Is 50 years a long time in the wine business? Not by some standards. The Antinori family dates its wine production back to 1385, which is Old World old. Klein Constantia in “New World” South Africa can trace it origins to 1651. Bodega Colomé in Argentina was founded in 1831. By these standards, 50 years is the blink of an eye.
Wine goes back many years here in the United States, too, but 50 years is a significant span of time. Fifty years is more of less the complete history of wine in Oregon, for example, and a round number anniversary like this is worth recognizing.
And so it was that Sue and I motored to Portland on February 22 to honor the 50th anniversary to the day of the first Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines to be planted in the Willamette Valley (at a temporary nursery that David Lett established near Corvallis). The Letts found their ideal vineyard site in the Dundee HIlls in 1966 and the first Eyrie Vineyards vintage was produced in 1970.
The Oregon wine industry has blossomed extravagantly since those first vines were planted and there is much credit to be taken and given, too. The video I have embedded below gives a sense of how much the early Oregon wine pioneers struggled and how they supported each other. They weren’t struggling to divide the pie among themselves back then because there wasn’t any pie to fight over. It was Oregon versus nature and against the world.
The achievements of David Lett and his pioneer colleagues (many of whom were in the room with us on February 22) received early international recognition at 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 international recognition of the achievement.
Tasting through wines from five decades (see my list of the wines below) it was easy to understand what all the fuss was about. Even the oldest Pinot Noir (1972) was still bright and full of evolved character. The wines were noteworthy for their strong sense of identity and that some of the wines from more difficult (more Burgundian?) vintages seemed to especially shine over the years.
It’s also worth noting that the older Chardonnay and Pinot Gris wines were stunners, too, so that Pinot Noir was not the whole show at all. David Lett was building them to last back then. It was especially interesting to taste the clear connection between the 1977 Estate Pinot Gris and the 2004 wine made from the same grape vines 27 years later. Eyrie was the pioneer Pinot Gris producer not just in Oregon but in the United States. Bravo Eyrie!
The wine boom in the Willamette Valley in particular and Oregon in general didn’t happen all at once and wasn’t any single person’s creation. One of the things that I most appreciated about Jason Lett’s remarks as we tasted through wines from five decades was how he was careful to share credit starting with his mother Diana and father David, then to his vineyard and winery crew and on, as we moved from wine to wine, to all those who played a part in the story (or at least as many as possible). February 22 was Eyrie’s day, but not Eyrie’s alone.
Oregon today is so much different form where it was 50 years ago. It was a rare treat to be able to talk with some of the people who have guided the transformation and to taste and share something of the past, present and future of this vibrant industry.
The collective achievement must be beyond the imagination of all but the most optimistic of the pioneers. They and those who stood on their shoulders have created a relatively small wine region with a global reputation that continues to attract both the attention of and investment from around the world. The recent Oregon vineyard boom suggests that the story if far from over.
What does the future hold for Eyrie Vineyards? An interesting balance of continuity and change. There are plans for a new winery up in the vineyards where it perhaps should have been all the time. But the building plans are designed to retain many of the peculiar characteristics of the original building, which was a turkey processing plant before it became a famous winery.
The vineyards will change but stay the same, too. Phylloxera has finally found its way to the original vines, which are losing vigor but still making great wines. The Letts will delay replanting the original vineyards with grafted vines as long as possible, using fruit from previously unplanted sites to supplement existing sources. Expect the classic grape varieties plus Trousseau Noir and more Melon de Bourgogne and Pinot Meunier.
Congratulations to Eyrie Vineyards and to everyone who is part of their continuing story! Scroll down to see the wines we sampled on February 22, 2015. Here’s a video about the Oregon Pioneers and their sons and daughters, too. Enjoy.
The wines were presented in several flights organized by decade, starting with the oldest (the 1970s) and moving forward. I have rearranged the list of wines below according to wine grape variety for easy reference. Each flight included a Pinot Gris, a Chardonnay and two Pinot Noirs. The 2000s flight was followed by the 2012 single vineyard Pinot Noirs and finally we toasted the 50th anniversary with a sparkling wine that Jason Lett made especially for this event. Ever forward looking, Lett began this anniversary project (and this wine) in 2009.
Eyrie Pinot Gris
1983 Willamette Valley
1991 Willamette Valley
2004 Original Vines
Eyrie Pinot Noir
1976 Barrel Reserve
1980 South Block Reserve
1986 Barrel Reserve
1992 South Block Reserve
2005 Estate (Jason Lett’s first Eyrie wine)
2007 South Block Reserve (David Lett’s final Eyrie wine)
Eyrie Single Vineyard Pinot Noir
2012 Sisters Vineyard
2012 Outcrop Vineyard
2012 Rolling Green Vineyard
2012 Daphne Vineyard
2012 Original Vines
Eyrie Pinot Meunier Rosé Brut Nature Sparkling Wine
Thanks to Eyrie Vineyards and the Lett family for inviting us to this celebration. Good luck and best wishes for another 50+ years!