Pinot Noir pioneer David Lett died last week at his home in Dundee, Oregon, at the age of 69.
To have been first is notable, but to have been right is even more impressive. Lett – who died on 10 October of heart failure – was both.
He was the first to plant both Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris in Oregon, which have since become the state’s pre-eminent winegrape varieties.
The UC Davis graduate headed north to Oregon with his wife, Diana, seeking a climate similar to Burgundy, and established The Eyrie Vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1965.
Lett’s intent, as he explained in an interview with this correspondent several years ago, was ‘to grow the grapes in a place where they would just barely ripen in the best vintages.’
The theory had legs. Others, including Dick Ponzi, David Adelsheim and Susan Sokol-Blosser followed suit to establish Pinot Noir as Oregon’s flagship grape.
In 1979 his 1975 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir was ranked against French competition and repeated the same feat a year later.
Oregon’s potential, and Lett’s dream, proved to be more than a pipedream. Today Oregon consistently produces some of America’s finest Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris despite more unpredictable weather conditions than are seen in California. For his foresight, Lett earned the nickname ‘Papa Pinot.’
Lett’s vineyards were planted on the vines’ own roots and are dry-farmed without artificial pesticides or fertilizers. He aimed to interfere as little as possible with the natural product of the vines. In 2005 he passed the torch to his son, Jason, who will continue to manage The Eyrie Vineyards.
Today there are more than 300 wineries in Oregon. Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris have proven to be a superb match with pacific northwest specialties like salmon and wild mushrooms, making Oregon one of Amerca’s most exciting food and wine regions.
Written by Tim Teichgraeber in San Francisco