Live and Lett Live

Memorial by Mark Stock

It certainly doesn’t rain much harder than it did along Highway 99 on Dec. 7, 2008. A steady, forceful, almost personal, rain wherein the only thing you can really see is whatever happens to be on your mind. And on that particular day, it was the man to whom so many wine-fastened Oregonians are indebted.

A man uprooted from the traditionalism and naivety of northern California by the idea of a perfect region, with gold in its soil and comfort in its climate. An eager, offensive-minded grapegrower named David Lett, who would find his answer in the lush Willamette Valley and turn the land completely on its head. In doing so, Lett would translate a laughable notion into an internationally celebrated, Oregon-grown treasure.

The same precipitous weather greeted young Lett on a fateful day in 1962. He was in the Bay Area interviewing for medical school, mere miles from the epicenter of America’s budding wine industry. Napa tugged and tugged and he headed that way shortly after the interview. Hours later, after some enological dialogue and a few rolled barrels, Lett’s hands were stained permanently with the deep purple hue of winemaking.

Deviation from the family trade alarmed Lett’s parents at first, but a pledge to carry out the proper education softened the blow. He would return to school for a second degree, this time in viticulture and enology at the preeminent University of California Davis. Struck with what son Jason calls a “cosmic brick,” Lett developed an inseparable attachment to Pinot Noir. After graduating, Lett traveled to France where he engineered a theory built on Burgundian custom.

On French soil in the 1960s, much as it is today, the idea is simple: The maturity and ripening of grapes should occur in tandem. And for this to occur, the vines must be challenged, allowing for penetrating roots, slow ripening, fully developed flavors and better wine. To no varietal did these viticultural commandments apply more than the fastidious goddess of Burgundy: Pinot Noir.

Her last and perhaps most important request is to settle in a climate as moody as she is, touting cool evenings, warm growing seasons and moderate winters. A climate such as the Willamette Valley, thought Lett, to the disbelief of his professors and colleagues in Northern California.

In true Newtonian fashion, Lett shared a lengthy and mind-broadening moment with a piece of fruit. But it was a strawberry, not an apple, that fell on Lett’s head, at least figuratively. A friend had retrieved a pint of the Oregon berries just before Lett’s travels north, and he was blown away by their quality.

Perhaps it was the strawberry’s vine-like love for fall sunshine and well-draining soils. Or perhaps it was simply the best strawberry Lett had ever tasted. Whatever the case, Lett had found his promised land, his laboratory.

Changed, stubborn and steadfast, David Lett pushed north in 1965. Riding in the bed of his uncle’s horse trailer were 3,000 cuttings, the makings of an industry. In need of a halfway home for rooting the baby vines, Lett rented some acreage on a rye field near Corvallis.

Meanwhile, he hopped about the northern end of the Valley, sampling soils and sizing up the topography between batches of rainfall. He soon was joined by Charles Coury, a friend and member of the same outcast notion. The two fantasized about Oregon Pinot Noir. The climate, earth and condition of the new surroundings were heaving with potential. With money saved from his job selling textbooks, Lett purchased 20 acres in the Dundee Hills for $450 an acre.

David and Diana spent their honeymoon year planting their first five acres to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Muscat Ottonel and the still-rare Champagne-oriented Pinot Meunier. The Dundee Hills was a pastoral environment much the way it is today—rolling hillsides flanked by cavalries of evergreens with the occasional farmhouse, orchard or wooded grove. The Letts chose the name Eyrie for their young vineyard, reflecting the towering hawks’ nests the resident Douglas firs wore like halos.

In 1970, Eyrie Vineyard produced its first wine. David felt that, although the flavors of his first Pinot Noir were beautiful, the color was too light, so he labeled it Oregon Spring Wine. In the mid-1970s, to supplement a growing demand for Eyrie wines while the rest of his acreage was coming to maturity, David purchased Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes from Sagemore Farms in Washington.

“For a guy that didn’t really like it, Dad made a pretty mean Cab,” Jason admited.

He also made a pretty mean Pinot Noir. In the Gault-Millau wine tastings in 1979, and in Beaune in 1980, some of the sharpest palates on the planet placed Eyrie’s 1975 Reserve Pinot Noir and Oregon on the world wine map.

The Europeans may have seen a little bit of themselves in the seemingly possessed, talented young winemaker. After all, he was employing French tradition. Organic farming, the use of wild malo cultures in fermenting and neutral oak for aging were but a few elements of his passive yet meticulous strategy. In fact, with light-handedness in mind, Eyrie continues to use barrels from their first vintage.

“I don’t make wine for the masses,” Lett had unapologetically declared.

One shining example of Lett’s unfamiliarity with concession is the 1984 vintage. A foul weather year spat upon by just about everyone in the Valley, many winemakers didn’t even make wine that harvest. Simply a bigger task from Mother Nature, Lett listened and responded. In a vertical tasting years later, some considered the Eyrie 1984 Reserve Pinot one of the best of its decade. Lett truly thrived among naysayers.

Symbolizing his Old World approach to New World wine is Eyrie’s rustic tasting room and adjoining winery. An old turkey processing plant built before the second World War, the McMinnville building’s many wooden planks creak with age. Inside, the sweet musk of fresh wine permeates the air, giving light to an otherwise dimly lit cabin of an interior. It’s no architectural feat, nor is its placement particularly awe inspiring. But that was just noise to Lett. The music is made in the brick red soil of the surrounding hillsides.

Positioned chronologically on a display chest are Lett’s many wines, dating back to his first bashful batch of 1970. Scanning over the bottled timeline, the song has remained the same. Eyrie’s iconic label—framed by evergreens and a circling hawk—endures as an Oregon classic, reflecting the consistent quality of wine and Lett’s steadfast nature.

Lett offered a lifelong commitment to the preservation of Oregon’s farmlands, beginning in the early ’70s, when he and other pioneer grapegrowers joined together to convince county planners that vineyards on the hillsides could be more valuable than subdivisions. He was a tireless advocate for land-use planning, serving for over 30 years on the board of 1000 Friends of Oregon.

He helped to found the Yamhill County Winemakers Association, Oregon Winegrowers Association, Oregon Wine Advisory Board and the International Pinot Noir Celebration, and served on the board of the American Vintners Association. All, of course, while raising both a family and his wine.

“When Dad made a friend, he kept him,” Jason said, recalling the many accents and personalities that occupied the Lett dining room. A few bottles of Pinot Gris were always on hand, but it was the older bottles of estate Pinot Noir that shared the dinner table with head chef Diana Lett’s many creations. Shadowing European tradition even at home, the Letts stretched their meals out, savoring friends, family and wine, with or without much money in the bank account.

Whereas Napa-based household name and vintner Robert Mondavi, who also passed away this year, was more like the Bill Gates of winemaking—a late-bloomer focused on growth, affordable as well as reserve wines and philanthropy—Lett was the viticultural Paul Newman—a family man uninterested in celebrity, consumed by quality and the ultimate embodiment of that defiant, rugged, go-it-alone sort of Americanism.

Fellow Pinot Noir frontiersman and founder of his eponymous label, David Adelsheim, sums up the Lett effect in several words: quality, collaboration and uniqueness. He also touts Lett’s “purity” in practice, above and beyond the organic farming methods of Eyrie. Adelsheim draws on Lett’s ability to exhibit Oregon, and specifically the northern Willamette Valley, as a place in his wine. Like the French, who strive to express terroir, Lett spent his life expressing the flavor of his domain, from the soil to the climate and all the way to the music being played in the cellar during harvest.

Having tasted an Eyrie South Block Reserve, I feel like a member of the elite panel assembled in the French capitol 30 years ago. How unusual it must have been to sip a Pinot Noir from timber country that had as much depth and personality as anything from the Old World.

Oregon was becoming wine country, another member of the extreme shortlist of home sites for the finicky and fascinating Pinot Noir grape. Heightened European interest, thousands of acres of vineyards, dozens of wineries, friendly press, numerous Oregon AVAs and, ultimately, steady tourism followed.

The family philosophy was perfected through fresh challenges. In 2006, an exceptionally warm and consistent year, Jason was concerned about overripe fruit and the possibility of burly wines Eyrie is anything but known for.

“I was eager to pick, but Dad counseled patience.” Jason said. At the suggestion of his composed and confident father, the two ended up delaying harvest for a while. David had been through this before, three years earlier. The results are in the bottle. A vintage thick with heft and fruit, Eyrie’s 2006s are essentially what they’ve always been: light, elegant, floral and lasting.

Jason Lett is very much a student of the world. Quick to rattle off a useful enological factoid without sounding overbearing or attention-hungry, he embodies his late father’s unfiltered fascination. As his background suggests, he, too, is propelled by love for the art form. With an ecology degree from the University of New Mexico, he was not always entirely sure of his destiny.

Our state has seen many enter the industry after jaunts elsewhere, arguably none more significant than David Lett’s exodus in the 1960s. These career rearrangements—so common to this line of work—speak to the clawing, romantic nature of wine as well as its quilt-like incorporation of so many fields of study. In a way, it’s religion. Jason chuckles about how his father sold an experience, a revelation, in addition to a proud product.

“He’d practically make customers take out adoption papers on a bottle of wine,” he said.

Looking more and more like Ernest “Papa” Hemingway with every year, David Lett had become the wise man on the hill in the latter part of his career. Forty years in the trade had outfitted him with an almost prophetic ability as a vintner. Patience is a lesson Jason considers most valuable among his father’s wealth of wisdom. And it’s enabled him to grab the reins of the Valley’s first Pinot Noir plantings with a certain ease.

With the next line of capable hands taking over more and more of the region’s thickening vines, future vintages are looking quite favorable. They’re Oregon’s second-generation winemakers, the first generation to be raised on area vineyards. Soon it will be the healthy Franco-American battle of winemaking tradition in which Oregon will have a chance to really compete.

In Hemingway’s classic “The Old Man and the Sea,” September is “the month when the great fish come. Anyone can be a fisherman in May.” So, too, is the scenario in winemaking. Jason, channeling his father as he speaks, illustrates the importance of the farming side of wine. He disagrees with Pinot Noir’s oft-alleged hair loss-inducing temper, partly because he’s inherited the craft and partly because of the Lett method. Tying your hands in restraint and letting the wine express itself may be the trickiest part. The real work comes often in September, when the fruit scale begins to strike a perfect balance between ripeness and maturity.

Inside the McMinnville Community Center, the scene was that of a giant tasting room. Glass in hand, the crowd of friends, family, pupils and admirers took in the to-and-fro of a live classical quartet and the many voices of the Lett story. Jason, after saying his father was never one for lengthy toasts (only that they should always involve eye contact), raised both arms and requested a collective toast that shook the squeaky rafters. “Let’s have a toast that my father can hear from whatever vineyard he’s tending now,” he said.

As the ring of some 500 glasses softened, the audience sipped Eyrie’s 2005 “Original Vines Reserve” Pinot Gris, the same year Jason inherited the role of winery captain from his dad. Much more than the wine itself was the transition from one generation to the next, the establishment of tradition. Caught halfway between grief and anticipation, the Willamette Valley raised her hands—dirt under the nails and skin still stained purple from the ’08 harvest—and clapped.

David Lett passed away Oct. 9, 2008, surrounded by his closest relatives at his home in Dundee. Like the ruts left by Conestoga wagons back when Oregon was a territory, Lett’s heavy footprints are obvious and here to stay, neatly spaced and tattooed on south-facing slopes in the damp northern Willamette Valley.

He resides in every tasting note of every Pinot Noir crafted in Oregon.

“I learned this at least by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them.” —Henry David Thoreau, “Walden” 

Mark Stock, a Gonzaga University grad, is a Portland-based freelance writer and photographer with a knack for all things Oregon.

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