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David Lett, winemaker, 1939-2008

October 14, 2008 |  6:43 pm

Lett_3 Yesterday we learned that David Lett, Oregon's pioneer winemaker, had died after a long illness. Papa Pinot, as Lett was known (his resemblance to Ernest Hemingway certainly contributed to that moniker) was the first to plant vines in Oregon's Willamette Valley, laying down 3,000 cuttings in the red-soil hills above Dundee, founding the Eyrie Winery in 1966. With that fateful decision Oregon and American Pinot Noir were never the same again.

As a student in the mid-1960s, Lett began pursuing the grail of Pinot Noir, consulting weather charts from all over the world, looking for cool climate patterns that resembled those of his beloved Burgundy. He considered New Zealand more than a decade before there were Pinot plantings there, and he explored the cool west coast of Portugal, before settling on Oregon. When he told his professors at UC Davis, they said it was foolhardy, insisting that it was too cold and too wet in the Pacific Northwest. But Lett was undaunted.

A thousand years ago, he reasoned, they must have said the same thing to the monks in France. "Have you been to Burgundy?" he asked me once, in one of our many conversations over the last decade. "It’s insane to grow Pinot Noir in Burgundy. The grapes barely make it to maturity." Oregon, of course, has gone on to become one of the most spectacular sources of Pinot Noir in the world and is rightly compared with Burgundy. Lett's gamble sparked a rush to the hills in the Willamette Valley that has led to the establishment of hundreds of wineries and a billion-dollar industry for the state.

Throughout the nearly 40 years that Lett has been making wine, his Eyrie Pinots have remained consistent and idiosyncratic. Wine fashion has dictated riper and riper styles, more lavish oak treatments, more demonstrative, buxom fruit expression. An Eyrie wine, in that context, is a complete throwback. Eyrie fruit is harvested at dramatically lower ripeness levels and vinified so that fruit expression is an infinitely subtler experience, set against elements of earth and herb and natural lees. In their youth –- a relative term for Eyrie, because their releases were always several years older than other wineries' (the current vintage is 2004), they often seemed backward, bound up, archaically structured. But the wines were extraordinarily well built, graceful with food and marvels of longevity.

In fact last summer the winery hosted a retrospective tasting just prior to the International Pinot Noir Celebration in July. The winery opened bottles that went back to the early '70s, 35-year-old wines that were still fresh and youthful, as complex and haunting as great Burgundy. It was one of Lett's last public appearances, and a fitting sendoff for one of the country’s great wine pioneers.

-- Patrick Comiskey

Photo of David Lett by Ross William Hamilton/Portland Oregonian