As you no doubt know by now, David Lett has left us.
His death so recently after the retrospective tasting of all of his vintages on pinot noir last July (see my previous blog post) was sad indeed. The tributes to him and his impact have been frequent, far-flung, and heart-felt. But for me, there is more to David's legacy than just the impact he had on pinot noir in America.
The story of his coming to the Willamette Valley in 1965 and planting the first pinot noir vines in the region is well known (the black & white image here is of David christening his vines with burgundy wine). The story of how his 1975 South Block Reserve from The Eyrie Vineyards bested some of Burgundy’s top wines at a 1979 Paris tasting, and subsequently helped inspire Robert Drouhin and his daughter Veronique to establish Domaine Drouhin Oregon, is equally famous.
So rather than simply repeat a well-documented history, I’d like to talk about something else that David Lett did, something that I think is ultimately more important than his proving that pinot noir could be grown well in Oregon—and something that I think he doesn’t get enough credit for.
David properly gets a lot of credit for helping put the Oregon wine industry “on the map,” but I think he should also get a lot of credit for helping create the enduring character of Oregon’s wine industry. Because Oregon’s wine industry is different, it does have a distinctive character (all you have to do is spend time in the wine countries of California, Washington, B.C., and Idaho to see that character difference) and in many ways David Lett helped define, mold, and influence the mentalité of Oregon wine.
For one thing, he embodied the individualistic ethos that is still today a distinguishing element of Oregon winemaking. By coming to Oregon, David demonstrated at least four levels of a spirit that still infuses the Oregon wine community: individualism.
First, he went against the mainstream. David concentrated on growing an unpopular wine grape variety: pinot noir. While Burgundy wines were famous, desirable, and expensive, in 1960s America (which for wine, meant 1960s California) pinot noir itself was little understood, barely grown, and the object of almost no one’s passion. None of that deterred David Lett—he determinedly went ahead with his pinot project.
Second, he went against authority. David studied at UC Davis, then as now the foremost winemaking school in the country. His professors proclaimed that Oregon was too cold and wet to properly ripen quality wine grapes. David thought otherwise, and went ahead and proved his professors wrong.
Third, he followed his own—as cliché as it sounds—dream. He had a goal, and he pursued it. He didn’t just stumble into growing Pinot noir and he didn’t just happen to find himself in the Willamette Valley one day. Rather, he purposefully followed a single intent . . . and continued to do so throughout his life.
And fourth, he did it entirely himself. David came to Oregon without a job, without external financial support, without a business plan. Sure, there were one or two others at the time (Richard Sommer in the south, and Charles Coury in the north), but David had no backing other than his drive and intent. He entered Oregon jobless, sold college textbooks to get by, and built his winery and vineyard entirely from the ground up , , , with his own hands (as well as those of his wife Diana—who spent her honeymoon planting vines).
All of these flavors of individualism still commonly characterize Oregon’s wine world. There are any number of winemakers a) who continue to go against the mainstream (Myron Redford’s aversion to using new oak comes to mind), b) who go against authority (I’m thinking here of the many wineries who refuse to get certified organic even though they are, for all intents and purposes, fully organic), c) who follow their own convictions (examples abound: Earl Jones with tempranillo, Steve Reustle with gruner veltliner, the old ORCA chardonnay group . . . I could go on), and d) who continue to do everything themselves, without backing, partners, or fortunes (My good friends the Broadleys come to mind here.)
David Lett did not single-handedly craft the Oregon winemaking ethos. But isn’t it interesting how so many of the people who followed him to Oregon to make Pinot noir shared the independent sensibilities that David Lett lived by?
David Lett also displayed a set of “wine values” that still distinguish the state’s winemaking community.
First, note that word “community”—it is difficult to think of the Oregon wine world as an “industry.” From the beginning David freely shared his knowledge and advice. Newcomers were not seen as outsiders nor competitors, but as prospective compatriots in the great adventure of building Oregon Pinot noir. As as these newcomers benefitted from David's generosity, so they did unto the new newcomers, what David did unto them: gave of themselves freely.
Lett also placed a premium on what we today call “sustainability.” though it had no such word nor cachet back when David began planting his vineyard. From the beginning he farmed as organically as he could, in part because he felt it helped give him the healthier vines he needed in order to make better wines, and in part because he wanted to keep the land itself healthy in order to pass it on to future generations.
These values remain integral to the ethic of the Oregon wine community, and in large part that is thanks to David Lett.
To see how the Lett legacy lives on, there is no better case than that of Josh Bergstrom. Here is a young winemaker who burst upon the Oregon scene about ten years ago with wines noted for their boisterous fruit, big character, and in-your-face style—just about the polar opposite kind of wines from those that David Lett made and advocated for.
Yet these two men, of such different generations and winemaking sensibilities, came together. David sold Chardonnay grapes to Josh, who made his own Bergstrom-branded wine from The Eyrie Vineyards grapes. I don’t know of any other instance where The Eyrie Vineyard is a named source for another winemaker’s wine. Two fiercely independent winemakers of differing stylistic sensibilities cooperating together . . . how Oregonian!
And, it must also be noted, that Josh Bergstrom is just as fiercely organic (biodynamic, actually) as David Lett had been, even though Josh began growing grapes in the Willamette Valley 30 years after David.
That's just one example of David Lett's influence.
A legacy which, by the way, is being amply carried on by his son, Jason Lett. Jason shares his father's quiet intensity as well as his unshakeable values. There will continue to be Eyrie Vineyard wines and they will continue to display the signature elegance that is the hallmark of the Willamette valley's founding pinot noir winery.
So even while David is being rightly lauded as the father of Willamette Valley’s Pinot noir success, he should also be remembered for fostering—indeed, fathering—the character of all of Oregon’s wine community.
And that, to me, is a bigger thing to be remembered for than just Pinot noir!