Remembering David Lett
Article By: Harvey Finkel
DAVID LETT 1939-2OO8
David Lett died of heart disease on October 9.
He was 69 years old.
Called by some “Papa Pinot” a sobriquet he must have thought silly he introduced pinot noir to Oregon’s Willamette Valley pinot gris (grigio) to America and grew notable pinot blanc.
Not content with the black gray and white pinots, David, always his own man, insisted on growing pinot meunier as well, though I doubt it was ever much in demand.
David Lett could see for miles and miles, decades ahead.
Born in Chicago, raised in Utah, where he took a degree in philosophy.
After the usual vinous epiphany he learned about growing grapes and making wine at UC Davis and during a sojourn in France.
Carrying 3OOO vine cuttings, he came to Oregon seeking Burgundy-like terroir.
He also carried his usual clear focus and stubbornness, and a good thing too, for conventional wisdom stroked its chin and warned him away.
David and his new bride, Diana, planted the first vinifera grapes in the Willamette Valley since before Prohibition, establishing The Eyrie Vineyards (named for the resident red-tailed hawks’ residences) in the Red Hills of Dundee in 1966.
Their first vintage was in 197O.
The winery and tasting room are in a former poultry-processing plant on the edge of nearby McMinnville.
In addition to nurturing pinots and other varieties and raising his two sons, Jason and James, Lett became a father figure to the pioneering generation that followed him, a handful of burly, bearded men, mostly named Dick or Dave: Erath, Ponzi, Adelsheim, and Myron Redford.
The Williamette Valley now hosts about 3OO wineries.
From the beginning, before “sustainability” and “organic” became catch phrases, Eyrie Vineyards did not mess with Mother Nature. Vineyard work is hand work.
Vines grow on their own roots.
They are not irrigated, nor treated with insecticides, herbicides or fungicides.
There are now four vineyards, totaling 55 acres, ranging in elevation from 2OO to 82O feet.
They are all on gently sloping, south-facing hillsides.
Gentleness is carried on to the winery: minimal racking, no fining, minimal filtration.
Extended lees contact and complete natural malolactic fermentation help make harmonious and remarkably long-lived wines, wines that famously stood tall at international competitions.
Management was passed to son Jason in 2OO5.
It has seemed a seamless transition.
The Pinot Noirs are exquisite, never overextracted.
Though light in color, they are packed with complex flavors, and seem to last forever.
Durable delicacy is in every bottle, perhaps evoking the best of Beaune.
They not only endure, they prevail.
Pinot Gris, needing no oak, is full-bodied, a wine of texture that was certified by David Lett as the ideal mate for salmon. Chardonnays are never overripe or overoaked, rather lean and focused.
Pinot Blanc, a success in a number of wineries in Oregon, Muscat Ottonel, a dry aperitif wine, and Pinot Meunier, rustic relative of Pinot Noir, are all produced in very limited quantities, and are usually available only from the winery (www.eyrievineyards.com).
In all, shy of 1O,OOO cases are produced, all from estate-grown grapes.
The wine world was deeply saddened at the passing of David Lett.
I knew him mostly in my role as a wine writer (and wine drinker).
It is clear that he has left a lasting landmark legacy, but I enjoyed him especially in quiet personal contact for his independent intelligence, his outrage tempered by amusement at observed foibles, and his wry understated wit.
We shall miss his vinous touch.
I already miss him.