Jay Christopher Somers wanted to be a rock star. One of his earliest memories was the day his mother came home with the new Creedence Clearwater Revival album, Cosmos Factory. As the 4-year-old Jay listened over and over to John Fogarty’s wailing guitar solo in “Heard it Through the Grapevine,” he knew that’s what he wanted to do. And yet, rooted somewhere in that song, another message planted itself in his subconscious. Something about grapevines.
Jay eventually did get a guitar — today he has quite a collection — and learned to play with great skill. In terms of careers, however, he did what any college grad with a degree in philosophy would do: he made beer. After several years as a brewer for McMenamins, he met a beautiful woman named Ronda. Ronda liked Jay, but didn’t care for beer. Making two of the best decisions of his life, Jay married Ronda and got out of the beer business, deciding to focus, instead, on his latest passion: wine.
In the years leading up to the launch of his own winery, Jay had the great fortune to work with Don Kautzner at Adelsheim Vineyard in Oregon, Neil McCallum at Dry Creek Vineyard in New Zealand, and John Paul at Cameron Winery in Oregon. From Don, he learned that it was possible to make Burgundian-style Pinots in Oregon. Through Neil, he gained a passion for white wines. And in John, he found a lifelong friend and mentor.
In his five years at Cameron, Jay adopted an Old World style of vineyard management and winemaking — a style that resulted in wines that tasted more like the Burgundies he loved to drink. With John’s encouragement, he bottled his first J. Christopher vintage in 1996, using the Cameron facility and fruit purchased from the neighboring Charlie’s vineyard. (Side note: Jay is the first and only winemaker ever to make wine from this excellent vineyard.) His first vintage, like many to follow, sold out in less than a week.
After Jay’s third vintage of J. Christopher, his mentor gently and encouragingly nudged the fledgling from the nest. Jay spent the next 11 years making J. Christopher alongside Holloran Vineyard Wines at the Holloran facility in the Willamette Valley. Here, he continued to develop his Burgundian winemaking style: “Don’t force the vineyard, don’t irrigate the crap out of it, don’t spray a bunch of chemicals on it, and do all the hand labor right.”
In 2004, an opportunity arose to help the shorthanded crew at the Dr. Loosen winery in Germany’s Mosel Valley. A big fan of German Rieslings, Jay pounced on it. Over many bottles of wine after long days of work, he and winemaker Ernst Loosen discovered that they had a mutual taste and passion for Pinot Noir. Ernie had long dreamed of owning vineyards in Burgundy, but, turned off by the price, had begun thinking about the second best place in the world to grow Pinot Noir: Oregon. Over many more bottles, the two hatched a plan, and soon began making a collaborative Oregon Pinot called Appassionata. In 2010, they formalized their partnership, bought a 40-acre property on Chehalem Mountain in Newberg, Oregon, and began building a new J. Christopher winery. Jay continues as the winemaker for the partnership, while Ernie provides Old World expertise and financial support.
Today, in addition to making wine, Jay plays lead guitar for the Portland band Poncho Luxurio. Fans of both his music and his wines tell him he’s a rock star. So all in all, he feels, things have turned out very well.
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