Queens of the Umpqua

Sue Brandborg, Hilda Jones, Susan DeMara and Sandy Glaser gather at Umpqua Community College’s Southern Oregon Wine Institue’s Danny Lang Center in Roseburg. SOWI is a wonderful resource for new and established winemakers, and has a number of female students enrolled in the two-year program.

Story by Nancy Rodriguez | Photography by Gary Leif

This is the land of “A Hundred Valleys.” It’s also the land of numerous wineries and wine varieties, too. The Umpqua Valley is the oldest wine-producing region in Oregon, crafting quality wines for more than 50 years. Now with the birth of the Southern Oregon Wine Institute in Roseburg, there’s a higher level of sophistication in this appellation. Add to that the increase in women winemakers and growers, and Oregon has a story in the making. 

HillCrest Winery & Distillery 

At the helm of the area’s flagship winery, HillCrest, Susan and Dyson DeMara continue to build on the tradition started by Richard Sommer in 1961. After working and teaching in the industry on three continents and 17 countries, the couple put down their roots in the Umpqua by acquiring Oregon’s oldest estate winery in 2003. 

As I drive along the road leading up to HillCrest, a circle of carved Native American heads surrounding a fire pit comes into view, invoking a sense that I’m on sacred ground. For Susan, this hallowed place is her stomping ground. It’s also where she blends family — children include Hanna, Parker and Tucker — and winemaking, in hopes of ensuring the winery’s continuing success and legacy as well. 

The DeMaras reflect Sommer’s philosophy by producing wines reflecting a sense of place or what the French call “terroir.” While growing their own Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay, Susan and Dyson insist on natural methods and low yields, giving HillCrest wines intense flavor and complexity. In addition, the winery’s patented concrete fermenters further solidify the winery’s homage to the Old World.

Their love of Europe shows in the tasting room, too, where they sell gourmet French salts and olive oil from Spain. Inspired by the wine and impassioned by Susan’s love of cooking — she’s a professionally trained chef — these culinary offerings are part of what the couple calls “Our Family’s Table.” What an appropriate name for this family-oriented business that welcomes guests as if they were part of their own.

Abacela Winery

A passion to match varietal to environment brought Hilda and Earl Jones to the Umpqua Valley. Their dream was to produce a world-class Tempranillo in the style of the Rioja region of Spain. After an extensive search and research, they found property at the southern end of the Umpqua Valley AVA in 1992. The land was the perfect pairing of a unique micro-climate to clone. In 1995, they planted the first Tempranillo grown in the Northwest. They named the estate Abacela, an Iberian phrase meaning “to plant a grapevine.” 

Fast-forward to today, and the Joneses now have 20 grape varietals, including other types such as Albariño, Syrah, Merlot, Dolcetto and Grenache, planted to 77 acres of vineyards. 

They also built a Vine & Wine Center at the winery with a stunning panoramic view. The new tasting room is a reflection of Hilda. She’s a woman of dignity and stature just as the building displays. As I stand in the sophisticated space, I realize how this accomplishment took time, dedication and, most of all, hard work, which Hilda notes is the ultimate driver in their business and has kept her “nose in the dirt,” she says. 

From her and Earl’s wine adventure thus far, Hilda says her greatest advice is to “Keep your eyes open. Keep your mind open. And see what is on the horizon.” 

After visiting with her and tasting the wine, I am once again reminded of the Valley’s promising future. 

Glaser Estate Winery & Distillery 

Leaving the South Umpqua Valley, I travel to the Glaser Estate, located on the North Umpqua River. 

During a previous trip, co-owner Sandy Glaser gave me strawberry plants she had thinned from her own garden. I planted them, and they survived despite the best efforts of the deer, who apparently consider them a delicacy, and my rather haphazard approach to gardening. 

The drive to the winery is short. It is just on the outskirts of Roseburg, but as you turn on to the road leading to the estate, you feel you have been transported to another country. The vineyard gives way to a bountiful garden next to a yard with chickens and baby goats wandering about the pen. The tasting room is reminiscent of a charming, European farmhouse. Off the back of the building, a deck overlooks the river, and this is where tasters tend to gather. This is where I landed and stayed for hours on what would become the perfect day. 

From Sauvignon Blanc to Baco Noir, the Glasers produce wine that speaks of the region. On this day, my choice is the rosé — perhaps because I began the morning with the promise and memory of strawberries. 

Sandy is warm and welcoming, a classic beauty with mesmerizing blue eyes. Her passion and love for her work is evident in the details of her life. Sandy and her family moved to the Roseburg area after discovering a feeling of belonging in this family-oriented community — the Glasers are friends with other producers, including the DeMaras. They bought th-eir property in 2003, eventually turning a cow pasture into a vineyard.   

Sandy is the first woman graduate of the Southern Oregon Wine Institute at Umpqua Community College. In bringing the pioneer spirit to this wine region, she has proven herself to be a winemaker and has won awards for her talent — the most recent being the Best of Class and Gold for her Pinot Gris in the Women’s International Wine Competition. As times goes on, she is sure to garner many more.

Brandborg Winery

The story of Sue and Terry Brandborg began like a message in a bottle, tossed into the ocean of circumstance and washed up not on a beach but 25 miles inland from the Oregon coast in the town of Elkton. 

Sue is soft-spoken, sincere and tells her story with a belief in purpose. Her adventure begins with a wine tasting in Jackson Hole, Wyo. It was her first taste of Pinot Noir, a wine made by Terry.. Eventually they met, and a dinner date led to correspondence that began their partnership in life and business. 

Believing they were predestined to work together, they put themselves on a ferris wheel ride, of sorts, searching in circles for the perfect place to grow grapes. In 2001, they found a property in Elkton perfect for planting Pinot Noir. It also had a house at the top of a hill with a view of the Coast Range. 

They named their first five acres Ferris Wheel Vineyard, and Sue named the vines after her children, depending on how each grew, and raised them from bud break to harvest. She compares the love of the vineyard as the love a mother has for her children. In addition to Pinot Noir, the Brandborgs grow Pinot Gris, Riesling and Syrah. 

She defines her role as one of fostering relationships, and to spread the word about Umpqua Valley wines. She wants others to know how this is a region of diversity, including the grapes and the people working behind the wines.

Chris Lake, director of the Southern Oregon Wine Institute on the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, speaks of the impact of women on the region as it changes and evolves. There is a parallel between the growth of the industry and the increasing number of women in the program. The daughter of Sue Brandborg has been a student SOWI and will be carrying on the family legacy as the next winemaker.

For Sue, family comes first, and the winery is their legacy, a feeling shared by all these women of wine.

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