthusiast are likely to have problems, as the palate of a wine expert is diametrically "the opposite of that of the consumer".

Unobtrusive winemaking, for DeMara, "allows the great 'gardens' of the world to speak". One can only hope the locals continue to like what they say.

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