Walking through the historic Eyrie Vineyard, Dundee Hills, Oregon

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For the last few days I’ve been in Oregon, staying in a house with a view of one of the great historic Pinot Noir vineyards of the world. It’s the original vineyard of The Eyrie Vineyards, and this is an important vineyard for north American Pinot Noir.

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Back in 1965, the pioneering David Lett moved to Oregon from California. He’d caught the wine bug, studied viticulture and enology at Davis, and wanted to plant Pinot Noir, but he’d come to the conclusion that there wasn’t really anywhere cool enough in California to do this variety well. [Of course, there is, but at the time the existing Pinot Noir plantings were in warm-ish sites.]

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Lets wasn’t a believer in the heat summation (GDDs, growing degree days) work of Amerine & Winkler which was so influential in deciding where to plant specific varieties. Instead, he was heavily influenced by the work of Victor Pulliat, the French ampelographer of the late 19th century. Lett was convinced that Pulliat’s Period 1 grapes were best suited to western Oregon. So Lett chose Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, Muscat Ottonel, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay as his favoured varieties.

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So Lett arrived with 3000 cuttings in a horse trailer, towed behind his VW. He planted them in a temporary nursery in Corvallis: these consisted of a range of varieties, but crucially included the first Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to be planted in Oregon. He was just 25 years old. The first Pinot Noir went into the ground 22 February 1965.

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To earn a living he worked as a textbook salesperson, which gave him a chance to drive around the state, prospecting for vineyards. In the summer, he went to a sales conference in Chicago, and there he met Diana, who was working for the same company. Clearly, the attraction was strong because 6 weeks later he married her, and she moved up to Oregon with him. The wedding present he gave her was a set of rain gear with a flannel lining.

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Lett stumbled on an interesting volcanic anomaly, the Dundee Hills, and here he brought an old prune orchard and began planting a 13 acre vineyard. This was the Eyrie Vineyard, and the first vintage was 1970.

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It was the 1975 Pinot Noir that caught the attention of the world, in 1979 when it did really well in a blind tasting with other Pinot Noirs in Paris. This brought Oregon into the spotlight. Considering the fame of Oregon Pinot Noir today, it’s amazing to consider the bravery of this 25 year old pioneer, with no money, who had the vision to do something crazy, and it paid off.

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The vineyard, historically important, is making some amazing wines. Sadly, parts of it are succumbing to phylloxera, because it is all planted on its own roots. But Jason Lett (David’s son, who now runs Eyrie) won’t replant these vines. They’re still producing, and there’s the possibility that there may prove, in time, some way of recovering them.

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It’s truly special to spend time in a historic vineyard like this, and to watch it at different times of the day. These days we are so familiar with Oregon as a serious wine region, but it was just a generation ago that someone had the bravery and ambition to bring this to pass.

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I’ll be posting on Eyrie today in a couple of days. In short, David Lett’s wines went through a phase of not being well received by the influential critics, who favoured riper styles. His son Jason took over in 2005 and thankfully stayed true to his father’s style of making elegant, site-expressive wines of moderate alcohol levels. The pendulum has swung, and these superb wines are now receiving the critical acclaim that they’ve always deserved.

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