Richard Sommer Passes Away

September 2009

By Cara Pallone

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 he 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.

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