The Golden Anniversary of Oregon Pinot Noir

by MJ Daspit, Wine Scene Magazine

This year marks the 50th-anniversary of the first commercially-released vintage of Pinot Noir in Oregon. Only 200 cases were made in the Umpqua Valley’s Richard Sommer from his HillCrest estate grapes harvested in 1967. Of those 200 cases, only one case remains, carefully preserved by present HillCrest owners Dyson and Susan DeMara.

As officially commemorated by Oregon House Resolution 4-A in 2011, Sommer was the first to plant Pinot Noir in Oregon in 1961. DeMara, who acquired HillCrest from Sommer in 2003, explains that Sommer propagated cuttings obtained in 1959 from Louis Martini’s famous Stanley Ranch, previously known as Talcoa Vineyard, the first vineyard planted in Napa Valley. Two years later, after the vines had rooted, Sommer transplanted them to establish his vineyard. The House Resolution goes on to credit Sommer with being the first in Oregon to use stainless steel tanks for fermentation, an innovation he introduced in 1963, and the first to bottle a commercial Pinot Noir in 1967.

What do we know about the quality of Sommer’s 1967 Pinot Noir? The fruit was not of a specific clone. Clone notation was not in use at that time; rather, different strains of fruit were distinguished by “selection,” a term used to denote plant material sourced from random vines of a great vineyard. “It’s like a bouquet of different flowers versus a single flower,” DeMara explains. Sommer’s fruit was of Stanley Ranch’s highly-prized “Martini” selection.

DeMara relates a story told by the founder of the legendary Oregon wine distributor, Henny-Hinsdale, who dropped into the HillCrest tasting room over Thanksgiving weekend, 2016. “This man is about 75-years-old. He and his wife walk into the tasting room and he says, I’m Mr. Hinsdale. I said, Oh my God, of Henny-Hinsdale? You’re a legend! Hinsdale was the distributor for Sommer, David Lett and Charles Coury as well as for the French house Domaine Drouhin, a prominent Burgundy producer. Hinsdale asked Robert Drouhin if he’d be willing to do a tasting of some new Oregon wines that he repped. So in 1970, Hinsdale had a tasting at his house and all those gentlemen were there. Drouhin said the ’67 Pinot he tasted from HillCrest was the first American Pinot Noir that tasted like Burgundy to him. He said the wine tasted like Monthelie and that’s what made him decide to come to Oregon over California.” Domaine Drouhin Oregon was indeed established in the Dundee Hills in 1987.

DeMara remembers his own first encounter with Sommer’s 1967 Pinot. He came across some bottles a few years back when cleaning-out an old egg barn. Sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck to taste the wine, DeMara was amazed that it was still very drinkable, still showing some fruit.

So how will HillCrest Pinot Noir show at 50? DeMara plans to open a bottle with a few invited guests this fall at the start of harvest at HillCrest. “I’d like to keep as much of the ’67 vintage as I can for the future. But having said that, I’d also like to commemorate the significance of what Richard Sommer did for Oregon and American wine. We’ll christen the harvest and then have a very special dinner.”

To mark this special anniversary year, the 2017 HillCrest Pinot Noir will have the original label that Sommer’s pioneering 1967 Pinot Noir wore. A charity auction of one of the famous 1967 bottles is also in the works. How much will a connoisseur pay to add such a unique bottle to his collection? That remains to be seen.  As Dyson says, “It’s an amazing thing today to have one of only 12 bottles of the first Oregon Pinot Noir ever commercially produced in Oregon.”