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