True Oregon Wine Industry Pioneers
Celebrating their 37th harvest in 2006, David Lett and the Lett family are some of the pioneers of the Oregon wine industry. In 1970, The Eyrie Vineyards produced America's first Pinot gris, and has gone on to produce both Pinot Gris and Gris Reserve that are perpetual favorites of wine drinkers and wine judges alike.
The Wine Journey of David Lett
David Lett, owner and winemaker at Eyrie Vineyards, was raised on a farm near Salt Lake City, Utah. On his way to a dental school interview, he made a fortuitous detour through the Napa Valley and fell in love with viticulture. Driven by the siren call of Pinot noir, Lett has devoted his career to Burgundian grape varietals.
After graduating from Davis, Lett spent a year in Northern Europe studying Pinot noir and fine tuning his theory that the grape requires a marginal climate to achieve its best expression. Returning home, he rejected California as too warm, and chose instead to stake his claim in Oregon's cool Willamette Valley.
In January 1965, David Lett arrived in Oregon with "3000 grape cuttings and a theory". A year later, founding Eyrie Vineyards with wife Diana, he established the first Oregon Pinot noir and Chardonnay vineyards, and the first Pinot gris Vineyard ever planted in America. The Letts named their Vineyard for the red-tailed hawks that made their nests (EYE-rees) in the fir trees at the top of the vineyard. The Eyrie Vineyards, founded by David and Diana Lett in 1966, was the first vinifera vineyard in Oregon's Willamette Valley since before Prohibition. David Lett has been making Pinot noir from a single vineyard longer than any other winemaker in the United States.
David Lett's vision to cultivate Pinot noir in Oregon's Willamette Valley was initially disparaged by his former professors at The University of California at Davis. Too cold and too wet, they claimed. His success led to a rush to establish vineyards in Oregon in the late 1970's - Eyrie Vineyards was already more than ten years old.
Early Success for Eyrie's Wines
Eyrie Pinot noir was the first American Pinot noir to have competed successfully against French Burgundies in Paris and Beaune. In 1979, at the Olympiades of the Wines of the World held in Paris, Eyrie's 1975 Reserve Pinot noir became the first American wine to successfully compete against the renowned Pinot noirs of Burgundy. The next year Eyrie Pinot noir was rated second only to Drouhin's Chambolle-Musigny 1959, and by only two-tenths of a point.
The Eyrie Vineyards Winery is quite small, with a total annual production of around 10,000 cases a year. All the grapes used in Eyrie wines are estate grown. No insecticides or herbicides are used in the vineyards. The Eyrie Vineyards' philosophy, in the vineyards and in the winery, is to interfere as little as possible with the process of Nature. Eyrie wines are made exclusively from own-rooted estate-grown grapes, intensively handmanaged without the use of irrigation, insecticides, herbicides, or systemic fungicides. Great care is taken to ensure that the winemaking starts with grapes as perfect as nature can offer, creating wines of classic style and elegance. In addition to Pinot noir and Pinot gris, Eyrie makes small amounts of Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, and Muscat Ottonel. Over the years, Lett has acquired 49 acres of prime vineyard at four sites in the Red Hills of Dundee, 30 miles southwest of Portland.
Like most pioneers, David Lett has frequently sailed against prevailing winds during his forty-year career. Contrary to conventional wisdom, he believes that color exists in an inverse ratio to true Pinot noir varietal flavors. Lett's vision is of a wine of bright garnet color and pure varietal flavors in harmony and balance with restrained alcohol and tannins. His "Burgundian" vision has flown in the face of the popularity of California Cab styled Pinots, but winelovers in the know, know that the complexity and sophistication of Eyrie's style of Pinot is much more interesting to drink than the black, "macho" Pinots.
Author: Jean Yates
Copyright 2013 Jean L Yates
Eyrie's 50 acres of non-irrigated vines are grown in the Red Hills of Dundee, about 30 miles southwest of Portland. The winery is in nearby McMinnville. The four estate vineyards, planted at varying altitudes, are:
The Eyrie Vineyard: The original planting. 15 acres, 220'- 400' elevation; Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Pinot gris, Pinot Meunier, Muscat Ottonel. First planted in 1966. Stonehedge Vineyard: 13 acres, 720'-820' elevation; Pinot noir, Pinot gris, Pinot Meunier. First planted in 1976. Rolling Green Farm: 6 acres, 540'-720' elevation; Pinot noir, Pinot gris. First planted in 1988. Three Sisters Vineyard: 16 acres, 200'-360' elevation; Pinot noir, Pinot gris, Pinot blanc. First planted in 1987.
Eyrie's "gentle touch" philosophy carries from the vineyards into the winery. The grapes are picked at that elusive point of maturity where true varietal characteristics are at their peak. In the winery, great care is taken not to compromise these flavors. This means minimal racking, extended lees contact, complete and spontaneous malolactic fermentation, no fining, minimal filtration, and no cold stabilization (natural harmless tartrate crystals may form in the wine). This gentle treatment creates wines which are very approachable when young but with legendary ageability.
Pinot noir, Pinot gris, Chardonnay, Pinot blanc, Pinot Meunier
Eyrie's estate wines come mostly from the three "younger" vineyards (average vine age of seventeen years). Each of these vineyards has its own individuality, but the ultimate blends represent a whole better than its parts.
Estate Pinot noir
Less "reserved" than Reserve wines, the Estate Pinot noirs are fresh and vivacious. Aged 11 months in mostly neutral oak casks, the wine is not fined, and is filtered only if necessary.
Estate Pinot gris
This blend of grapes from all four vineyards shows rich varietal character and complexity rarely found in Pinot gris (grigio). Fermented in stainless steel tanks, the wine gains added dimensions from remaining on the lees until bottling. It is given only one loose filtration prior to bottling.
In 1964, David Lett hand-selected a remarkable collection of vine cuttings from the Draper Ranch in northern California. The clonal diversity of this collection (originally imported from Burgundy), and the cool Burgundian climate of the Willamette Valley, combine to produce Eyrie's unique and distinctly European-styled Chardonnay. Aged on the lees for eleven months in neutral oak, and given one loose filtration before bottling, the wines are subtly expressive, elegant, and long-lived.
Estate Pinot blanc
True Pinot blanc, from a collection of Alsatian clones planted at Eyrie's Three Sisters (Pinot noir, Pinot gris, Pinot blanc) Vineyard in the Dundee Hills. Limited bottling.
Estate Pinot Meunier
In northern France, Pinot Meunier is often blended with Pinot noir and Chardonnay in the production of fine Champagne. Eyrie makes it as a still red wine, and treats it to two years in cask, no fining or filtration. Limited bottling.
Estate Reserve Wines:
Pinot noir and Chardonnay
All grapes for Estate Reserve Pinot noir and Chardonnay come from Eyrie's original planting, the oldest in the Willamette Valley. These vines reflect the complexity of their age and their long-established "sense of place." This is translated into stylish wines showing finesse, subtlety and depth of character.
Pinot noir Estate Reserve
Fermented in small bins from completely destemmed and mostly whole berries. The Ômust' is punched down by hand every four hours. After a gentle pressing, the wine is transferred to oak casks. During nearly two years in barrel, the wine falls naturally clear, and is bottled without filtration or fining.
Chardonnay Estate Reserve
Over the years, certain parts of the original "Draper Selection" Chardonnay plantings have consistently yielded wines with deeper, richer, more complex flavors. These wines are aged for eighteen months or more on unstirred lees, in a combination of neutral and new French and Oregon oak casks. They are un-fined and receive only one gentle filtration prior to bottling.
- Eyrie Vineyards was the first vinifera vineyard in Oregon's Willamette Valley since before Prohibition.
- In 1970, Eyrie Vineyards produced America's first Pinot gris.
- David Lett (a.k.a. Pap Pinot) has been making Pinot noir from a single vineyard longer than any other winemaker in the US.
- Eyrie Pinot noir was the first US Pinot noir to compete successfully against French Burgundies.
- The Eyrie Vineyards has been in continuous operation and under the same ownership longer than 95% of all premium wineries in the US.
Matt Kramer - Giants of the Land
Oregon winegrowing would be less pure, less devoted to Pinot noir and less lucrative (thanks to his planting of Pinot gris way back in 1966) if Lett hadn't created The Eyrie Vineyards in the mid-60s. Few winegrowers anywhere can be said to have single-handedly started an industry. Lett did.