Before David Lett arrived in Oregon in 1965, Willamette Valley was known mainly for growing hazelnuts. He wasn't the first to plant Pinot Noir vines in Oregon, but his Eyrie Vineyard wines were the first in Willamette Valley, and they made an impact.
Today you can still find some nut tree groves in Willamette Valley, but vines carpet the land within a few miles of Lett's original vineyard in the red hills of Dundee, and the wines have established the region as a home for Pinot Noir in America. That grape and Pinot Gris are the stars, just as Lett believed they could be when he brought 3,000 vines from California to plant there, over the objections of viticulture professors at the University of California at Davis. He was told Oregon was too cold and inhospitable.
Lett died Thursday of heart failure, surrounded by his family at his home in Dundee. He was 69. He leaves Diana, his wife of 42 years, sons Jason and James, and two granddaughters. He had retired in 2005 from his now 6,000-case winery, turning the reins over to Jason.
Nicknamed "Papa Pinot," partly for his pioneering efforts and partly because his silver beard and irascible personal style reminded some of Hemingway, Lett retained the respect of his colleagues even though his style of winemaking was very different from theirs. Eyrie's Pinots aimed for delicacy and ageability even when the trend in Oregon was for more ripeness and immediate pleasure.
"He stuck with his style whether it was popular or not," said Josh Bergström, whose eponymous wines fall into the richer camp. "I have a lot of respect for that. Today so many wineries chase style and fashion. He was a real maverick. He stuck to his guns."
Lett took a circuitous route to Oregon. Born in Chicago in 1939, he grew up in Utah. After earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy at the University of Utah in 1961, he went to California for dental school. But he grew fascinated with the small group of vintners making wine in Napa Valley. He enrolled at UC Davis and traveled to France to work in vineyards and wineries. In Oregon, he found a climate and soils that reminded him of Burgundy.
From the beginning, Lett encouraged newly minted winemakers who asked for his advice, helping them find vineyards and teaching them how to handle Oregon's cool and sometimes rainy climate. Dick Ponzi remembers when Lett walked into his classroom while Ponzi was teaching at Portland's community college. Lett was there to sell him textbooks, but the young salesman told him about his new vineyard. Ponzi had moved to Oregon for similar reasons and was waiting for his own young vineyard to mature. Lett became a valuable resource for winemaking advice.
"We were lonely souls out here, doing things the university said we couldn't do," Ponzi recalled. "We had a small group, including Dick Erath, Charles Coury and, later, David Adelsheim. For a while we just had each other."
Bergström got to know Lett when he asked the veteran vintner's son, Jason, to help him with his new Chardonnay. "David was a founding pioneer and I was one of the new guys, but he sold me a vertical of his Chardonnays. I was blown away by them. We talked a lot about getting the perfect ripeness and balance for Chardonnay."
Eyrie first started to attract serious attention in 1979, when its Pinot Noir South Block 1975 finished third in an international tasting of hundreds of wines organized by the French food-and-wine magazine Gault-Millau. That in turn caught the eye of Robert Drouhin of Burgundy's Maison Joseph Drouhin, who started visiting Oregon to see what was happening. Lett and another Oregon wine pioneer, David Adelsheim, helped Drouhin find the land to establish Domaine Drouhin, just up the road from Lett's original vineyard in the Dundee Hills.
In recent years Lett had been active in organizing his fellow vintners against what he saw as overly aggressive development on potential vineyard land. One large project, proposed in 2006 for land adjacent to Drouhin's, is still stalled because of the vintners' objections.
"That's a typical example of David's push to keep development out of vineyard land that could be important for the future," said Ponzi. "A lot of us had come from California and we were sensitive to the sprawl we saw there. We didn't want to see the same things happen here."
Lett took satisfaction in seeing the wine industry grow around him into the fourth-largest wine producer in the United States, after California, Washington and New York. From the 3,000 vines he brought with him to plant in 1965, Pinot Noir now covers more than 10,000 acres in Oregon, producing more than 20,000 tons in 2007, according to the Oregon Wine Board. Pinot Gris is second with 6,000 tons grown.
"No one knows where Oregon's wine industry would be without David," Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said in a press release. "But we do know that his 3,000 vines were the beginning of creating Oregon's world-renowned Pinot Noir."
A celebration of his life is to be held after the 2008 vintage has been harvested, his family said.