It takes strong-willed individuals to explore new, unknown routes and open the way for future generations, and David Lett was one of them. We now associate pinot noir with Oregon when we think about wine in the United States, but that didn't come easy, and David Lett can be credited for starting the whole story.
As early as 1965, after a thorough research for the best planting location (and btw resisting the negative opinion of viticultural specialists of UC Davis at that time), he moved to Northern Oregon to plant pinot noir in the Willamette valley, which was at the time just known for its orchards and quiet farming villages southwest of Portland. Pinot noir was not hype at all at the time, it was even mostly unknown by the trade and the consumers, the U.S. wineries and wine amateurs being on cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay then. To underline David Lett's pioneer vision, it must be said that he was also the first in the United States to plant pinot gris and the first to release a still pinot meunier. The pinot gris was even more forsaken in the US as a variety, and there were only 4 vines of it at the research center, wineries seeing no commercial future here for that grape. But David Lett noticed that this variety was very successful in northern wine-latitudes in Europe and that it could thrive in cooler climates in the U.S. like the one of Northern Oregon.
Swimming against the tide has been one of David Lett's strengths and his courageous choices proved successful and helped make a whole wine region in the way. Jason Lett who now runs the winery says that people today also keep thinking into the mold, like taking the limestone nature of a soil like gold standard to make burgundy pinot noir, when what counts really is the climate. Even if the soil may compare to Burgundy's, you cant't plant in the San Joaquin valley for example and expect to make a good pinot noir, but that understanding hasn't gone through yet.
I visited the winery with Michael Alberty of Story Teller Wine and my friend Deborah Heath who is an anthroplogist at Lewis & Clak University in Portland and conducts a research on wine and terroir. Deborah was kind enough to drive me to this place as I was still shy of using the enormous-looking Dodge Avenger that I'd just rented for this adventure in the region.
This first (rented) winemaking room was already kind of insulated at the time with a thick layer of cork fixed under the ceiling as it was actually a large freezer for the meat when it was still a meat processing plant, and it provided already a good temperature stability even without air con. The floors were already cemented with a natural draining system, which was fine for a winery too. David Lett and his wife cleaned the room tightly before turning it to winemaking, painting it white, but they never touched it afterthen, washing the winemaking tools and the barrels of course but not the walls or the ceiling, and natural bacteria and yeast flourished naturally from then on.
Even for the malolactic fermentation, something positive happened by itself in 1974 : they had a strain of malolactic fermentation yeast that colonized the cellar then and they realized that it had better properties than the commercial strains as this strain allows the wine to go through malolactic at very low temperature and high acidity, which was perfect for the type of wines they were making here. As the winery began making wine in 1971/1972, this was quite early and beneficial for the winery.
Jason didn't go to a winemaking school, he learnt on the job. To rewind back a bit, he had worked with his father till he was 17, then he went to school, studying botany in New Mexico, sometimes coming back to help for the harvest or other tasks. Then in 1997 he came back to live in the area with his wife, working at the winery with his father, but "two chefs in a small kitchen" is difficult and this stopped in 2000 as he went to work for other wineries. In 2004 when Jason's father was getting very sick, he helped take care of the winery and his father was brave enough to let him work his way and make the decisions. So, in 2005 he stating off with working with wild yeast on a few barrels of chardonnay, then in 2006 with a few fermenters of pinot noir. Then in 2010 he used only wild yeast, for 100 % of the wines. Asked if this conversion was smooth or if he had a few accidents, he says that in 2005 and 2006 there was always a fermentation that didn't seem to take the right direction. Actually it was generally lagging fermentation which made him nervous , and the thing he'd be worried about would be the rotten-egg smell during the fermentation, but they now have a good population of yeast in the cellar and the fermentation unfolds correctly. Asked by Deborah why he succeeded with using wild yeast while his father quit on the issue, Jason says that there's now a strong winemaking culture (and support) in the [Willamette] valley while when his father set up the winery he was alone and without the confidence brought by the numbers of other experimenting vintners. Also, Jason took advantage of the accumulated years of winemaking in his father's facility, which had naturally built up an indigenous yeast population that was ready to work.
pic on left : vintage repeal-prohibition plates in front of the historic office of the winery.
He likes using old barrels for their neutral work of just exposing the wine very slowly to oxygen, which helps in the long run the wine to have a longer lifespan in the bottle. He doesn't wish to have wine tasting like a forest in France, he jokes. Of course, evaporation is the down side, they loose 7 % of wine in the casks per year and must top up. For the partially-filled metal containers used for topping up the barrels, they flush the air out and put argon in the place to protect the wine.
To keep barrels in use so long, they always keep them wet, filling them with water and a bit of sulfur when not is wine use.
David Lett was not initially into winemaking, he was a Utah native (not really an ideal place for wine lovers...) pursuing a career in the medical field, but while travelling to the Bay Area for an interview he became passionated by wine and viticulture while visiting Chateau Souverain, and owner Lee Stewart became his mentor. His parents who didn't see this positively said OK if he pursued a degree and he enrolled at UC Davis. His professor there was saying that very few climates were good for pinot noir in the U.S. and certyainly not Oregon's, but one of his classmates who had travelled to Alsace found out that this region was close to NorthWestern Oregon on this field and David Lett went there to take some soil samples like he usually did when he travelled in a prospective region. You have to know that back at that time in the US, the impetus was not on pinot noir but on Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, and David Lett was out of the mainstream thinking already on this issue when pursuing a pinot noir project. He studied the climates where pinot noir could fit well, convinced that the climate was the answer, and he selected the northern coast of Portugal, the south island of New Zealand and the Willamette valley. He looked into the meteorological survey, a resource which at that time (before the Internet) had lots of useful data about a given region's climate, rain, temperature etc... This helped him narrow his search and focus on the Willamette valley southwest of Portland.
Picture on right : David Lett carrying what was to be the first plantings in the Willamette valley.
__Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir 2011, taken from a stainless-steel vat where it's been racked after 14 months of barrel time. The color is very lght. Jason says that he remembers his father saying that with pinot noir, color and flavor exist in an inversed ratio, meaning the more color the less flavor... Actually he says that he thinks there's no connection between color and flavor, but it showed his father's love with pale-colored pinot noirs, something many modern winemakers are not comfortable with. Very nice wine. I like the night light tannic touch in the mouth.
__Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris 2012. Pressed then fermented and aged in stainless steel, in vats with no jackets, no temperature control. The fermentation temperature goes up to 28° C and stabilizes by itself. He says that somehow even though people made wine for centuries without temp control, modern winemakers think they can't do without and it's not true. This wine is on its lees and goes through its malo now. The lles move by themselves, they don't stir. Other wineries have already released their 2012 pinot gris and although their own is sold out (the 2011) they prefer to wait for the wine to be ready by its own (which should be by september 2013). they of course don't inoculate and for the maloactic as well. Right now the sugar is dry, there's a little bit of malic acid which is being transformed. This pinot gris s a blend of a couple parcels, but they also make a wine from older vines because this variety can express itself very differently. The mouth is full here. Costs 15 dollars a bottle. Alcohol content : 12,3 %.
__Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris 2012, from 50-year-old ungrafted vines. Very clear wines, almost ready. Same type of vines as the previous tasted wine, the vines coming also from the original 4 vines that were kept at the vine research center in California. Fropmplanting to planting, they have now 10 hectares of pinot gris. The first time they bottled this tiny parcel of old pinot gris was last year and there was this very distinctive nose of crushed herbs and he's happy it's back in 2012. The mouth is very classy too, I find, that's very nice. Costs 30 dollars a bottle. Alcohol content : about 12 %. He says that the 2012 has more tropical notes when the 2011 was more on the steely side. But they like the vintage to reflect in the wines [2011 was much cooler and rainy than 2012]. The yields for the old vines is about 20 hectoliters/hectare while at the younger vines it's 35, which is not that big too. He says that 08, 09, 10, 11 and 12 have been low-yield years.
__Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Meunier 2012. Very different color. His father would be very embarassed by this color like he himself is. This wine is aged in barrel, and this particular barrel is giving more wood imprint on the wine, it's a 2010 barrel.
__Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir 2012. Back to pinot noir, another cask. The color is darker than the 2011 because of the drier weather. From a vineyard they purchased in 2011 and renamed Outcrop. the first vintage was in 2012 after the transition to organic farming.
Then we went in the tasting room to taste a few bottles. You must know that originally, David Lett was wary of tasting rooms, a feature which has become a glossy showroom for commercial wineries (like large parking lots) but this one is very intimate and modest.
__Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris 1992. Very refined nose. Neat, straight forward wine. Very nice wine indeed. Michael remembers a few years back when David Lett poured him blind in his office a wine from a bottle in a paper bag to see what he thought of it, and this wine had this nicely-oxidized aroma through which he tried to guess which Burgundy white it could be, maybe Meursault ? David then pulled the bottle from the paper bag saying Ah, and they tell me that Pinot Gris doesn't age ! It was a pinot gris from the early 1980s' he doesn't remember exactly which vintage but it was a terrific wine. David Lett was the first one to plant pinot gris in the United States and convincing the trade that this variety could make nice wines was an uphill battle here.
__Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir 2000. Cuvée Marguerite (named after Jason's first daughter). Lovely nose. Evolved color. Light bitterness in the mouth. Very nice. Costs 85 $.
__Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir 1999. South block reserve. Even much more enjoyable wine, the swallowing is very nice, intense. Gorgeous wine indeed. Comes with a price : 184 $.
Speaking about bottling I ask if Jason takes the moon into account but he expresses doubts about the issue, saying he's skeptic and he isn't into mystical dogma including biodynamy.
They still it use this old press for the red because it makes such a good job, and use the new one for Pinot Gris and Pinot Meunier. The old press is very gentle, squeezing a very thick cake of grapes and as the juice comes out winding through the channels in the grapes it makes almost some sort of filtration and the rough tannings are removed that way, while with the modern press you have to be very careful because it's squeezing a much thinner layer of grapes and so you can easily have the unwanted tannins in the juice.
Asked about the SO2 adding, Jason says that they may add SO2 when the grapes come in, depending of how the grapes look like, and after malolactic. Their wines have low ph and so they add a bit of sulfure, the wines having 90 part total and 30 parts free. They found that after 6 years the free SO2 is gone, and the total after 20 years. About the filtration, there is usually none but some may be filtered, like the whites.
Eyrie's vineyards are spread over 5 locations across Dundee Hills, the plots being Daphne, Rolling Green, Outcrop, The Eyrie and Sisters. The altitude goes from 150 meters to 280 meters, the soil is volcanic on basalt cobble, and the farming is the same across these blocks : no irrigation [rare in the US], no till, no herbicides, no insecticides, no systemic chemicals and hand-harvested.
They had Trousseau planted last year on the Sisters block, but you'll have to wait a while to taste the wine.
The Eyrie vineyard (picture above) was planted from the ealy 60s' to the early 70s' and David Lett soon realized that the 10 rows of Pinot Noir here were yielding very qualitative wines and he decided to barrel them separately in 1975, making a reserve pinot noir which he called the South Block. In 1979 and 1980 (respectively in Paris in Beaune) he got a very good score in a blind contest in France and that was the beginning of the recognition for Oregon's Pinot Noir and of David Lett's own work. The wine was introduced in Burgundy by Becky Wasserman who at the time was shipping barrels to the U.S. David Lett had purchased barrels from here and he has passed her a few bottles which she helped take part in this historic contest. the 2nd tasting was organized by Robert Drouhin who thought that the Burgundy selection was not good enough in the 1st, so this positive result for Eyrie in the 2nd tasting helped Robert Drouhin take the leap to invest in Oregon and set up Domaine Drouhin Oregon. This reserve Pinot Noir which was spotted in France was not made on every vintage, just on the best conditions, in 75, 76, 80, 81, 82, 83, 85 through 07 and so on. Again, Jason says that you have to know that in the late 70s' selling pinot noir to Americans and worse, wine from Oregon, was an extremely arduous job, people would just walk away. Even pronouncing pinot noir was arduous, it was really under the radar then. Jason says that before 1975, 98 % of the wine made in America was sweet wine with brandy in it and you had to fight your way through all this.
Speaking of grass and vines,Jason says that he learned from his desert-plant studies in New Mexico that once the baby vine has grown roots like about 70 centimeters deep, it's well below the layer where the grass feeds, and by keeping the grass you force the roots to grow even deeper and reach horizons where it can find moisture. So he prefers to cut the grass instead or till.
Jason shows me a cluster, saying that they may decide to get rid of the wing on each cluster, which is a long job, the crew having to look at each cluster and take off the small part at the base of the cluster, named wing here and rachis in France. Sometimes they take off whole clusters, it depends of the evolution of the grapes. Right now he says (this was early july), they're quite late because the grapes are growing 2 inches a day.
Jason picks a couple of redish rock of the type you find here and there in the vineyard. When the stone fall apart it makes the type of volcanic soil we're walking on, and the name of the appellation (AVA) is Red Hills of Dundee, by the way. The soil here is of the Jory type, which is called the Oregon State soil. There has been a thorough study of the different soils in the United States made through the work of the U.S. Geological Survey, and the USGS data and topographic maps dating from the 1900s to the 1920s are still a mine of informations for the soils of this country. The whole suface of the estate is now about 25 hectares and there are 7 people working in the vineyard plus himself and Jeremy his assistant-manager, plus two people in the tasting room and 2 people in the office, which is stil pretty small. They're turning closer to 60 acres now because they're right now planting more vineyards, some Melon de Bourgogne (0,8 hectare) next to the already-planted Trousseau, more Chardonnay and more Pinot Meunier. To compare, the Trousseau surface is also about 0,8 hectare.
All the vines here are on their own roots, without protection from phylloxera. The thing is, the first Oregon vineyard to face a case of phylloxera was at their neighboors in 1985 replanted since on rootstock. Here at Eyrie they've managed to keep their original ungrafted vines, largely thanks to the way they treat the surface (no tilling, no plowing). The first phylloxera case happened in 1985 but the viticulture University aknowledged it in 1990 and from 1990 all the new plantings in Oregon were usually on rootstock. As all of their ineyards were planted before 1990, they hadn't a choice and they do with it. they aknowledge the danger but want to keep working with their ungrafted vines as long as possible. On the other hand they have pieces of land which are not planted yet and they will plant eventually on rootstock.
Here they're trying a new technolmogy to prevent the phylloxera threat, it's called inarch grafting : as you can see on the picture above, they're planting a young rootstock next to the ungrafted vine and will graft it into the older vine in order to protect it afterwards, sort of. It's never been tried with vines but it has been done with apples.
__ Eyrie Vineyards, Black Cap a rosé 2011 blend of pinot noir and pinot meunier (7 %). The pinot noir comes from an estate in Amity 15 miles from here. 2002 was the 1st vintage for this rosé. Aged in a barrel (16 months). Jason jokes that he looked how all the other wineries were doing their rosé and he just did the opposite. It's a direct press (in the old basket press we saw), and it got the color because this press is so low. 11,8 ° in alcohol, very light indeed, and it tasted fresh in spite of the wine temperature having hiked (it was very hot that day). Easy drinking rosé, definitely worth trying.
Asked if they'd spray copper on the vines, Jason says no and instead they're using milk whey, which works very well and doesn't pollute the soils. They spray milk whey against mildew every 10 days when needed. When Jason lived in New Mexico they'd work with mustards, growing them in a greenhouse and while in the destert they would grow fine, they'd hate the greenhouse environment with the water and the rest and mildew would catch on. So he started to look for a cure on this, and he found something about a guy in Brazil who was growing zucchini in a greenhouse, facing mildew just the same, and the guy just opened his fridge and tried all sort of things including whole milk, which worked, and some people later determined that the protein in the milk is doing the work. Now the practice has become quite mainstream in Oregon for 8 or 9 years maybe. From the very first year they introduced this spraying they some the result.
Edit : the IPNC has just announced that the president for next years's Pinot Noir Celebration will be Jason Lett...
Jamie Goode's profile of Eyrie Vineyards
Pinot File's extensive story on Eyrie
Eric Asimov piece about late David Lett
History of Oregon wine