One of the exciting things about emerging wine regions is that many of the pioneers are still present. You can meet them and appreciate their contributions to wine. David Lett, who died last week, was an Oregon pioneer I knew early on in his career.
Lett was the father of Oregon Pinot Noir. He was a strong-willed, passionate visionary who believed that this grape would succeed in Willamette Valley and pursued that dream.
When he began planting Pinot in Willamette in the 1960s, the prevailing wisdom was that Oregon was too cold for Pinot Noir, and University of California at Davis enology professors advised him against it. But that's what made Lett a pioneer.
Lett thought Oregon's climate reminded him of Burgundy's, and that Pinot Noir would thrive there. After studying many sites in California, Lett concluded that Oregon had greater potential than California, which at the time had isolated success with Pinot in vineyards at Hanzell, Chalone and Russian River Valley.
In the early 1980s, during a visit to Lett’s Eyrie Vineyard, I tasted many of his wines as we discussed his first vintages (he had done everything wrong, he said) and perhaps where he thought he might be headed. Winemakers owe a debt of gratitude to those who sail into uncharted waters. We often learn our best lessons through our mistakes or most challenging missions.
The wines I recall as being sensational, along with the great 1975 vintage, were from the riper years. While I don’t have my notes in front of me, the 1978 was one of those exceptional efforts, along with the 1979 Eyrie and perhaps the 1979 Eyrie Reserve as well. They were dark, rich and loaded with ripe dark fruit flavors. Other vintages we tried were lighter in color, body and flavor, the results of difficult years and rain at harvest.
I liked the fuller bodied, darker and more complexly flavored versions the best, while Lett preferred a lighter, more delicate style. The differences were very pronounced and we are still debating the merits and demerits of those styles in regard to most wines.
Lett stuck with his style and that was important. It really didn’t matter what others thought. He made wines that he and his followers liked, and he had many fans.
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — October 13, 2008 6:13pm ET
James Rego — Redding, Ca., Shasta County — October 14, 2008 10:38pm ET
Tom Miller — Vestavia Hills, AL — October 15, 2008 11:14pm ET
Apj Powers — Dallas, TX — October 17, 2008 1:22pm ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions