October 10, 2008

David Lett dies at 69

The father of Oregon pinot noir, David Lett of the Eyrie vineyard, died Thursday night at home in Dundee. Read more here.

If you enjoy Oregon pinot noir, or Oregon wine for that matter, you owe this man some thanks and serious respect. If you work in the Oregon wine business, or if you aspire to as I do, you might even owe him your livelihood.

Richard Sommer started the HillCrest vineyard down in the Umpqua Valley back in 1961, apparently the first real planting post-prohibition. But David Lett and his wife Diana planted the Eyrie Vineyard in the Dundee Hills of Yamhill County in 1966. Their planting started the modern Willamette Valley wine industry. Without them, with David leading the way, things just wouldn't be as they are. Hundreds of wineries and thousands of acres of grapes, led by the pinot noir.

I never met David but saw him a couple of times, the last time at a restaurant in McMinnville just before the 2007 harvest began. He was on oxygen and looked frail. That, his family around him, and my rightful modesty kept me from interrupting to gush about how I owe him for even being able to dream about making wine here in Oregon.

But a part of me wishes I could have somehow communicated that without being a bother. It can't ever get old hearing praise, can it? Maybe so if you're trying to eat your lunch in peace.

So this will have to do. Thank you David Lett, for everything. I spent much of today tasting fruit in a number of local vineyards, planning for the impending harvest. What a joy.

This afternoon I found myself on a hillside outside of Yamhill in weak but still warm sunshine. I saw vineyards draped across the low hills, the canopies still mostly green, every vine in sight patiently hanging fruit, the valley below colored in soft greens and yellows of early fall. Impatient birds made most of the noise. Otherwise there was silence, just but the faint hum of cities and a truck down the road unloading picking bins.

Harvest is beginning like a swell, 42 years since the Eyrie vineyard went in the ground. The vines continue to give more each year, a metaphor for Mr. Lett, enduring.

1 comment:

Marshall Manning said...

I didn't hear about this until Friday, but it's a sad day for those who love what Oregon Pinot Noir can be, yet so rarely is. Not only did we lose one of the best winemakers (if not the best) this state has ever seen, but we lost someone who dared to do things his own way and made some of the best wines I've ever had from Oregon. Unfortunately, most OR winemakers, even those who claim Lett as an influence, seem content to make overly ripe, flabby Pinots that are best consumed within a couple of years of release. The best way for winemakers to show respect for him is to make the kind of wines that he was making, those that show the best that Oregon can be.