David Lett, Oregon Wine Pioneer, Dies at 69
The cause was heart failure, his son Jason Lett said.
There was no wine commerce in Oregon back in 1965 when Mr. Lett arrived in the Willamette Valley, armed with 3,000 vine cuttings and a theory that the best wines come from places where the grapes have to struggle to ripen. He and his wife, Diana, planted 13 acres of vines in 1966 in an old prune orchard in the Dundee Hills, which they named the Eyrie Vineyard. Their vines foreshadowed the future of Oregon winemaking. Today, the state has more than 10,000 acres of pinot noir.
In 1970 he produced his first vintage of Eyrie pinot noir. He found it so disappointing that he refused to call it pinot noir, selling it instead as Spring Wine. He soon found his stride, and in 1979 his 1975 Eyrie pinot noir became the first American pinot noir to compete successfully with Burgundies in a blind tasting in Paris.
The Eyrie pinot noirs are graceful and elegant with complex aromas. They are pale ruby in color, and against many of today’s inky dark pinot noirs, which strive for power and weight, the lighter-bodied Eyries have sometimes been misjudged as thin and pallid.
“He always felt deeply appreciated by culinary types who understood that wine was made to go with food,” Jason Lett said. “I do think he felt regret for the misrepresentation of power as terroir.”
David Lett was born in Chicago in 1939, and he graduated from the University of Utah in 1961. After a stint in the Coast Guard Reserve, he planned to attend dental school at the University of California, Davis. On his way to Davis for an interview, he made a detour through the pastoral Napa Valley, where he stopped at Chateau Souverain, the leading Napa winery of the time, run by Lee Stewart.
“He was absolutely floored by what Lee was doing,” Jason Lett recalled, “and he asked Lee for a job right there.”
His parents were not so thrilled, but agreed that if he returned to school for a professional degree, he could pursue winemaking. He did attend Davis, and emerged in 1963 with a degree in viticulture.
After traveling through Europe visiting wine regions, he returned to the United States in love with the pinot noir grape, with the conviction that it could succeed only in a marginal environment. A taste of some particularly good strawberries grown in the Willamette Valley convinced him that it was the place for pinot noir. He moved there in 1965.
While searching for the right site for a vineyard, Mr. Lett supported himself by selling college textbooks. The job permitted him to drive around the state, and whenever he saw a likely area, Jason Lett said, he would pull over to take soil samples. In the summer of 1966 he found his vineyard, and he also found a wife. David and Diana Lett spent their honeymoon planting grape vines, Jason Lett said.
In addition to his wife and son Jason, Mr. Lett is survived by another son, James, of Dundee. Jason Lett took over as winemaker at Eyrie in 2005.
While pinot noir was his passion, Mr. Lett was also the first winemaker in the United States to produce pinot gris, now the second leading grape in Oregon, after pinot noir.
Although Mr. Lett at first derided his 1970 vintage of pinot noir, he decided later that he had been mistaken. With time, the wine he thought thin and wan turned complex and delicious.
“We had a bottle with Christmas dinner last year,” Jason Lett said, “and it was fabulous.”
ピノ・ノワール (Pinot Noir) は、フランスのブルゴーニュ地方を原産とする世界的な品種で、紫色を帯びた青色の果皮を持つ。冷涼な気候を好み、特に温暖な気候では色やフレーバーが安定しないので栽培は難しい。イタリアでは「ピノ・ネロ」(Pinot Nero)、ドイツでは「シュペートブルグンダー」(Spätburgunder)の名がある。遺伝子的に不安定で変異種が少なくない。この中には、緑みを帯びた黄色の果皮を持つピノ・ブラン(Pinot Blanc)や褐色のピノ・グリ(Pinot Gris) などがあり、時には同じ樹に異なった色の果実がなるともいわれている。フランス以外では最近ニュージーランドでの栽培が盛んで、日本でも北海道など寒冷地 を中心に栽培される。ワインはライトボディで、弱めの渋味、繊細かつ複雑なアロマとフレーバーや強い酸味が特徴である。シャンパンのような高級スパークリングワインにも欠かせない品種である。