David Lett, a pioneer of the Oregon wine industry, died Thursday. He was only 69. He went to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1965, convinced — against all the advice he had been given — that this would be fertile ground for pinot noir and pinot gris. The wines he produced at The Eyrie Vineyard proved him right. david_lett.JPG

While a later generation or two of winemakers moved toward ripe, dark, heavily extracted wines, Lett continued to make pinot noir on the Burgundian model of spare elegance and delicacy, with spicy red fruit flavors and whip-lash acid. Delicious in youth, the wines, especially the Reserves, aged beautifully for 10 to 15 years. His chardonnays were wonderful too.

By happenstance, I spent an afternoon with David Lett during the International Pinot Noir Conference in 2003. A friend and I hitched a ride with him in his Jaguar, we visited the winery (in an old turkey warehouse) and drove out to his house. It was a beautiful, still afternoon. We wandered through his old vineyards, not even talking most of the time, not that he didn’t love to talk. That night, at the big banquet and salmon cook-out, Lett brought some old bottles of his pinot noir and chardonnay. They were lovely, the pinots taut and vigorous, yet satiny and flavorful, the chardonnays seamlessly layered with minerality.

The younger winemakers I talked to at the conference were clearly fond of Lett, but he was also clearly regarded as eccentric, old-fashioned and stubborn. Subtlety, he was condescended to. I tried the pinot noir wines concocted by these young winemakers, these pinots that burst with ripe black fruit flavors, that seethed with spice and smoke, that felt plush and velvety, and I made notes on them. The wines I kept going back to, however, were David Lett’s pinot noirs.

His was the vision at the beginning; his will be the vision at the end.

Image of David Lett from Wikipedia.