Driving along a 100-mile long valley, I am surrounded on all sides by vineyards planted mainly to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I drive by gently rolling hills and lush green valleys dotted with quaint country towns. Stopping in at a small winery, the winemaker’s talk centers around “grape angst” and the cool, marginal climate that most years barely gets his grapes past the finish line for ripeness. I sample his wines and am dazzled by red cherry, rose petal, and subtle spice flavors frolicking around a core of luscious, almost sensual, earthiness.
Do you think I am in Burgundy? I well could be, except for the fact that baseball caps outnumber berets, and the hillsides are dotted with 50-year old grain towers instead of 500-year old bell towers. I am in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, one of the world’s premier Pinot Noir growing regions and the land that has earned the nickname “Burgundy West”.
Forty years ago Oregon’s Willamette Valley was a verdant farmland producing Christmas Trees, hazelnuts, peppermint and loganberries. Five hundred miles to the south, Napa was busting out all over with new wineries on the verge of vinous greatness, and Sonoma was quietly producing boutique wines like it had been for decades. The Davis campus of the University of California was churning out dozens of energetic Enology and Viticulture graduates, and they had all sat through the same lecture that stated, emphatically, “Oregon is too cold and too wet for commercial-scale viticulture.”
In 1961, one of those fresh-faced graduates was named David Lett. David had enrolled at U.C. Davis after a vacation in Northern California had left him enamored with wine. At U.C. Davis, Lett experienced French Wines for the first time, and was particularly taken the red wines of Burgundy, which were at the time the “world standard” for Pinot Noir. After graduation, he spent a year traveling and studying in France. During this trip he became convinced that the way to make sublime wine was to match the grape varietal to the terroir, and that a slow, late ripening grape made for the very finest of wines.
Upon his return to the States, David Lett returned to California to purchase his first vines and set about to find land for his own winery. He had a theory that Pinot Noir could do very well in Oregon. His theory was built on painstakingly detailed research on the climates and soil types of the world’s wine regions and the similarities he had found between Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Burgundy. The climate of the two regions, he discovered, are surprisingly alike…from temperature fluctuations, to elevations, rainfall, and winds. Despite the statistical proof, his former professors at U.C. Davis advised him against it…they strongly believed Oregon was too cool, too wet, and the climate too variable to consistently ripen the persnickety Pinot Noir grape.
Despite the warnings and criticism, Lett took his “3,000 grape cuttings and a theory” up to Oregon. He rented a plot in a rye grass field outside Corvallis and planted the cuttings “nursery style” for safe keeping while he set off to find their future home. In 1966 David – by this time married to Diana – found what he was looking for: a 15-acre former date farm in the Dundee Hills region of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. David and Diana set about clearing the land and planting the vines. The farm was christened, with a bottle of Burgundy, “Eyrie Vineyards”, in honor of a family of Eyrie Hawks that still thrive in the Fir Trees surrounding the original vineyard plot.
The Eyrie Winery, built in nearby McMinnville in a converted turkey processing plant, was bonded in 1970. By 1975, almost unknown outside of Oregon, the Letts were quietly turning out world-class Pinot Noir. However, as these things go…the world was about to find out.
It happened in a Paris suburb in 1979. It was called “Les Olympiads Gault/Milau du Vin”…The Gault/Milau Wine Olympics. The event was intended to showcase the international superiority of French Burgundy and was sponsored by Le Nouveau Guide of Gault/Milau, then a relatively new French magazine and restaurant guide that was attempting to challenge the “Guide Michelin.” There were 586 entries from 33 wine producing regions of the world, including some of the finest Burgundy ever made. In the final competitions of international Pinot Noir bottlings, with a panel of “Grand Connoisseurs” blind tasting blind, the unknown Eyrie Vineyards 1975 Reserve Pinot Noir shocked the house by placing third, ahead of many of Burgundy’s most prestigious wines.
There was a good deal of consternation – and awe- about the number of foreign wines that had outscored the French at this “wine Olympics”. Six of these winners were challenged to a rematch, and Gault/Millau was invited to publish the results.
The rematch took place in January of 1980 in Beaune. Twenty reputable French, English, and American wine judges assembled in the Hall of the Justice of Dukes of Burgundy. There were 12 wines total this time; six of Burgundy’s finest, and the six top non-French contenders from the 1979 wine Olympics. Once again, the Eyrie Vineyards wine gathered impressive scores…this time placing second only to the uber-expensive Maison Drouhin 1959 Chambolle-Musigny, and by only two-tenths of a point!
Those results turned heads around the world, including that of Robert Drouhin, the winemaker at Maison Drouhin. Robert seemed to be more impressed that perturbed with these results, so much so that he sent his daughter, Veronique, to intern at the Eyrie Vineyards during the 1986 Harvest. In 1987, the Drouhin family purchased property in the Dundee Hills and planted over 200 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, becoming the first European family to invest in Oregon Wine. Domaine Drouhin Oregon released its first wines in 1991, and continues to produce high-quality wines year after year.
Oregon now boasts over 240 mostly family-run wineries, and is considered one of the finest areas on the globe to grow and make Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Sparkling Wines. Other prominent Oregon producers and pioneers include Dick and Nancy Ponzi, David and Sylvia Adelsheim, Chehalem Winery and Archery Summit. David Lett’s seminal role in the founding of Oregon’s Wine industry has been recognized by a nickname of affection and respect, “Papa Pinot”.
Every year the Oregon wine industry hosts “The International Pinot Noir Celebration” on the campus of Linfield College. Tickets for the event sell out within days of their release. Top Pinot Noir producers from Burgundy, New Zealand, California and Oregon are invited to pour their delicious red wines to the delight of throngs of Pinot Noir lovers from all over the world. The culmination of the festival is a gourmet’s dream of a cookout, starring wild Oregon Salmon and Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
It seems, after all, that Papa was right.
A true Superstar of American Wine
David Lett (1939 - October 9, 2008)