A Life-Giving Light
By Karl Klooster
Jason Lett is now president and winemaker of The Eyrie Vineyards, the pioneering winery started by his father, David, in 1965. He has formed a strong bond with longtime employees and a deep appreciation for the contributions they have made to the family business.
In fact, he considers them to be like family. So when they are in need, he is quick to extend a helping hand.
That closeness is evident as Lett speaks in quiet, measured tones about the personal frustration he has experienced in battling the healthcare system, as the wife of one of his most loyal and valued workers struggles with a life-threatening illness.
Julio Hernandez has worked for the Letts since 1991. He was 18 when he was first hired as a vineyard worker. He rose up the ladder, learning on the job. Two years ago, he was promoted to cellarmaster.
About that time, Hernandez’s wife, Guadalupe, was diagnosed with kidney disease.
At just 28, Lupe is considered an ideal candidate for a transplant. But her rare blood type limits the potential donor base, and no one in her immediate family is a match.
What’s more, the system is designed to approve those with the greatest probability of success, based not only on physical capabilities, but also the ability to pay for a lifelong regimen of anti-rejection drugs.
Being a small company, The Eyrie Vineyards offers a medical plan to employees, but it has its limits, ones that protracted major illnesses, such as acute renal failure, can easily exceed.
The paradox is that the daily dialysis Lupe must undergo, simply to stay alive, costs much more than the medications designed to prevent rejection of the donor organ.
Furthermore, whereas dialysis only temporarily stabilizes the patient, and cannot prevent ultimate kidney failure, transplants enjoy a high rate of success and strong possibility of allowing recipients to reach a normal lifespan.
Undaunted by this situation, Lett set out to find a way by which enough money could be raised to ensure Lupe’s treatment over the next several years.
He began by earmarking profits from the sale of Chardonnay from the winery’s precious library collection, dating back to its earliest releases. David Lett had put away a few cases from every year since 1970.
In July, Jason and his mother, Diana, staged a once-in-a-lifetime vertical tasting of all 38 vintages. This truly memorable occasion showcased the genius of David Lett’s winemaking skills and began the process of building the Guadalupe Fund.
On hand was renowned British Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, who expressed her amazement at the longevity of the wines and professed her admiration for the talents of the man who crafted them by, as Lett so often said, “Letting them make themselves.”
Declaring what extraordinary bargains she thought such old and rare Chardonnays to be, Robinson went on to encourage buyers to invest in them for their own sake and not, incidentally, for the worthy cause that profits would be benefitting.
Jason Lett didn’t stop there, however. He then put his own considerable skills to work in blending two new wines to help build the fund for Lupe’s care.
Taking Pinot Noir from both Eyrie and Bishop Creek vineyards and Chardonnay from Eyrie Vineyard, he blended special bottlings with an 80- to 90-percent base from the 2007 vintage. He selected a special name, La Luz, designed to honor its intended beneficiary.
“Lupe’s full name, Guadalupe, is popular in Mexico, out of reverence for Our Lady of Guadalupe, the nation’s patron saint,” Lett said. “The traditional iconography of Our Lady of Guadalupe is always portrayed surrounded by rays of light.
“To me, this light represents inspiration and compassion, both qualities we hope to draw on throughout this project. From that, the name followed naturally; “La Luz” is Spanish for “The Light.”
Lupe’s close friend, Kathy Mukey, has long been inspired by Lupe’s courage and determination. “She takes care of her children and the house as best she can,” Mukey said.
“I’ve taken training to assist with her home dialysis. She has to do it three times a day.”
“They’re a very loving family, and the children are so sweet,” Mukey continued. “Nayeli is 8; Areceli is 6; and Roxana is 4—and even she is old enough to go to neighbors and tell them if mommy isn’t feeling good.”
Lett can scarcely contain his discontent with our unjust healthcare system, one undoubtedly shared by hundreds of thousands of small business owners across America.
“Right now, health care coverage is a burden that has been largely placed on business,” he observed. “It’s affecting huge companies like Ford. It’s affecting small companies like ours.
“American companies competing in the international market have a crippling disadvantage against countries where the health care burden is spread through the whole society, not just dropped on business. On top of it all, the coverage small companies like mine can offer leaves huge gaps, which allow situations like Lupe’s to occur.”
He said, “I suppose, as a businessman, under the rules of our crazy system, we’re supposed to let Lupe die. That’s untenable. So I have to take resources that could be used to invest in our company and hand them over to a bloated, inefficient health care system instead. How is that good for business, or the economy?”
La Luz wines are being sold at $35 per bottle. They and the library Chardonnays may be purchased from the winery in McMinnville or at www.eyrievineyards.com .
Go to www.transplantfund.org for details on how to make a tax-deductible donation through the National Transplant Assistance Fund. See “Tribute Gift to NTAF Northwest Kidney Transplant Fund in honor of Guadalupe Hernandez.”