Quotes & Notes on Papa Pinot

Shortly after arriving in Oregon to start my neurosurgical practice in 1983, I was excited to read of the Eyrie Vineyards’ success in the international scene, and the fortune to be in a state where the Pinot Noir grape grew so beautifully. I had studied and become enchanted by this wine varietal. 

It was a moment of reverence for me when I met David Lett at a wine show in Portland shortly thereafter; he was positive, encouraging, and spoke from the heart. This never left me and never will. The experience helped shape my inspiration to join the wine industry. His visionary and winemaking achievements are well known, but his humanity was equally remarkable.

—Mauricio Collada, Cubanisimo Vineyards (Salem)

I have been making Pinot Noir, first as a home winemaker since the ’70s and then as a small start-up label (a real garage winery) in California in 1986. I was delighted to be invited to IPNC in 1993 with Pinot that I had made from Bien Nacido Santa Maria Valley fruit. Since then, I have been back a few times, and I have really enjoyed participation in the Steamboat Conference as well. I developed a real fondness for the Oregon Pinot scene and the characters that inhabited this landscape.

In 2002 my wife, Sue and I relocated to Elkton, the coolest and most maritime climate in the northwest Umpqua Valley to grow and make Pinot Noir.

In 2005, Sue and I were invited to participate in the 2005 Oregon Pinot Camp. We were very excited to be included and thrilled that two of our wines, ’03 Umpqua Valley Riesling and ’03 Umpqua Valley Bench Lands Pinot Noir were selected as workshop wines. Being naïve, I did not know that would mean that I also would be on one of the wine panels.

A little nervous, I traveled to the Dundee Bistro to join the fellow panelists to taste through the wines, to arrange them and to discuss each person’s speaking points. At that tasting, I could tell that David liked our wine, but he had nothing to say about it. I was very honored to be on the panel with David Lett, Veronique Drouhin, Steve Doerner and Harry Peterson-Nedry. My wife was chosen to be a “Camp Counselor.”

My first workshop was at Anne Amie. Sue was in the audience with her group of campers. At the end of the session, David—seated to my left—rose and addressed the crowd saying, “I never imagined myself saying anything like this, but this Pinot Noir from Southern Oregon is better than any of the Willamette Valley Pinots we just tasted here today.”

Needless to say, I was stunned and choked with emotion; I could barely get out a “Thank you.” I saw my wife, Sue, in the audience with tears streaming down her cheeks. I can’t say that I knew David, but that moment will forever remain a career highlight for me.

—Terry Brandborg, Brandborg Vineyard & Winery (Elkton)

For me, David was Pinot Noir. As someone brought up in Europe, I have always held Burgundy as my Pinot Noir standard. David was a standard bearer of those who want the grape to produce ethereal wines, not the “Syrah-wannabes” so popular with certain magazines and, unfortunately, too many consumers.

Drunk in 1998, the 1983 Eyrie Reserve still stands in my “palate bank” as the greatest Oregon Pinot Noir I’ve ever tasted. The 1985 Reserve was not far behind, and when poured in 2002 to someone who said “No Oregon Pinot Noirs are any good after five years,” it blew him away and changed him to a devotee of “real” Pinot Noir.

David could at times be somewhat cantankerous, but when he sensed a like-mind (or palate) he would spend an inordinate amount of time with you, and you remember his insight forever.

David, thank you for planting Pinot Noir in Oregon, and while there are a few producers who look upon the grape in the same way as you did, there will never be another Papa Pinot.

—Mick Beard, Cornell Wine Company (Portland)

One night, several years ago at a Steamboat Inn winemaker’s dinner, David took the time to stay up late and talk with us for hours about our plans and dreams. We’ve gone on to have a wonderful farm and winery where our grandkids can learn farming and our whole extended family can join in. Without David’s kind and wise advice, we wouldn’t have taken the risks and leaped in. He was truly an inspiration.

Other times he would share a special wine with us at the winery or joke that we must be all right because we were driving a Land Rover.

We were honored to have the opportunity to attend David’s memorial.

—Cliff & Allison Anderson, Anderson Family Vineyard (Dundee)

As I’m sure many of your readers do, I have a bit of a fetish for Pinot Noir. So, wanting to exhibit my passion to the world, I applied to the Oregon DMV for a license plate that reads “PINOT” (naively thinking that no one else had ever had such a brilliant idea). I got a nice rejection notice informing me that anything alcohol related is not permitted on plates. I re-applied for the word “TINTO” (roughly translates as “red wine” in Spanish), and got the plates.

So, I’m pulling into Eyrie one day, a few years ago, and David Lett is out in front. He sees me parking, and goes out of his way to catch my eye to point at my license plate, and give me a smile and a big thumbs-up gesture. It’s not much, but it is a small and meaningful connection that I made with the man indirectly responsible for my Pinot passion, and I will remember it fondly.

—Peter Bouman, Vineyard Broker

I moved up to Oregon in 1995 from Northern California, where many people had tried to convince me to love big oaky Chardonnay and muscular reds. I stuck with beer and margaritas until I met my husband who introduced me to the beauty of David Lett’s Pinots.

My first love in Oregon Pinot was an ephemeral glass of Eyrie enjoyed with my new love, Scotty, at Red Hills Provincial Dining… And then one night at dinner in the same restaurant, I got to meet the man who made that fantastic wine!

We then kept running into the Letts at birthday dinners (our birthdays are several days apart), toasting each other from across the room. What a great gift to have been able to know David, and an honor it remains to continue to know and work with Diana and her sons, the second generation.

—Annie Shull, Raptor Ridge Winery (Carlton)

David once told the story of how he was making wine deliveries in Portland just prior to Christmas one year (it was some time ago). A “wino” approached him, and asked him “Hey man, can I have a dollar to buy a bottle of wine?” David reached into his vehicle, pulled out a bottle of Eyrie wine, gave it to the fellow and said “Here, Merry Christmas.” The wino took the bottle, and said, “Thanks, man, that’s very nice of you,” all the while twisting the neck of the bottle to get it opened. When it wouldn’t open, he said to David “What’s wrong with this bottle?” David explained that this wine had a cork, not a twist cap, and David asked him if he had a corkscrew. The fellow said, “No,” and handed the bottle back to David as he asked him “Hey man, can I have a dollar to buy a bottle of wine?”

I first met David when I had the privilege of buying three bottles of his 1975 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir from him in about 1980. That wine was truly beautiful. It showed—more than any other Oregon Pinot Noir I had to up that point—what we could do with wine here. That wine made an Oregon wine consumer out of me, and David’s style of winemaking—delicate, fragrant, light, crisp, long-lived—was one I would repeatedly come back to after excursions to the dark side of Pinot.

—Howard Mozeico, Et Fille Wines (Newberg)

David Lett defined the term “visionary,” sailing against a strong current as he fulfilled the promise of Oregon wine. He planted grapes where others deemed it impossible, understanding that the very finest wines are grown where it is most perilous, and he thrived on that challenge. His personality set the tone for the character of the Oregon wine industry, and his stunning wines rewarded his fearlessness, focus and independence. For those who prefer their opinions strong and their wines elegant, David was your man. What an inspiration.

—Ted Farthing, Oregon Wine Board Executive Director

I first drank Eyrie wine in 1976 and met David on the street in 1977 when he was delivering to L’Auberge Restaurant in Portland. In ’77, I was raising locker lamb—among other things—in Parkdale, Ore. I didn’t have cash to buy the several cases that I wanted, so I offered to trade lamb for wine. I didn’t realize how appropriate that trade would be until I matched his wine with my lamb at home. For several years, I sold or traded with David and Diana... to my great pleasure.

—Don Gensler, WindWalker Vineyard (White Salmon, Wash.)

We purchased cuttings from him of Muscat Ottonel. He asked us why we wanted it, and we told him that we really liked some of the European Muscat wines. He told us we were crazy to grow it because it was hard to grow, produced irregular crops, and then it was hard to sell because it wasn’t a common variety. “But,” he said, “I won’t pull mine up so I must be crazy, too.” Whenever we saw David, he would ask us how the Muscat was doing. Then he’d shake his head and say, “I told you.” The Eyrie Vineyards has a loyal following for their dry Muscat Ottonel. David was more than Papa Pinot. He was passionate about all his wines.

—Jill Zarnowitz and Mark Huff, Stag Hollow Wines (Yamhill)

Very simply, David Lett is the reason we’re all here. Without his boldness, conviction and vision, the Oregon Pinot Noir landscape would be radically different from what we know today. Personally, David always gave me confidence that we were on the right track—that elegance, finesse and nuance were the heart and soul of Pinot Noir—and that we should endeavor to stay true to it at all times.” 

—Scott Wright, Scott Paul Wines (Carlton)

David was the first Oregon winemaker I met—he was somewhat of a ‘god’ to us non-industry members. His style of winemaking was Oregon’s style and no one could refute it, nor his knowledge and focus.

Over the years, after many visits to his old turkey processing facility in McMinnville and becoming an industry member myself, I got to know David very well. When we bought our property, his first words were “I hope you don’t cut down all the beautiful trees to plant vines.” We haven’t.

In his later years, he was still as passionate as the first time I met him. I have always had the utmost respect for him and his wines, and I look forward to enjoying the many bottles of his wines in my cellar. And as we have them with friends, it will bring back the good memories I have of David.

—Bill Stoller, Stoller Vineyards (Dayton)

Years ago, when I first launched my winery, I was concerned about how slow it was taking to build my customer and distributor base. At that time, the big, jammy Pinot Noirs were in vogue. My style was firmly in the finesse camp as I fashion my wine after Volnay Burgundies.

I had gotten to know David Lett, so I called him for advice, knowing he firmly believed in this style of wine. He personally groused about the bigger style of Pinot Noir emerging but welcomed the many styles that made up the Oregon wine landscape. He advised me just to stick to my guns, reasoning that with my final case-production goal of a few thousand cases I would find a following for my wines in due time. He was right; a few years later I was selling out fast and continue to this day. For an impatient Greek American, his words were just the encouragement I needed. We will all miss Dave’s presence in the Oregon wine world.

—Willy Gianopulos, Freja Cellars (Hillsboro)

I feel I owe him so much, but more than anything what I’ll remember is that twinkle in his eye when he was pulling someone’s leg... and then, that knowing look, a bit of a smirk and perhaps a laugh when you pulled his leg back. He enjoyed the back and forth of good repartee and had a wicked good sense of humor on tap at all times.

One Thanksgiving Weekend a few years back, we were visiting a winery where the owner was purging his cellar of vintage Oregon wines. Couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a 17-year-old Eyrie Pinot Noir among the others for a vastly underpriced $15. Sure, it was a bit dusty, but a new prize for me. Coincidentally, our next stop: Eyrie. When I produced the bottle and asked David if he could fill it up a bit—it seemed a little low in the neck—he looked in amazement and said, “Where’d you get that?” When I told him, he continued, “Yeah, what did they charge you?” When I told him, a near stumble, feigned disbelief, then that twinkle appeared in his eyes; he let out a laugh, slapped me on the back and said, “Should have been at least $75. Good for you.” Now, looking me straight in the eye over the rim of his glasses: “I think you’ll enjoy it.” We certainly did when we popped it a few months later for a special occasion and toasted Papa Pinot.

Susan, one of our guides, introduced herself to David, and said “You know, on our tours, we talk about you all the time. “Oh yeah” he said... again over the rim of his glasses, “What do you say?” After a brief pause, and a bit of reflection, she answered, “Well, Mr. Lett, it’s usually something along the lines of: ‘The man we call “Father of the Oregon Wine Industry” is basically a stubborn, passionate wild-eyed hippie, and a Land Rover-driving, Pinot-loving idealist.’ Then, there was a bit of a pause; then that twinkle. He let out a laugh and said... “That’s about right, at least back then.” Susan suspected little had really changed.

Whether it was his work in the wine world or a simple human interaction, David made an impact by being himself. All in all, he’s made a big impact on my life, for without him, I doubt I’d be doing what I do for a living today. For that, and just being who he was, I’m grateful.

—Ralph Stinton, Grape Escape Winery Tours (Portland)

David certainly was an inspiration to myself as well as many others. When I first returned from Université in Dijon, David hired me to work part-time at Eyrie. We soon discovered that we had both been philosophy majors in college and had a number of interesting discussions as a result.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of David, for me, was his seemingly unwavering dedication to his vision. Despite criticism or trends in winemaking, David always maintained his individual course. This dedication and his individual integrity should be his legacy to the Oregon wine industry.

—John Eliassen, La Bete Wines (McMinnville)

Before moving here, I had heard of Oregon’s wine giant and, on occasion, had enjoyed Eyrie Chardonnays and Pinots. In the early 1990s, I had the honor of meeting David and found him to be a very warm, pleasant and personable man, who—though not a giant in physical terms—was obviously solidly structured of principles and convictions.

Some years later, after Abacela was in production, we traded wines. Hilda and I still recall our first taste of David’s excellent Pinot Meunier. Given his Burgundian focus, I presumed his interest would not extend over the horizon to other varieties. I was wrong! He had kind words for our wines and thought we were on the right track. This was very encouraging.

Then, in October 2000, the Oregon Wine Press ran a winery profile on the Eyrie Vineyards. At least a third of the article was not about Eyrie but rather David’s vision of a “Valley of Flavor.” He went on to comment about the potential for “Southern Oregon, which catches more heat than the Willamette Valley” to achieve a part of this vision. He went on to say “I expect to see a Southern Oregon ‘signature’ style develop distinct from California’s handling of those same grape varieties and reflective of great vintage years when they come.”

It is likely that many Southern Oregonian winegrowers saved this article. I certainly did and clipped it onto my office bulletin board. For these last eight years, even though the paper has turned yellow with time, David’s smiling face has continued to encourage me daily.

We all need that kind of pioneering leadership and encouragement, and it can only come from that kind of a giant. Thank you David.

—Earl Jones, Abacela (Roseburg)

The first time I met Dave Lett was in 1987 when I became chair of the OWA Legislative Committee and was instantly embroiled in the long and difficult battle to get a direct shipment bill through the Oregon Legislature. David was a key player in this battle—indeed, I believe it was his brain child—which involved serious and protracted altercations, not only with good old Paul Romain of the Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, but also with the unorganized but very important (to us) Oregon wine retailers. 

So, in 1987, in order to get myself up to speed on the direct shipment issue and all the hidden agendas, I got up the courage to call Dave Lett and ask for an appointment to talk with him about it. I was in awe of Dave in 1987; he was already a legend when our family arrived in Oregon. I perceived him to be living on a superior plane of existence and not to be troubled with the middling affairs of recently arrived small fry. He was also known to have a bit of a temper.  

Still, I knew that David cared a lot about direct shipment and that he was the key to moving it forward, so with some trepidation I made that phone call in 1987 and was amazed and delighted when he very cordially agreed to talk with me at his office; he even offered to provide lunch. 

I have a very clear memory of my first impression of David when I was ushered into his office. He turned around in his swivel chair and his fabulous collection of wine openers was arrayed on the wall behind him, exactly like the ranks of cherubim and seraphim surrounding the throne of the deity in the ceiling of a medieval cathedral. Later, when box lunches were brought in, I was introduced to Kettle Chips for the very first time and knew the food of the gods. 

I did my best to not act like a groveling peasant through all this, and in the end, we developed a strategy for the legislative battle that went on through two sessions before we finally got a direct shipment bill passed. By then, I’d gotten used to David’s gruff exterior. And when the California legislature refused to recognize reciprocity after all that trouble, I was able to actually tease him a little in Quoi de Neuf, December 1989: 

“Speaking of holiday disguises, David Lett (Eyrie Vineyards) recently declined to comment for the press on the continuing stalemate over direct shipment. He said his resemblance to Santa Claus obliges him to eschew cynical attitudes and be jolly for the duration of the season. He says little kids on the street notice.”

Later, during my years as director of IPNC, I gained a whole new appreciation of the Dave Lett halo effect. His iconic welcome address at the opening of IPNC each year, wearing his safari shirt and ascot, was the very embodiment of Oregon wine style and hospitality. His success became our success.

—Pat Dudley, Bethel Heights Vineyard (Salem)

I recall a time years ago, around 1991, when I was in David’s winery for a reason I do not recall.  I had a barrel sample of a 1990 Chardonnay I had made with me, which he tasted. He was very cordial and kind during our discussions. I nervously poured him some of the wine and watched his face. He raised his eyebrows, looking at me above his glasses and was very complimentary. He was surprised of the character in the wine. I was very flattered to have someone of his stature so sincerely compliment my work.

 Twice in my 23 years in the business have I had an experience like this by an industry legend; the other was Andre Tchellistcheff.

—Joe Dobbes, Dobbes Family Estate/Wine By Joe (Dundee)

I have great memories, but one in particular that reveals something many may not know outside of David’s advocacy for effective land-use laws. David was remarkably well informed and helpful with industry legislative issues.

I served as the OWA Legislative and PAC Chair, as well as association president where David would give me very frank advice. His direct and colorful words and his intensity created a memory that is as clear as if he was standing here today, warning me about a particular lobbyist for the beer and wine wholesalers.

For all of you who know what I am talking about, I can see the smiles of affirmation on your faces.

—Jim Bernau, Willamette Valley Vineyards (Turner)

It goes without saying that David Lett had an enormous impact on my approach to winemaking, but even more importantly, his personal character will always challenge me to be a better person. His unwavering love of growing grapes and making wine, his steadfast will to protect Oregon’s farmland and wilderness, his pioneering efforts on behalf of people with autism, his appreciation of a good joke, and, perhaps most importantly, the great pleasure it gave him to pass on his winery and vineyard to his son Jason...all of these parts of David’s personality were and always will be inspirational to me.

—Amy Wesselman, Westrey Wine Company (McMinnville) ◊

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