Jason Lett’s business card reads “President, Winemaker & Curator” and it is true that he performs all three tasks at Oregon’s The Eyrie Vineyards. The first two jobs are easy to understand, but Curator? Yes, of course, since Eyrie is an important part of Oregon’s wine history and Lett’s challenge is to preserve the heritage without choking off the innovative spirit that defines the place.
Three jobs are a lot, but maybe Jason Lett should add a fourth to his business card: Mad Wine Scientist. The scientist part is uncontroversial — Lett has scientific training and he seems to approach wine and life with a scientist’s combination of curiosity and discipline. The “mad” aspect … well I’ll leave that up to you to decide. Maybe it’s not madness so much as innovation and experimentation taken to the extreme. Either way he seems to belong in The Wine Economist’s “Extreme Wine” file.
Sue and I visited Jason Lett at Eyrie last fall when I was giving lectures at Linfield College. Jason invited us to visit the winery (housed in a converted turkey processing plant) and when we arrived he asked if we wanted to taste through the current releases or to check out some of his experiments. No question, we said. Take us to your laboratory. And so we learned about and sampled three different extreme wines.
Extreme Pinot Gris
Oregon is Pinot country — everyone knows that! But let me tell you a secret. It’s Pinot Gris (PG), not just Pinot Noir. Pinot Gris is Oregon’s #2 wine grape variety and its a darn useful one, too. Pinot Gris is what I call a Chateau Cash Flow variety, since the time from harvest to market is shorter than Pinot Noir and the production expense (think expensive oak barrels) is lower, too. No doubt about it, Oregon PG is a great wine for producers and consumers.
But there’s that respect thing. White wines seems to get less respect than reds in most parts of the wine world and probably nothing can match the status of Pinot Noir, so Oregon PG is the “second wine” in more respects than vineyard acreage. No wonder a group of winemakers has come together to create OregonPinotGris.org in an attempt to get their grape the recognition it deserves.
Eyrie was one of the PG pioneers in Oregon, but these wines (which account for 60 percent of Eyrie’s production) suffer from the recognition problem, too. (“Oh, it’s just Pinot Gris?”) So Jason Lett decided to try to do something to change the perception of PG — by tweaking it in a modestly extreme way. The result is the 2008 Pinot Gris Original Vine Rose, which has three unusual qualities according to Lett: 1) all “original vine” (first planting in the US ca 1965), 2) 100% skin contact fermentation like Pinot Noir and 3) three years age sur-lies.
It was Pinot Gris all right, but a very different take on it. More serious? Maybe. It certainly made me think about Pinot Gris differently, which is what extreme wines are supposed to do.
The History of Oregon in a Glass
The second extreme wine was actually more interesting than delicious … but that’s not a criticism because it was very interesting. It was the history of Oregon wine in a glass and it came about through Lett’s curatorial duties.
Eyrie’s wine library contains Chardonnay vintages going back to the very first year. Lett went through these wines sorting out the good wines, the ones that had gone bad and some interesting wines in the middle — oxidized (“sherried” I guess you’d say) but still drinkable, with a certain distinct character. Lett mixed these middle wines from all 40 vintages along with some fresh 2009 Chardonnay and a little eau to vie made from estate grapes.
The wine tasted old because of the oxidization, but made me think about how young the Oregon wine industry really is — so young that you can drink a slice of its history this way. An extreme non-vintage blend. Very memorable.
Coltraine versus Hildegard
The final extreme wine was the result of a mad experiment. Lett knew about Clark Smith’s theories of wine and music. Wine’s taste can change depending on the music you are listening to, according to Smith. Although this sounds a bit wacky, some of my students have experimented and they say that there is some effect. There’s a potential scientific basis, too, since music stimulates some parts of the brain that are also active in the sensory perception of wine. So far, so good.
But Jason Lett decided to take the next step. If music makes a difference when you taste wine, then how about when you make wine? You know, the way that they say it is good for pregnant women to listen to Mozart — it is supposed to help the baby’s brain develop? (Alois Lageder has his “pregnant” wine barrels listen to Mozart played at a very low speed.)
So Lett set up an experiment. Identical grape juice and yeast, but with different music. One fermentation listened to music by Hildegard of Bingen (click on the YouTube video above to get a sense of what this might sound like) while the twin tank grooved to the jazz of John Coltrane (see video below for one of my favorite Coltrane performances).
Incredibly, the two fermentations developed differently (the Hildegard started first) and the wines taste different, too. Or at least that’s what Sue and I thought as we tasted back and forth. Hmmmm. Maybe there’s something to this music thing!
Sue challenged Lett to take the next step. Does the Hildegard taste different listening to Hildegard than to Coltrane? Does the affinity for the music extend all the way down the line? Maybe we can find out when we go back in July for the International Pinot Noir Celebration.
Jason Lett isn’t really a mad scientist, but he is an innovator and I think that’s great. His role at Eyrie represents perfectly the modern winemaker’s dilemma — how to respect the past while creating the future. Cheers!
Intriguing stuff. With the ferments to music, did he have several running in parallel, or just one of each?
Thanks for your comment, Emma. One of each, I think.
Pity. I’ve made experimental ferments in parallel – i.e. control vs. trial method, same must & yeast across a method – and they vary enough that it would be easy to think they were different wines within a method irrespective of what was being tested. Better to go with (e.g.) 3 ferments under each method, & then blend the results before tasting.
Good point. I’ll check with Jason Lett to see if my earlier guess is correct.
Great piece Mike! Eyrie is one of my go to producers in Oregon and Jason is great guy. I had no idea about these experiments. I’ll have to check in with him about it. Cheers!
Great post! I wish I knew about this literally 15 minutes ago- as I was at the winery! I will certainly be asking Jason about these.
Alsace has been making extreme Pinot Gris for years… its about hang-time (… netting the vineyards?) and batonnage. Alex Nichol made some stupendously good Pinot Gris in his years with Nichol Vineyards, here in BC – sometimes roses from extended skin contact, but often a pale salmon colour and completely over the top with cantaloupe fruit flavours and 14 months of yeasty creaminess after lengthy barrel-aging and frequent batonnage… really a pity there’s not more of this going on as Pinot Gris is most definitely the potentially perfect signature white for all of the Pacific Northwest