David Lett and the Oregon Wine Industry
The Pacific Northwest’s wine history would be incomplete without the mention of David Lett. In fact, David Lett and the Oregon wine industry is a tale in itself. Considering the enormous role he played in drawing the world’s attention to the Oregon wine industry, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say he is the “father of wine” in the Beaver State. 
Entrance into the World of Wine
David was born in Chicago in 1939 and spent most of his early years on a farm in Holladay, Utah. He earned a degree in winemaking and grape growing from the University of California, Davis and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Utah.
After serving a brief stint as a Coast Guard Reserve, David Lett set out for the University of California with the hopes of attending dental school. However, on his way to Davis, he took a detour to Lee Stewart’s winery, Chateau Souverain, the most prominent winery in Napa at the time.
He was so excited by what Stewart was doing that he asked for a job on the spot. His parents weren’t thrilled, but they supported his decision to study winemaking at Davis. This was how Lett got his degree in viticulture. After graduating and traveling to wine regions in Europe, David returned to the United States with the conviction that he could grow the best Pinot in America, even though the climate was said to be too cold for Pinot.
Eventually, his quest led him to Willamette Valley, Oregon, where he planted the first Pinot Noir. He also planted Chardonnay and other vinifera varietals. Years later, in 1966, Lett and his wife Diana bought a hillside acreage in a city south of Portland—the famous Eyrie Vineyards. Because David Lett was the first American winemaker to cultivate Pinot varietals (especially Pinot Gris) in the US, he earned the nicknamed “Papa Pinot.”
David Lett Kickstarted the Oregon Wine Industry
While it is true that David Lett wasn’t the first to plant Pinot Noir in Oregon, his vineyard was the first in the Willamette Valley that made an impact in getting the wine industry in Oregon rolling.
When David Lett arrived in Oregon, there was no trace of wine commerce. However, this was good news because he believed that grapes that struggle to ripen make the best wines. Willamette Valley fit his plans perfectly. He had 3,000 vine cuttings that he planted on the 13-acre Eyrie Vineyards. His 3,000 cuttings now extend beyond 10,000 acres of Pinot Noir in Oregon.
David Lett’s Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir
David Lett produced his first vintage Pinot Noir in 1970. Unfortunately, it didn’t go as he had hoped, so he decided not to label it Pinot Noir. Instead, he sold the produce as spring wine. He gave it another try, and against all odds, the 1975 Eyrie Pinot Noir made it to the Paris wine tasting in 1979. This made it the first American Pinot Noir to go head-on against its Burgundy counterparts.
Go deeper: Willamette Valley Wine Tours
Lett’s South Block 1975 Pinot Noir ranked third at the tasting of hundreds of wines organized by Gault-Millau, a French food and wine magazine.
Lett retired in 2005 and passed away from heart failure in October 2008 at his home in Dundee. He was survived by his wife and sons, James and Jason. His sons took over leadership as president and winemaker at the company after David’s retirement in 2005.
David taught new winemakers how to handle Oregon’s rainy and often cold climate. Thanks to his courage and persistence, the wine industry in Oregon has developed tremendously. Currently, it is ranked among the top wine producers in the United States, alongside Washington, New York, and California.
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On This Day in History
October 9, 2008: David Lett died from heart failure at his home in Dundee. He is the founder of The Eyrie Vineyards in McMinnville and a wine industry pioneer in Oregon. David and his wife, Diana, produced the first Pinot Noir vintage in Willamette Valley in 1970.
September 6, 1940: Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s French citizenship was revoked for “leaving France, without a valid reason and official permission.” This was at the outbreak of the second world war. His Jewish parents fled to Switzerland for safety after the German army occupied France. The Vichy government arrested and incarcerated him, and he regained his freedom on April 20, 1941.
- 2022. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/wine/detail?&entry_id=31396.
- 2022. http://www.decanter.com/news/269943.html.
- “Oregon Wine Pioneer David Lett Dies | Wine Spectator.” 2022. Wine Spectator. https://www.winespectator.com/articles/oregon-wine-pioneer-david-lett-dies-4390.