Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Lett It Be: The Continued Story of Oregon Pinot Noir

by Jenny Mosbacher

Every time you open an Oregon Pinot Noir you should whisper (or loudly cheer) a toast to David Lett.

Don't know the guy? Oh, he's just someone that many have come to call Papa Pinot. See, David was the first to plant Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, and the first to give anyone a reason to consider Oregon as anything more than that place that happened to be at the end of some old wagon trail, or the land of Christ
mas tree farms and the state between California and Washington.

The story of David Lett and Oregon Pinot Noir unfolds like the tale of a reluctant hero. With a freshly printed degree from the venerable UC Davis, against all conventional viticultural wisdom gained from college, David embarked northward with "3000 cuttings and a theory." Lo, first Pinot Noir vines in the Willamette Valley were put in the earth in 1965 and the legend really begins to get interesting.

Of the site that he cultivated in the Dundee Hills, he found magic in a small corner of the vineyard now referred to as the South Block. Unlike the rest of the hills that are slopes of pure red clay loam known as Jory, the South Block is a bizarre confluence of four different soil types: the volcanic Jory and Nekia, and the sedimentary Amity and Woodburn; interwoven amongst the roots of just ten rows of Wädenswil 1A clone Pinot Noir that were part of the original 1965 plantings. Sensing the uniqueness of this block, David began to vinify these rows separately and the South Block Reserves were born. The only issue, from a consumer standpoint, was that the more David liked a certain wine he made the less likely it would ever be released to the public.

Friends are a different story. David gave some of his 1975 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir to his friend, famed Burgundy import maven Becky Wasserman. Without his knowledge, as any good friend with connections would do, she submitted the wine to the Gault/Millau Wine Olympics in 1979. As the Napa wineries had shaken the continental confidence of French winemakers a few years earlier the '75 South Block performed shockingly well, to the effect that Robert Drouhin, patriarch of the Burgundian powerhouse Maison Joseph Drouhin, called for a rematch the next year. Unlike the Judgment of Paris, the '75 South Block fell short of the win, but by a mere two-tenths of a point to the Drouhin crown jewel '59 Chambolle-Musigny and suddenly the world knew where Oregon could be located on a map. It was enough of a kick in the ego to bring Drouhins to the Dundee Hills to establish Domaine Drouhin Oregon later that decade, and though the industry had been growing for almost 25 years, this was the beginning of something bigger.

But that was almost where the South Block story ended. Only the '76 South Block thereafter saw the light of day. And while Eyrie wines became to be well known among wine enthusiasts and the Willamette Valley grew to be a wine country destination, David continued to make his South Block Reserves without ever releasing them. It was not until July 28th of this year that the public would have access to the other 27 vintages of this wine.

I count myself among the 150 orso crazy-lucky people to have tasted these wines at a pre-IPNC event last month, held in McMinnville, Oregon, the home of the Eyrie winery. The 29 wines were poured in four flights of seven (with the last being eight wines), each roughly spanning a decade. The plan was to progress through from most recent to oldest, with the exception of the 2007. Even though David had stepped down from the principal winemaking duties at Eyrie in 2004, he continued to make South Block Reserves until 2007 (and probably would've for the 2008 as well, had he not passed away before the late October harvest that year).

It was a semi-blind tasting in which we tried each flight knowing what years they were but without knowing the order. At the first pouring of the samples into the wall of glassware in front of me,taken aback as to how translucent brown-to-beige the wines were, knowing they spanned only from 2006-2000. As we delved further into the decades, common tasting adjectives failed and I was left with only the ability to scrawl the most esoteric and cracked out descriptors such as "wet terracotta," "moldy golden delicious peel," cherry-flavored absinthe," "English garden with boxwoods, damp soil and roses;" "grape bubble tape wrapped honey-baked ham." I swear to God I was spitting every round.

The last flight was one wine longer than the rest, as the 1980s-1970s also had the 2007 included within. Just on color alone, with the slightest flush of pink, was the 2007 recognizable amongst the very first of the South Blocks. Even though the 1975 and 2007 were quite different in their taste, they were more striking in their similarity of character. Proof that even after 32 years of making the South Block, Lett stayed true to showcasing the singular expression of terroir from the site and never once compromised his own artistic vision of how Oregon Pinot Noir should be made.

So while you may not be popping a South Block Reserve this Thursday for #PinotSmackdown, as you sip and share your Oregon Pinot Noir on the way to a #wv #orwine win, be sure to raise your first glass to David Lett because without him there would be nothing in your glass to toast with at all.


The 1975 Eyrie Pinot noir South Block Reserve, 36 years later, is still amazing. No wonder that it made such an international splash in 1979 and then 1980. The 2007 vintage is no less mesmerizing. Can't wait to revisit it... 36 years from now!
Thank you Jenny for putting into words what this amazing Vertical tasting event was like. Cheers! - Jacques

Post a Comment