I had the occasion to meet him only once, which was in July at a fabulous, legendary retrospective tasting that included every top pinot noir made at his Eyrie Vineyards from 2006 all the way back to 1970. I was a tad late in arriving at the winery because it is not where the vineyards are in the Dundee Hills–it is actually on the edge of the town of McMinville! By some stroke of luck, in the packed room I found a seat still open right next to Diana, David’s wife, and two seats over from David (pictured with his son Jason, the current winemaker at Eyrie, in the background).
The wines have been controversial since they are classically styled, as the Letts eschewed new small oak barrels, extraction and commercial yeasts among other things. I sent a friend a cameraphone pic that day of the lineup in front of me and he wrote back, “Eyrie–the ultimate anti-Parker wine!” That was perhaps overstating it but, for whatever reason, stylistic or politics, Parker stopped reviewing Eyrie wines some time ago. I asked David if he ever felt pressure to change his style. He showed his determined side saying, “I want to make the wines I want to make–and we’ve got plenty of people who like them.”
But that wasn’t always the case. To my left that day was a Portland attorney who had been perhaps one of the winery’s longest customers. He told me that he drove out to McMinnville in 1973 and bought $1,000 of wine from the Letts. On the way home to Portland, he said his Peugeot was riding low. Diana chimed in that she remembered how that check had “paid a lot of bills” for them.
After his 1975 South Block Pinot placed third in the 1979 Gault Millau tasting in Paris that pitted Oregon Pinots against red Burgundies, Eyrie won a broader following.
Turning to the tasting, I found the wines to be remarkable in their longevity. The wines were served bling and in the 2000 flight, I really liked the 2002, 2005 and 2006, the latter two wines Jason presided over. The 1990s were quite strong, with many of the wines picking up a subtle delicacy. The 1980s had a few more clunkers but also some gems. I was worried approaching the 1970s flight.
But despite my apprehensions, the flight was very strong. The 1978 was a loser, older with browning color and a taste that was definitely over the hill. When reminded that he didn’t like it almost 30 years ago David quipped “I still don’t like it!”
The 1972 was a real standout for me, zesty and amazingly fresh, bright with aromas of violet and anise. The 1976 also had great poise.
But it turned out that the last wine we tasted was the famous 1975 South Block reserve. It was still tasting lovely and rich, with great aromas and serious character. When the hands went up in the room to ask the favorite of the flight, this was the clear winner.
David leaned over to me and said, both about the wine and the occasion, “This is incredible. i just love it.”