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A Legacy of Wine and Family at HillCrest Winery

by Kim Cooper Findling

Dyson DeMara grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, not far from the Napa Valley, but he was a freshman in college before he had his first taste of wine. The vintage was a 1979 Napa Cabernet, and the sip changed his life. Today, DeMara owns HillCrest Winery outside of Roseburg, Oregon, and excels in a profession he’d never considered before a friend gifted him that fateful bottle. “One taste, and everything changed,” he says. “It wasn’t planned, but the biggest things to happen in my life haven’t been planned. Wine chose me.”

After college, DeMara went to work for Robert Mondavi Family Vineyards, and then he and his wife bought their own vineyard in Napa. But another sip—this time of burgundy—led them north. “I wanted to grow Pinot Noir, so we began looking for a vineyard in Oregon.”

HillCrest Winery

The Umpqua Valley vineyard that the DeMaras purchased was not just any property, with not just any history. HillCrest Winery was bonded in 1963, and is Oregon’s oldest continuously operating winery, as well as the birthplace of not only Oregon Pinot Noir, but Oregon wine itself. HillCrest’s founder Richard Sommers, says DeMara, “Was a man before his time. He pioneered so many things.” Not only was he the first to plant wine grapes in this state, long before anyone said it was possible, Sommers was also the first to use steel tanks to make wine, among other accomplishments.

What Sommers wasn’t very good at was tooting his own horn, and it took a long time for his efforts to be recognized. Today, Sommers is known as the “Father of Oregon Wine,” not in a small part because of DeMara’s efforts to have Sommer’s story told. “To be a part of Richard’s legacy is amazing,” he says.

HillCrest produces mostly red wines, including Pinot Noir and Tempranillo, as well as a few whites like Riesling. “We produce just 2000 cases a year,” says DeMara, most of which are only available at the winery itself. In 2013, DeMara opened Paul O’Brien Winery in Roseburg, in partnership with Scott Kelley, an old friend from his Mondavi days. Paul O’Brien brings DeMara’s craftsmanship to a greater audience from its cool brick building downtown.

DeMara feels that the wine-grape growing potential of the Umpqua Valley is barely tapped. “The land here is incredibly rugged,” he says. “There is almost nothing flat. Over 70% is hilly terrain and mountains. That means that there are so many different possibilities of terroir, on par with anywhere in the world,” DeMara explains. “The range of wine personalities and varietals to come out of here is barely understood. We’re at day 1. We’re at 60% potential.”

As an example of the richness of the Umpqua Valley, DeMara points to the soil, the complexity of which is significant to incredible wine growing. “Napa has 32 kinds of soil,” says DeMara. “The county in the United States with more soil types than anywhere else is Douglas County, right here. We have 150 different soil types.”

Exploring the possibilities of this “terroir-based wine” has become DeMara’s life work. “Wine is a fingerprint of a place,” says DeMara, who tries not to interfere too much with the natural environment in his winemaking. “My truths are old ways. If it wasn’t possible 100 years ago, I don’t do it. The best wines are perfectly flawed, like people.”


DeMara is expanding his scope again soon with another vineyard, though he won’t reveal where just yet. But guaranteed it’s close to home. “The Umpqua Valley has become my home and my mission,” he says. “I live a life based on concepts of wine and family.” His daughter is currently studying winemaking in Italy; his sons are both at Oregon State University – Cascades in Bend. “One is interested in wine, the other might go into beer,” he laughs. That’s okay with DeMara. “It’s great to be a purveyor of pleasure, to create something that is beautiful and brings people pleasure.”


Visit HillCrest Vineyard at 240 Vineyard Lane northwest of Roseburg. Visit Paul O’Brien Winery at 609 SE Pine in Roseburg.