NEWS / FEATURES

#2 Story: In Memoriam to four men who made a difference

In Memory Of:
Richard Sommer
Cal Knudsen
Gary Andrus
Arnold Kohnert

 

Richard Sommer - Father of Oregon’s fine wine industry dies at age 79

By Cara Pallone
First Published in September 2009

Like the old winemaker’s vines, stories about Richard Sommer are rooted in time—a source of laughter and conversation as his friends reminisce for years to come.

They’ll remember his signature suspenders and berets. They’ll toast glasses of sweet Riesling or a mellow red and talk about his unruly locks or his fresh, homemade bread.

Someone might mention Sommer’s likeliness to nap in his vineyard rows, curled up like a wild cat and tucked away beneath the vines, to doze into the afternoon.

Mostly, however, they’ll talk about his love of nature—exclusively and extensively—and how he never held back.

Although winegrapes were introduced on the Oregon Trail and berry wines have been a fruitful state staple for more than a century, Sommer pioneered Oregon’s vinifera industry. Vinifera refers to a common European grape, the chief source of Old World wine and table grape varieties. Sommer introduced the European style grapes to Umpqua Valley soil in 1961.

When he predicted in the ’50s that he would grow fine winegrapes in Oregon, his professors told him it would be a waste of time.

Sommer laughed it off and moved to Roseburg anyway. In 1961, he was experimenting with varieties of grapes—mainly Riesling and Pinot Noir—and planted the first post-Prohibition vinifera on an old turkey farm west of town.

By 1963 Sommer produced 200 gallons of wine, and by 1966 he was in full production, making 6,000 gallons on 10 acres, using the first stainless steel tanks for the task. His mellow red made a splash and he sold it in bulk.

It wasn’t until Sommer established HillCrest Vineyard that the seeds of the modern Oregon wine industry were sown.

Today, HillCrest Vineyard is the state’s oldest continuously running vinifera winery. Sommer, its beloved founder, died July 28 of cancer. He was just shy of 80 years old.

“He opened the door in terms of producing varietal wines and producing fine wines and proving you could do it,” said Dyson DeMara, who purchased HillCrest Vineyard in 2003.

DeMara and his wife, Susan, are reminded of the winemaker every day as they look out on their 50-acre vineyard, where 13 acres of old-vine are remnants of Sommer’s vision.

A Brilliant Mind

Sommer’s love for nature and its bounty was instilled in him at an early age. He was born Aug. 17, 1929, in San Francisco to Hermann and Elizabeth Sommer, a chemist and a microbiologist/nutrition specialist, respectively.

Sommer’s older sister and Ashland resident, Susanne Krieg, said during a recent phone interview that their childhood was enchanting.

“We had such a happy upbringing with camping and outdoor things from the time we were little kids,” she said. “(Our parents) were devoted to us and to nature, and he got a lot of his early appreciation and love of nature from our parents.”

Sommer graduated from high school in 1947, attended the University of California, Davis in 1948, majoring in horticulture and earning his degree four years later. Upon graduation, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and was deployed to Korea.

His father died in 1950, and Sommer later moved back to California, where he lived with his mom. He took biology and forest ecology courses at the University of California, Berkeley.

In the late ’50s, after his mother had moved back to her hometown of Ashland, Sommer also decided to head north. He declared he would grow grapes in the gentle Roseburg climate, his sister said, where he would be closer to his mother who was very supportive of him. He never married or had children.

“He was always trying something new, something innovative,” Krieg said. “He had a brilliant mind, but it wasn’t always logical or mainstream, I’d say.”

A Promising Wine

Philippe Girardet was on vacation in Oregon in the ’60s when he met Sommer. He saw a sign that read HillCrest Vineyard and followed it. The men talked; they tasted; they shared their love of wine.

“I tasted his wine and his wine was promising,” Girardet said.

It was that contact that played a part in Girardet’s decision to move to Roseburg in 1970 and to buy his own plot of land. He planted his first grapes in 1971. The Swiss native said Sommer was always ready to lend a hand and he even worked at Sommer’s winery for a while.

Sommer’s HillCrest neighbor and vineyard owner, Ray Jensen, shared a similar experience. He and Sommer grew close the past seven years. The two would cross-country ski together, hike, and Sommer would talk about native plants.

“He helped me get started, he taught me a lot of things,” Jensen said. “Anybody that had a vineyard, he would gladly go help them. He would devote more time to them than to himself. He just helped everybody.”

After he left the wine business, Sommer had more time to devote to the environment. He belonged to a plethora of clubs and organizations, from the Umpqua Valley Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Oregon and the Umpqua Wilderness Defenders to the Edelweiss Ski Club and Umpqua Watersheds, to name a few.

He earned awards for his dedication, including the Umpqua Watersheds Lifetime Conservation Award in 2006.

In phone calls to some of his closest friends, Sommer’s identity was unveiled with a rainbow of phrases and adjectives as each person mentioned his or her own unique way of remembering the man.

He was poetic, artistic, humorous, an independent thinker. He was erratic, stubborn and quirky. He knew it and he didn’t care. He was a visionary. He was a pioneer.

“He didn’t come with a million dollars and that’s what he always said, ‘To have a winery you need a million dollars,’ and he didn’t have that,” Krieg said. “He had nothing, and that’s what makes his a tremendous success story. He was the only act in town.” ◊

Cara Pallone is a reporter for The News-Review in Roseburg. Story courtesy of The News-Review.

 


 

Cal Knudsen - Willamette Valley wine pioneer dies at age 85

By Karl Klooster
First Published in the June 2009 Edition

Renaissance man” would have been a suitable sobriquet for C. Calvert “Cal” Knudsen, who succumbed to cancer April 24 at his Palm Springs home at the age of 85.

He could also have been called “lucky,” because the fates favored him at certain pivotal points in his life, when things might easily have gone the other way.

Take World War II, for example.

A sophomore at the University of Washington when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Knudsen promptly enlisted. He seemed a good officer candidate until he flunked the vision test. Though he wore a uniform for the duration of the war, all his time was spent stateside.

He went on to finish his undergraduate studies at U of W in 1948, earned his law degree there two years later, and enrolled in post-graduate studies at Columbia University. He called that time “the most intellectually stimulating of my life.”

After returning from New York, he joined the prominent Seattle law firm of Bogle & Gates and worked there for a decade, from 1951 to 1961, becoming a partner before going into timber industry management.

He moved into top executive positions with Aberdeen Plywood, which merged with Evans Products in 1963, where he became president just a year later.

His next move came in 1969, when he went to the Weyerhauser Company, headquartered in his hometown of Tacoma. All this happened during a period when the Pacific Northwest wood products industry was booming.

In 1976, he was tapped for the top spot at Canadian forest giant MacMillan Bloedel in Vancouver, B.C. He retired from active management as CEO in 1983, then served as vice chairman until 1990.

A good luck story Knudsen loved to tell involved the purchase of another lumber company during his tenure as a senior vice president at Weyerhauser.

He closed the deal with a $3 million check he wasn’t authorized to issue, knowing there wasn’t enough in the account to cover it at the time. An anticipated wire transfer went through before anyone was the wiser, but if things had gone awry, it would have meant the loss of his job and likely the end of his career.

He often said it was better to be lucky than smart. But in the big picture, his success was more likely attributable to the old saying about making your own luck.

He got in on the ground floor of Oregon’s wine industry just that way, by making his own luck. A devoted wine buff since traveling through the wine regions of France in the mid-1950s, he made a calculated gamble on unproven ground.

The year was ’71, and only the earliest of Northwestern Oregon’s wine pioneers—Coury, Lett, Erath, Ponzi, Adelsheim, Sokol Blosser—were then on the scene.

Though seldom mentioned, Knudsen deserves to be counted among their number.

Following a false start with a property owner who adamantly opposed alcohol, he was able to purchase 200 acres in the heart of the Dundee Hills. He went on to establish what remains today one of the largest—120 acres—and most prestigious vineyards in that esteemed Oregon AVA.

In 1975, he became a partner in Dick Erath’s winery and the name was changed to Knudsen-Erath. Their partnership continued into the late 1980s, when Erath bought out Knudsen’s interest.

Not content with simply owning a vineyard, in 1990 Knudsen and a group of investors bought an ownership interest in Dundee Wine Company, which had been founded three years earlier by Australian wine entrepreneur Brian Croser.

The company’s Argyle brand has since risen to national prominence as Oregon’s largest producer of sparkling wines, using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes from Knudsen Vineyards. Argyle rivals the finest French Champagnes, but with a considerably more palatable price tag.

According to those who knew him well, Cal Knudsen was an ever-optimistic man of many interests—a man who thoroughly enjoyed himself in whatever he did, both personally and professionally. That’s probably because, along with an obvious knack for good luck, whether self-made or serendipitous, he chose exciting challenges.

 


 

Gary Andrus - Enterprising winery owner raised the Pinot Noir bar

By Karl Klooster
First Published in the March 2009 Edition

Gary Andrus, owner of Gypsy Dancer, died Jan. 30, from complications of pneumonia. He was 63.

Personal passions marked Andrus’ life.

He will be most remembered as a man whose passion for Oregon Pinot Noir elevated it to another level. But he also made the U.S. Olympic team as a downhill skier, and he loved fly-fishing for trout, the most cerebrally challenging contest of man versus fish ever contrived.

It’s quite an accomplishment to have made outstanding wine in even one distinct growing region, much less in three. But Andrus’ 30-year career led him to success in California and New Zealand as well as Oregon.

In 1978, he founded Pine Ridge Winery in California’s Napa Valley. He named it after a noted ski area.

He jumped on the California wine bandwagon just as it was beginning to gather speed. And he rode it for all it was worth.

Constructed on a sloping site near Yountville, in the Stag’s Leap AVA at the southern end of California’s most prestigious winegrowing valley, Pine Ridge was ideally situated to take advantage of skyrocketing tourism.

Andrus acquired sites well suited for Cabernet Sauvignon and placed primary emphasis on that variety. He made AVA-designated wines that consistently earned acclaim.

By the time he sold the winery in 2001, its estate vineyards had come to exceed 220 acres. They featured plantings in the majority of the valley’s major sub-appellations—Oakville, Rutherford, Stag’s Leap, Carneros and Howell Mountain.

In the interim, Andrus brought his entrepreneurial bent to the Yamhill Valley. Focusing on the already storied Dundee Hills, he and his then-wife, Nancy, bought a prime piece of hillside land east of Breyman Orchards Road to establish a winery.

The fact that both Domaine Drouhin Oregon and Domaine Serene had chosen to make impressive investments in the same area just a few years earlier obviously didn’t escape their attention.

Andrus introduced innovative vineyard practices that brought earlier ripening. He is credited with leading the way in the development of a new approach and style that now dominates the industry.

Within four years, the winery, which they named Archery Summit for a nearby promontory, was asking and getting a previously unheard of $60 per bottle. Other Oregon producers were selling premium Pinots for less than half that.

In doing so, this bold newcomer set a new industry standard. The unmistakable message was: If you’ve got something on par with the very best anywhere, don’t be shy about backing that up in your marketplace positioning.

It was a calculated gamble, but it paid off.

More established players, confident their best wines were every bit as good, ultimately followed suit. In the end, even at a higher cost per bottle, these individual vineyard and reserve cuvée wines were still considerably less expensive than the renowned Burgundian Pinots to which they were continually being compared.

Andrus found it necessary to relinquish ownership of Archery Summit and Pine Ridge in 2001, owing to a divorce. But Archery Summit has continued to hold its status as one of Oregon’s finest Pinot Noir producers.

Archery Summit’s estate Pinot Noirs enjoy the admirable position of being on allocation. Members of the “A-List”—the winery’s direct sales club—get the first opportunity to purchase new releases. The remainder goes to a select group of retailers and restaurants across the country.

Andrus re-entered the industry in 2002 with the purchase of Intel engineer David Leventhal’s Lion Valley Vineyard, located on the slopes of the Chehalem Range southwest of Hillsboro. He and his second wife, Christine, renamed it Gypsy Dancer.

Leventhal, an inveterate Burgundy buff, planted his vineyards at 4,000 vines per acre, a density unsurpassed in Oregon. In fact, it is almost exclusively seen in the Côte d’Or.

Given the running start of an existing facility, Gypsy Dancer’s first releases of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris were both of the 2002 vintage. And both garnered good reviews. Accolades for its 2003 Pinot Noirs, made from estate and Stoller Vineyards fruit, were even better.

The emergence of New Zealand as one of the few places on earth where the conditions were just right to grow great Pinot Noir grapes caught Andrus’ attention later in 2002.

Central Otago is a wine district situated at the southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. It is the only landmass in the Southern Hemisphere crossed by the 45th parallel—the touchstone latitude for Burgundy lovers.

This posed a challenge that Andrus couldn’t resist.

New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blancs had already been embraced as the latest darlings of the wine world, and the island nation’s Pinots were rapidly rising in reputation. So he bought 42 acres in Central Otago’s Gibbston Valley and dubbed it Gypsy Dancer Christine Lorrane Cellars.

Results were good in 2003. But the next two years proved near disasters.

The young vines were hit with severe frost damage in 2004 and chilling rains just as the buds were about to flower in 2005. So they yielded only a few hundred cases.

Though 2006 brought favorable growing conditions, boosting production to 6,000 cases, the business couldn’t sustain its heavy debt load. Andrus had to sell out and focus his efforts entirely on Oregon.

Along the way, he mentored appreciative protégés, including Josh Bergström, whose own Pinots are now counted among Oregon’s finest. But over the past year or so, ill health limited his activities.

The Andrus wine legacy is carried forward by a daughter, Danielle Andrus Montalieu, and her husband, Laurent Montalieu. They own Soléna Cellars and co-own the NW Wine Company, the NW Wine Bar and Hyland Vineyards.

 


 

Arnold Kohnert - “Mr. Pompadour” leaves legacy, legion of friends

By Gregory Jones
First Published in July 2009

In April, the Rogue Valley and Oregon wine community lost one of its pioneers and staunchest supporters in Arnold Kohnert. Known affectionately as “Mr. Pompadour,” Kohnert’s signature statement could be heard on his answering machine: “This is Pompadour Vineyard, home of the best Bordeaux grapes in the Valley.”

Kohnert’s distinguished career stretched from the beaches of Normandy in WWII, to the profession of engineer, building commercial buildings in California, to Pompadour Vineyard, which he and his wife, Mary, tended for more than 20 years.

The Kohnerts bought their property northeast of Ashland in the mid-1970s, moving there in the early 1980s. They planted orchard fruits, a garden and, with the help of their son, Rodger—he grows grapes at Mary’s Peak Vineyard in the Willamette Valley—they planted nearly six acres of winegrapes in 1983. The plantings originally consisted of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Semillon and a small amount of Riesling and Nebbiolo.

Always aware of what flourished at his site, Kohnert adjusted varieties and clones over the years, notably replacing the Riesling early on, replacing Malbec Clone 4 with Clone 9 for more consistent fruit quality, and even replacing his Semillon with Viognier over the last two vintages while in his late 80s.

Kohnert was helpful to everyone interested in growing winegrapes, including providing this writer with a tremendous amount of insight and information when I first came to the region, helping me better understand how to best serve the industry. He kept meticulous records of his vineyard and its climate and shared those with me over the years. Mary and his children continued this by providing information to share with the winegrape community regarding his experiences—Arnold would be proud of this.

Almost from day one, John Weisinger, of Weisinger’s of Ashland Winery, worked with Kohnert and his grapes. Weisinger wrote upon hearing of Kohnert’s passing, “To say that it has been a pleasure to work with Arnold is a gross understatement. He has mentored me, my son, Eric, and has been there to help our winery many times.”

In a note to Weisinger’s customers, many of whom tasted the fruits of Kohnert’s vineyard, Weisinger wrote “Around Weisinger’s, we will miss his firm handshake, the humorous stories, his consistent support and his undying belief that Southern Oregon is one of the greatest wine growing regions of the country.”

Eric Weisinger wrote to me from New Zealand, saying that, “Arnold’s enthusiasm for his vineyard was infectious, and I looked forward every year to working with him. The first time I blended the Petite Pompadour [all from Kohnert’s fruit] was the 1997 vintage. I remember tasting it with Arnold before its release and the sense of pride he seemed to have knowing that the fruits of his and Mary’s labor had become what was now in his glass.

“Arnold was my friend, a mentor, at times my critic and always my council. Most of all, he was part of my extended family. Our once-a-month lunches were a time for us to catch up. Never were they without wine, a little philosophy, humor and sage advice. Our last vintage together was in 2006, but the memories of Arnold and his stories will live through every new vintage… For that, I have a rich sense of gratitude and for Arnold, eternal respect.”

Randy Gold, longtime friend of the Kohnerts and an admitted wine “greenhorn,” visited Kohnert in 1984; Kohnert was “literally up to his elbows in apricots, which he was processing that day. But he took time out to expound on the virtues of Teleki 5C, his favorite rootstock.”

When Gold first considered planting Malbec, “a variety I knew little about,” in the early 1990s, he visited the Kohnerts to learn more. He warned Gold that it was a difficult variety to grow, and he was right!

“We often joked in the following years about being the kings of Malbec in Oregon, as there was very little planted at the time,” noted Gold. “We also exchanged hints on how best to grow this finicky variety, and it only served to strengthen our connection.

“In the last few years of his life, Arnold and Mary decided to back off of some of the labor in the vineyard, and I was honored to be able to help them farm their place with the help of my crew. It took a season, but I think by the end, Arnold did trust me to do right by his babies.

“I will truly miss this pioneer of Southern Oregon viticulture.” ◊

Greg Jones is a professor and research climatologist in the Geography Department at Southern Oregon University.

Web Design & Web Development by LVSYS