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Santa Rita Hills is making its presence known with cool-climate Pinot Noirs
Hanzell had not yet released its first Pinot Noir when David and Diana Lett planted their vineyard in 1966 in the hills above Dundee, Ore., about 25 miles southwest of Portland.
David had a degree in enology from UC, Davis, and he had just returned from a year traveling around Burgundy and Alsace. That trip convinced him that the French were right about planting early-ripening grape varieties in cool regions where they could just barely ripen.
"California was just too hot," Lett says. "That's why I came to Oregon."
He got a job selling textbooks to earn a living while he and Diana looked for a suitable location. "I was driving around making sales calls with an auger in the back of my car," Lett recalls. The tool was for drilling into prospective sites to see what was under the topsoil. After a year, they found a 20-acre prune orchard on red soil that seemed perfect, and they planted it using the wide spacings and other methods Lett had learned at UC, Davis.
"We didn't have much of a clue how to be farmers," Lett chuckles. "The neighbors thought we were nice young kids and helped us."
Lett wasn't the first in Oregon to plant Pinot Noir. Richard Sommer had put some in southern Oregon in 1961, and Charles Coury had included a few Pinot Noir vines in his 1965 plantings in Washington County. But Lett settled in the right spot. Today, several of Oregon's highest profile Pinot Noirs come from the Red Hills of Dundee, including the wines of Archery Summit and Domaine Drouhin.
You wouldn't have known it from the first vintage, 1970. "I did everything wrong," Lett says ruefully. "I picked too early, I chilled the fermentation, as I was taught to do at Davis. I was embarrassed to call it Pinot Noir."
By 1975, however, Lett had incorporated more Burgundian techniques into his winemaking, and as a result had begun producing wines of surprising grace. When he learned in 1979 that French wine and food magazine Gault-Millau was planning a competitive blind tasting of wines from around the world, he sent in his Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir South Block 1975, made from his original plantings. Among hundreds of Burgundies and other Pinot Noirs, it finished third with one group of tasters and 10th with another, embarrassing the French winemakers whose wines it bested.
Lett's success put Oregon firmly at the forefront of Pinot NoirÐmaking in the New World. As with the infamous Paris tasting of 1976, in which a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay from California topped France's best, it validated the New World's promise.
For Eyrie, sales surged, and profits over the years bought three new vineyards to expand production. But Lett remained faithful to his distinctive style. Today, at 63, he continues to make fragile, subtle, earthy Pinot Noirs. He won't use new oak barrels. His style is way out of the mainstream, which favors more intense fruit character and generally more drama. But his wines age well -- the reserve beautifully, the basic Willamette Valley blend less so.
Tasted today, the '75 South Block is still fabulously rich in aroma, with hints of coffee and exotic spices, subtle notes darting in and out, and hints of plum and cherry sneaking in on the palate. It is a triumph of subtlety and grace, hiding considerable power in a lacy web of finesse.
Today's Oregon Pinot producers acknowledge Lett and his wines with respect, but the most accomplished ones follow a different model. In the 1970s, Eyrie's success drew a small band of ex-Californians who passionately believed Oregon was the promised land for Pinot Noir. The new wave included David Adelsheim and Dick Erath, but it was another immigrant from California, Dick Ponzi, who emerged as the leader in quality and style.
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