Oregon Magazine

Decanting with Delkin
Papa Pinot Leaves Lasting
Legacy for Oregon Wines

By Fred Delkin

Wine lovers across our planet are urged to raise a glass of Oregon Pinot Noir in honor of
the man who truly began the modern Oregon wine industry, my good friend and mentor David Lett, whose heart was stilled at the tender age of 69. It should be noted that Richard Sommer founded Hillcrest Vineyard near Roseburg in 1961, but focused on Reisling, which we served when we owned Jake's restaurant in the late '60' s, the first Oregon label to grace a Portland wine list. Oregon wines now command respect worldwide for their quality, thanks to Lett ignoring the advice of his professors at University of California Davis and migrating north to the Willamette Valley in 1964 to plant a vineyard.

(Photo by Ross Hamilton)

David and his new bride, Diana, planted and tended some 3,000 vine cuttings on a plot of farmland near Dundee in the spring of 1965, undaunted by an unusually wet spell that could have caused Lett to heed his profs' advice. This planted the flag for Davis classmates to follow a precept created centuries ago in the fields of Burgundy in France....that if a premium wine grape varietal struggles to ripen, it reaches its full winemaking promise. Lett's doggedness resulted in his 1975 vintage Pinot Noir matching the best of Burgundy in a "Pinot Noir Olympics" tasting competition staged by Burgundy exporter Robert Drouhin.

This was a sonic boom heard throughout winedom..."Oregon, where the hell is that...and when did they start growing wine grapes?" was a common vintner's reaction that soon caused French investments in the red hills of Dundee...led by Drouhin himself with the Domaine Drouhin estate supervised by his daughter, Veronique.

Subtlety is the hallmark of the Lett gospel. As David has said, "not hitting the drinker over the head as in California Cabernets and Chardonnays is my goal." Softness and complexity are proper adjectives for wine that complements food. Lett opined that "wines should be made to be enjoyed with food, not earning popularity by themselves at tasting events."

Then came Pinot Gris

Lett's initial planting of Pinot Noir was Oregon's first for this varietal and was soon followed
when our vinous pioneer planted Noir's white cousin, Pinot Gris. David christened this "Salmon wine" for its ideal food accompaniment. Lett had long admired French Alsatian vintners' achievments with this grape, initially sold as Tokay 'd Alsace. Only in Oregon and Alsace does this varietal reach its dry but full fruitiness, not to be confused with the rather inspid Pinot Grigio native to Italy and now also produced in California and Washington. As Lett would declare, "it's the terroir that creates a grape's full potential."

California's warmer clime results in Pinot Noirs that are big and jammy, unlike the cooler
climate grapes grown in northern Oregon. The Oregon wine industry's staging of the annual
International Pinot Noir Conference in McMinnville has unveiled a new regional challenger for the tasting standards Lett brought here from Burgundy. The cool climate and volcanic soil of New Zealand now nurtures Pinot Noirs of international note, reflecting the tasting gospel Papa Pinot came to Oregon to preach.

That gospel also glorifies longevity in the bottle. Lett-style Pinot Noir easily stands up for at
least a decade in the bottle. While achieving maximum quality, Lett never succumbed to the
high pricing in the $40-50 range now asked by many Oregon producers. He declared that "I've kept my prices stable for years in the $20 range." He sold his first bottlings of Pinot Noir for $2.65! Volume has never been an Eyrie goal. David's son Jason now supervises his father's creation and the Eyrie estate vineyard has an annual production of some 8,000 cases.

Lett christened Oregon as "an expensive place to grow grapes" with a low yield per acre and high labor costs, but the results are in the bottle, with a clear and positive flavor message. Thank you, Papa Pinot, for showing the way in matching variety to climate and avoiding subsequent trial and error struggles for local winemakers.

On a personal note, David and I shared the experience of serving in the U.S. Coast Guard and he in recent years became a wooden boat disciple, refitting a traditional New England lobster craft he based in Port Townsend, WA. Sail on, Papa, sail on!!

© 2009 Oregon Magazine