Oregon’s wine history would be incomplete without the mention of David Lett. He is considered to be one of the founders of the Oregon wine industry, and is one of the reasons Oregon wine has the worldwide reputation it enjoys today.
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 later attended The University of Utah and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. He then had a brief stint as a Coast Guard Reserve, and then decided to return back to school in California to become a dentist. But fate had other plans; on his way to attend the university’s interview he stopped in Napa Valley and visited Lee Stewart’s winery, Chateau Souverain, the most prominent winery in the region 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 UC Davis. In 1963 he had obtained a degree in viticulture, and traveled to Europe to visit some of the most famous wine regions in the world. When he returned to the United States, he came back with a love of Pinot Noir and a belief he could find a great place to grow this grape in the US.
He traveled throughout Oregon taking soil samples in his hunt for the next great American wine region. Finally in 1966, he and his new wife, Diana found a perfect location in the Willamette Valley, and planted 3,000 Pinot Noir cuttings from California. This later became the Eyrie Vineyards, the name of both David and Diana’s winery and vineyard.
David Lett Kickstarted the Oregon Wine Industry
David Lett was the first to plant a commercial Pinot Noir vineyard in Oregon, and the first in the United States to grow Pinot Gris, earning his nickname of ‘Papa Pinot’. Along with a few other pioneers, Lett created the modern Oregon and Willamette Valley wine industry.
Today, Oregon is known for producing some of the best Pinot Noir in the country and some of the best in the world. It’s cold, rainy climate, that many believed would not be able to ripen wine grapes, creates Pinot Noir in a Burgundian style with plenty of acidity and complexity.
David Lett’s Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir
David Lett produced his first vintage Pinot Noir in 1970. Unfortunately the first vintage was so bad, Lett refused to call it Pinot Noir and instead labeled it as ‘Spring Wine’. But he continued working and his wine began improving. It improved so much that in 1979 at a Paris wine tasting competition, his 1975 Pinot Noir did very well and was able to hold its own on a global stage.
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 son, Jason took over leadership as winemaker at the company after David’s retirement in 2005.
David showed it was possible to make high quality wines in 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 producing states in the United States, and its wines are sold all over the world.
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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, planted the first commercial Pinot Noir vineyard in Willamette Valley in 1966.
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.
Asimov, Eric. 2008. “David Lett, Oregon Wine Pioneer, Dies at 69.” The New York Times, October 14, 2008, sec. Food. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/14/dining/14lett1.html.
Kivlen, Laura. 2016. “The Origins of Oregon: A Brief History of the Willamette Valley.” Skurnik Wines. March 21, 2016. https://www.skurnik.com/the-origins-of-oregon-a-brief-history-of-the-willamette-valley/.
Steiman, Harvey. 2008. “Oregon Wine Pioneer David Lett Dies | Wine Spectator.” Wine Spectator. Wine Spectator. October 13, 2008. https://www.winespectator.com/articles/oregon-wine-pioneer-david-lett-dies-4390.