Grape Transformations: Oregon Origins

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I had a hidden agenda when I visited McMinnville, Oregon a few weeks ago. Ostensibly I was there to talk about my new book at Linfield College and to the local Rotary Club. Those events were great but I would not have been happy if I hadn’t done one more thing: return a minor piece of Oregon’s  wine history to its rightful home.

“To Nick, Cheers for all the years — past & future. David Lett, Christmas 1989.”

That is the inscription I found in a second-hand bookstore copy of Vintage Timelines, a neglected classic book that Jancis Robinson wrote over twenty years ago. The idea of the book was to select a group of the world’s greatest wines and examine how different vintages have evolved (and would be expected to continue to evolve) over time.  The research required Jancis to taste trough verticals of each great wine (research is such a drag!) and compare notes from previous years to create complex and quite fascinating graphical timelines.

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Darn few American wines were good enough (in terms of their ageing potential) to make the cut and only one wine outside of California — the Eyrie Pinot Noir Reserve made by David Lett. Lett planted the first Pinot Noir vines in the Willamette Valley and he, along with the group they call “the Pioneers,” set Oregon wine on its present course.

Nick’s Back Room

The Nick in the inscription is almost certainly Nick Peirano of Nick’s Italian Cafe. Lett’s audacious egg was incubated and eventually hatched by the Pioneers and others over countless discussions in Nick’s back room. I’ve loved owning the book, but felt it didn’t belong to me. I needed to take it home and give it back. But to whom?

My first thought was my friend Scott Chambers, a professor at Linfield College and a friend of both Nick and the Lett family. He’d love to have the book, I thought, but it didn’t really belong to him any more than me. Maybe Jason Lett, David’s winemaking son who is carrying on the Eyrie tradition and building upon it? Yes, that would make sense.

But then I learned about the Oregon Wine History Project at Linfield College and that sealed the deal. They were pleased to add my copy of Vintage Timelines to their archive as a document chronicling the Eyrie Reserve’s early international recognition as well as the role of Nick’s back room in the region’s early development. Jeff Peterson, Director of the Linfield Center for the Northwest, accepted the book and both Scott and Jason supported the decision.

A Remarkable Story: David Lett (and the Pioneers)

David Lett is one of my heros and I am including him in my “Grape Transformations” list of people who have changed the way people think about wine or wine regions. He was certainly instrumental in the transformation of Oregon from a place known for fruit and nuts rather than grapes to a region frequently mentioned in the same breath with Burgundy.

Lett’s story is remarkable. Trained at UC/Davis, he came north looking for terroir where he could make Pinot in the Burgundian style. The first Pinot vines were planted in 1965; 1970 was the first Eyrie Pinot vintage.  After one or two false starts he hit paydirt. Great wine.

But from Oregon? Rainy old Oregon probably seemed like the last place on earth to make world class wine in the 1970s.

Olympic Gold

Then came the Wine Olympics of 1979. This was a competition, sponsored by  the French food and wine magazine Gault Millau, that featured 330 wines from 33 countries tasted blind by 62 judges. The 1975 Eyrie Pinot Noir Reserve attracted attention by placing 10th among Pinots. A stunning achievement for a wine from a previously unknown wine region.

Robert Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin, a Burgundy negociant and producer, was fascinated and sponsored a further competition where the Eyrie wine came close second behind Drouhin’s own 1959 Chambolle-Musigny. Thus was Eyrie’s reputation set (and Oregon’s, too). It wasn’t long before Domaine Drouhin Oregon (DDO) was built in the same Dundee Hills as Eyrie’s vineyards — a strong endorsement of the terroir and recognition of the achievement.

The Pioneers founded the Oregon wine industry, but now the torch has been passed to a group that you might call the Sons [and Daughters] of the Pioneers. Some of them appear in the video at the top of this post (don’t be discouraged by the poor audio at the start — it gets better quickly). I’ll have something to say about this group in an upcoming post.

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Special thanks to Scott Chambers and Jason Lett for their hospitality during our stay in McMinnville.

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Update 11/16/2011: You might be interested in Katherine Cole’s recent piece on the 50th anniversary of wine in Oregon — it includes a nice annotated chronology of the wine industry.

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16 responses

  1. Great post Mike; as always always very interesting and good writing. Thank you for sharing the video too and a little 1989 ‘message in a book’ for the rest of us, Oregon wine lovers. Cheers! – Jacques

  2. A huge thank you to those early pioneers of Oregon viticulture! We’re all so much better because of the risks they took and the sacrifices they made.

  3. Mike
    Thanks for sharing some of the history of how the Oregon wine business got started, really interesting. Great video composite that you have shared…

  4. Great post, Mike.

    I was fortunate to taste the 1976 Eyrie Pinot GRIS last month. That is a 35 year old white wine from Oregon, and it was absolutely stunning. We tasted it blind in a tasting group, and most people were guessing it was an Alsace white from the early 90′s… Cheers to David Lett for making such wonderful wines!

    Bryan

  5. As much as I had huge respect for the wines that David Lett made at Eyrie; his efforts eventually became the legend of Willamette Valley Pinot earning him the name “Papa Pinot” The efforts of Richard Sommer and Charles Coury predate David Letts.

    This quote from your article may be a bit misleading.”Lett planted the first Pinot Noir vines in the Willamette Valley ” this link points to the fact his wines were the first Willamette Valley Pinot Noir’s that gained recognition but were not the first Pinot Noir vines planted in Willamette Valley. http://tinyurl.com/3gko8rv
    Dick Erath’s statements are pretty convincing and very hard to repute. The fact that Dave and Dick had good reason to sweep aside Charles Coury’s efforts as eluded to in Karl Klooster’s interview when Dick say’s Charles planted first but it did not come to anything he is not saying Coury did not make wine. His answer to the question where he refers to Beethoven’s birthday is certainly sidestepping the question . History does not differentiate between who was better it is supposed to be an accurate timeline. No disrespect meant to the Lett family and I wish them continued success but the accuracy of history should be just that.

    • Marc – A lot of extremely knowledgeable people think you’re wrong. And you’ve chosen an awkward place to have this discussion. In June, Rusty Gaffney did a nice, well-researched series on the history of Oregon wine. He references the Erath interview you link to, and then presents a wealth of information refuting it, including primary documents from the participants themselves: http://www.princeofpinot.com/article/1092/

      The record shows that David Lett was the first to plant Pinot noir in the Willamette Valley.

      Thanks for the great (and accurate) post, Mike!

      • Joey – A lot of extremely knowledgeable people think you’re wrong. And social media such as this blog is a great platform to open a discussion. I respect Rusty, but his story is full of he said she said hearsay.

        “The record shows that David Lett was the first to plant Pinot noir in the Willamette Valley.” –What record are you referring too? I’d love to see the official record.

        In all honesty, it seems like people who argue this point are people that have something to gain from it. We can’t change history.

        On David Hills website it states, “In 1965 Charles Coury, along with a few other wine pioneers, came north from California to establish vineyards in the Willamette Valley where they believed they could successfully grow Pinot Noir. Many of the vines still exist. There are approximately 6 acres of old vine Pinot Noir and 2 acres of Riesling. There is also Gewürztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Semillon and Sylvaner that were planted at that time as well. David Hill Winery is home to the Willamette Valley’s oldest Pinot Noir Vines.”

        If the aforementioned were erroneous, inaccurate information, I would assume the Lett estate would take legal action and demand the statement be removed.

      • Joey,

        I am so sorry. It was probably a bad idea to expect to get a response from Mike. He is fortunate to have such ardent supporters, this awkward place where I commented on an article written by him happened to be the only place where I could comment. I was addressing Mike. The Pinot File does not allow comments on his site of course he is a Prince and if I remember my etiquette your not supposed to speak directly to the Prince.
        I do not remember seeing Karl Klooster retract his story or anybody asking him to. But back then I think his goal was the same as mine and that was to stop Forest Grove’s efforts to use the slogan “Forest Grove the Birthplace of Oregon Pinot Noir ” I guess bringing that up when and where I did was pretty awkward too seeing as how it was someone I like who contacted me to promote the idea.

        I can always be reached at marc@enobytes.org.

  6. Thanks to everyone for their comments. And thanks to Marc for offering to take the debate off line — I think that’s the best approach since everyone’s made their point pretty well here. My own view is that there is plenty of credit to go around for Oregon’s early development, although I can appreciate the concern about getting the historical record exactly right.

    For the record, I based my comments on the entry in the Oxford Companion to Wine — I’ll paste an excerpt below. I believe the Oregon entry was written by Lisa Shara Hall. Here’s the excerpt.

    Oregon’s modern era dates from 1961, when Hillcrest Vineyard was established near Roseburg (well south of today’s concentration of grape-growing) by Richard Sommer, a refugee from the University of California at davis, where he had been firmly advised that vinifera grapes could not be grown in Oregon.

    The Pinot Noir era dates from 1965. California refugee Charles Coury planted a wide range of Alsace varieties—including Pinot Noir—on the exact site in Washington county of an alleged 19th-century vineyard. But it is David Lett of the Eyrie Vineyard who is most frequently referred to as ‘Papa Pinot’, having first rooted Pinot Noir cuttings near Corvallis while researching a permanent vineyard site. In 1966, he replanted them in the north end of the Willamette valley in the Dundee hills—now the epicentre of Oregon’s wine industry—convinced that Burgundian varieties could be grown better in Oregon than in California. He was followed by Dick Erath of Knudsen-Erath (now known as Erath Vineyards) among about six other true believers in those early years. The majority of the pioneers had done time in California before deciding that it was the wrong sort of place for their preferred style of wine.

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