David Lett in Oregon with cuttings from University of California at Davis, 1965 (photo courtesy of Eyrie Vineyards).
Pinot noir was made in America long before David Lett, who once planned to become a dentist but instead became known as “Papa Pinot,” planted Oregon’s first pinot noir vineyard in Dundee Hills in 1966. But shortly after that and other pioneer quality plantings, the state was quickly recognized around the world as America’s pinot noir standard bearer.
In 1963, Lett took his enology degree from the University of California at Davis and headed north to cool, rainy Oregon armed with the idea that its soil and climate would be conducive to growing this fickle grape. The fact that no one agreed with him, nor had anyone produced any commercial pinot noir in Oregon was not an impediment for him. The following year, he and his new bride, Diana, spent their honeymoon digging holes and planting pinot noir vines, in an old prune orchard.
I vividly recall the light-body, translucent cranberry-colored and intoxicating perfume of his wines, named Eyrie Vineyards. In the 1980s and 1990s, I always pleaded with my distributor for a case or two more than he allocated to my restaurant.
I have no memory of ever meeting Lett, but I was told in terms of public relations, he was not ready for prime time. I couldn’t have cared less. His pinot noirs spoke for him, with elegance and harmony. They were a chef’s dream to cook for: delicate texture, red-fruit and spice flavors, cleansing acidity. I could recommend Eyrie pinot noir with salmon or pork, Asian-fusion or Coq au Vin. Eyrie pinot noir was the Ginger Rogers to any Fred Astaire-inspired chef.
Drinking an American wine from historical vines is as rare an event as a Black Swan. (It’s more common in Europe, where vineyards preceded ours by millennia.) But that experience is offered by Eyrie’s Original Vines Pinot Noir: They are Oregon’s first pinot noir vines.
Lett can boast of another first: He was the first person in America to plant pinot gris (hence, his nickname). Along with that distinction, long before organic farming took hold, Lett never used insecticides, herbicides or systemic chemicals in the vineyard, and his son maintains the policy. If you’re getting the sense that Lett was a visionary, you’re right.
In 1992, in a speech to a class of enology students at his alma mater (it is published on Eyrie Vineyard’s website,) Lett reflected on grape growing, “After graduation, I left for Europe to spend nine months (on) my own research as to why certain varieties were planted in certain regions, particularly in France. The answer became increasingly apparent: For a vine to yield its best fruit (and consequently the best wines possible) it must mature its fruit in precise harmony with the end of the summer growing season. When this match of ripening time of a particular variety corresponds with the end of the growing season FLAVOR is the result. Early maturing varieties grown in warmer climates tend to have the more subtle flavors literally boiled out of them before they ripen.”
Lett died in 2008, leaving Eyrie in the hands of his winemaker son Jason. Recently, I had the opportunity to step back in time with the 2012 and 2013 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Original Vines Reserve.
Not unusual for Oregon, vintners encountered another vintage of rain and cool weather in 2012. It was drier in July and August, giving the grapes the opportunity to ripen gradually while retaining their acidity.
I knew happiness was on the way when the 2012 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Original Vines Reserve displayed its translucent cherry color. And it was found in the floral and strawberry scents. Its medium body is filled with very flavorful strawberry and raspberry-like fruit flavors that ride on refreshing acidity. The wine was a delicious partner to my sautéed veal chop, eggplant and mushrooms. 90 points.
The 2013 Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Original Vines was formed in a near perfect spring and summer only to have the end of September bring a deluge of rain. Eyrie’s Original Vines seemed to have absorbed some of that water as the tart-cherry and cranberry flavors are carried on a light body. But years of drinking Eyrie taught me not to be overly concerned about its body, which was reinforced by rhubarb and raspberry pie flavors as the wine opened. A pinch of tannins and a line of acidity carry the wine to a pleasing finish. Leaving this wine in the cellar for another year or two will allow Eyrie’s natural spice flavors to develop. 89 points. Both vintages retail from $69 to $79.
Domaine Meò-Camuzet occupies a prime place in my cellar. I have multiple vintages and wines of this top-notch Burgundy producer. So, it was sweet to hear that a partnership of winemaker Jean-Nicolas Meò and former music executive Jay Boberg purchased the Bishop Creek Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton section of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and renamed it Nicolas-Jay.
After its purchase in 2014, the partners initiated organic farming for the 13-acre vineyard. They also buy grapes from a handful of vineyards in Willamette Valley. And recently, they hired Tracy Kendall, formerly of Adelsheim winery, as the associated winemaker.
Their first effort is three bottlings, and the one you’re most likely to find (1,691 cases) is the 2014 Nicolas-Jay Pinot Noir Willamette Valley, made from both purchased grapes and those from the Bishop Creek vineyard.
Its glossy black-cherry color and ripe, cherry, red-plum and mild vanilla aroma lets you know that Meò knows how to make a New World pinot noir as well as an Old World. But, he doesn’t push the ripeness over the edge into candy land. There’s plenty of black-cherry and plum-like flavors, but the oak flavor is minimized and the sleek tannins bring this initial Nicolas-Jay wine to a soft landing on the back of your palate. 90 points. A wide price range from $58 to $77 calls for shopping before buying.
Louis Jadot is a name so well known that it needs no introduction, but its newest wine does: Resonance. It’s a 32-acre vineyard in Willamette Valley’s sub-appellation, Yamhill-Carlton. Resonance is Jadot’s first vineyard and winery outside of Burgundy since its founding in 1859. That’s one giant vote of confidence in Oregon pinot noir.
Jadot brought Jacques Lardiere, its former winemaker and technical director for 42 years, out of his recent retirement to oversee the Resonance winemaking. Nearly anyone of drinking age who has had a bottle of Jadot wine knows Lardiere is one of Burgundy’s great winemakers.
Photo John Foy
The 2013 Resonance Pinot Noir Yamhill-Carlton has a clear black-cherry color and a very fragrant Chinese five-spice and strawberry nose that makes me think Lardiere snuck some Chambolle-Musigny passed the border guards. Its medium body brings cinnamon, raspberry and strawberry flavors with good acidity and excellent balance. The 2013 Resonance blends New World fruit with Old World restraint. If you ever wondered why Jadot Burgundies were always pleasing, you’ll find the answer in this bottle: Ladiere, he’s the secret ingredient. 94 points. The $50 to $82 range demands shopping before buying.