David Lett and the Oregon Wine Industry

Oregon’s wine history would be incomplete and perhaps a “phantom tale” without David Lett. 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. [1]

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 completed 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.

David Lett

David Lett

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. 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 thrilled by what Stewart was doing that he asked for a job on the spot. His parents weren’t thrilled, but they did agree that he could study for a degree in winemaking at Davis, and that 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.

His quest led him to Willamette Valley, Oregon, where he planted the first Pinot Noir. He also planted Chardonnay and other vinifera varietals. 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 U.S, he was nicknamed “Papa Pinot.”[2]

David Lett was the founder and winemaker for The Eyrie Vineyards of Oregon. He was a pioneer in the Oregon wine industry

David Lett kickstart the wine industry in Oregon

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, setting the wine industry in Oregon rolling.

When David Lett arrived in Oregon, there was no trace of wine commerce. This was good news because he believed that the best wines are made from grapes that struggle to ripen. Willamette valley fit his plans perfectly. He had 3,000 vine cuttings which he planted on the 13-acre Eyrie vineyard. His 3000 cuttings now extend beyond 10,000 acres of Pinot Noir in Oregon.[3]

Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noir gave the Burgundies a run for their money

David Lett produced his first Vintage Pinot Noir in 1970. 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 the 1975 Eyrie Pinot Noir made it to the Paris wine tasting in 1979, against all odds. This made it the first American Pinot Noir to go head-on against its Burgundy counterparts.

The South block 1975 Pinot Noir emerged 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 on in October 2008 at his home in Dundee after heart failure. 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. It is now 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 regarded as 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, and his parents (who were Jewish) had fled to Switzerland for safety after the German army occupied France. He was arrested and incarcerated by the Vichy government and regained his freedom on April 20, 1941.

References

  1. 2022. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/wine/detail?&entry_id=31396.
  2. 2022. http://www.decanter.com/news/269943.html.
  3. “Oregon Wine Pioneer David Lett Dies | Wine Spectator.” 2022. Wine Spectator. https://www.winespectator.com/articles/oregon-wine-pioneer-david-lett-dies-4390.

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