David Lett and an Eyrie Vineyards retrospective

David Lett, the pioneering “Papa Pinot” of Oregon’s wine country, died last week at the age of 69 from heart failure. [AP, The Oregonian]

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.”


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8 Responses to “David Lett and an Eyrie Vineyards retrospective”

  1. Thanks Dr. Vino. I have a bottle of Eyrie’s 1980 Pinot Noir that I will be opening very soon in David’s honor. Always waiting for that “special occasion”…

  2. I used to be a big fan of Oregon Pinot, and when I went out to the Willamette a couple of years back I found that much of the wine disappointed me. Many were too simple, or too much like California wines. There are notable exceptions. One such notable exception was the very reasonably priced ’02 Eyrie we brought home with us. We opened it and found it to be very much like a Burgundy in style, in all the right ways, but with the Oregon fruit profile that is so nice when put in the proper perspective. That was a great bottle, and I think perhaps we will look for some more.

  3. I’m sorry about David. Even though your meeting was a one-time occurrence, it’s enough to touch a person and leave them with a memory. Thanks for sharing your memory and letting us, those who never met him, get a taste for who he was.

  4. As I’ve written elsewhere, apparently I did not know enough about the great David Lett while he was alive. However, I am glad I am getting the opportunity now – albeit a bit too late. Thank you.

  5. […] sidebar). Thanks for visiting!Since I reached into my Oregon archives for a posting in memory of David Lett earlier this week, here are some photos of the pour from IPNC this past July. Hopefully the new […]

  6. I’ve met David Lett a few times and have attended the IPNC 4 or 5 times. Oregon wine is to me the apex of what Pinot Noir can be and all the winemakers there now can thank David Lett for paving the way for the ever growing and evolving industry in the Willamette Valley. Thanks for your acknowledgement of him and the oft overlooked domestic wine region…

  7. That’s fantastic that you were able to be a part of that retrospective tasting. I visited Eyrie in August of this year and in their tasting room they have all the bottles from 1970 on that were part of that tasting. They’re lined up on a shelf for all to see. It’s nice to know that you actually partook of those!

    The tasting at Eyrie was by far the best one of our trip to Willamette Valley. We were the only ones in the tasting room and Tom (if I’m remembering his name right), whose been with Eyrie for years, talked to us for a good solid half-hour about David and Jason Lett, the differences in their wine-making styles, and the overall history of Oregon Pinot which starts Eyrie. He even showed us David Lett’s office!

    We recently opened an AMAZING Eyrie Pinot Gris from ’06. Having trouble remember the tasting note in detail but very creamy with vibrant fruit. It really was one of the best Pinot Gris I’ve ever had.

    We also ended up taking bottles of ’02 and ’03 Pinot Reserve home with us, which were among the last David Lett produced himself. Those will sit in our cellar for a while and we’ll certainly think of him when opened.

  8. I’m so sorry to hear that David died. He was one of the true originals in American wine. His 1986 Pinot Gris was a true epiphany for me as a budding young wine lover. In fact, I may credit that wine for launching my professional wine career. I can still remember how it tasted- full of green plum and a touch of mustard seed.

    I eventually got to know David when I was a sales rep for the company that distributed Eyrie vineyards in Chicago. David came to work in the market several times and I would take him around in my little car to meet and taste the wines with restaurateurs. He was fun to be with- kind, intelligent and thoughtful. I always felt honored that he would take seriously even a young pup like me.

    It had been several years since I’d seen him when I went to the IPNC in 2000. In a large crowd we spotted each other and he came over to me with a handwritten list in his hand. He’d seen the list of participants and had jotted down a few names of people he wanted to be sure to greet. I was so touched to see that my name was on his list.

    That Sunday, after the official festivities were over, he invited a group of us to the winery for an informal tasting. I remember that Christophe Roumier was so impressed by the authenticity of the Pinot Noirs. I think David’s wines were occasionally idiosyncratic but nevertheless, they were a revelation for many people for their true expression of terroir.

    He sent me home with a bottle of his quirky, wonderful and rare Muscat Ottonel which I shared with my friends.

    Thanks, David for your vision, your friendship and your marvellous wines. We’ll miss you.


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