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Friday, Oct. 10, 2008

Oregon wine pioneer David Lett dies at 69

PORTLAND - Pioneering Oregon winemaker David Lett, widely considered the father of Oregon's thriving pinot noir industry and a major force in winning worldwide respect for this state's wines, has died at age 69.

He died Thursday night, surrounded by family, at his home in Dundee from heart failure, said his son, Jason Lett.

Lett was the first to plant the pinot grape in Oregon's Willamette Valley, more than four decades ago. His was also the first to plant pinot gris in the United States, his family said.

Since then, Oregon's pinot noir industry has boomed, earning a reputation for quality worldwide.

"Wine to him was always an expression of the ground," Jason Lett said. "I don't just mean the dirt. The whole ambiance of what goes into it."

Jason Lett said his father first fell in love with wine when he came to California's Napa Valley to study dentistry. Distracted by the burgeoning industry, he soon dropped dentistry -- "like a hot rock," Jason Lett said -- to study wine full time.

Pinot noir, in particular, interested Lett, and he set off on a mission to find a place that could produce the wine with an "expressiveness" equal to what was coming out of the Burgundy district of France.

In January 1965, he came to Oregon's Willamette Valley with 3,000 baby vines. He found a place to plant them in the Dundee Hills and began Eyrie Vineyards, which Jason Lett now manages.

"It certainly was a huge risk," Jason Lett said. Local farmers, who thought Lett was "this new kid with a lot of ... naive ideas" showed him the ropes.

The gamble ended up being a success and flew in the face of traditionalists who said the pinot noir, sometimes called the "masochist's grape," would never grow in Oregon.

Lett's wines gained worldwide respect for the state in 1979 when his 1975 vintage ranked among the top 10 at a prestigious Paris tasting. Lett's wine was challenged to a rematch the following year and, again, it placed well, nearly unseating a French variety for the top honor.

The episodes confirmed what Lett already knew: "He was onto a good thing," as Jason Lett put it.

Now, pinot noir vines span more than 10,000 acres in Oregon, and the wine is, by far, Oregon's top produced variety with 20,000 tons in 2007, according to the Oregon Wine Board. Pinot gris comes in second at 6,000 tons. The wine industry in general has grown to become the 10th largest agricultural commodity in Oregon, making the state the 4th largest wine producer in the U.S.

"No one knows where Oregon's wine industry would be without David," Gov. Ted Kulongoski said in a press release. "But we do know that his 3,000 vines were the beginning of creating Oregon's world-renowned pinot noir."

Throughout it all, Jason Lett said, his father continued to stand by his deeply held belief that wines should be produced naturally.

"He felt that it was a moral imperative to express ground and to not let the winemaker's ego get in the way of that," Jason Lett said. "Making wine, as a result, was a moral act."

Lett also opposed major tourism development in Yamhill County, a center of Oregon's pinot noir industry, and thought the area should retain its rural character and be protected from aggressive development.

"The point they are missing is that Napa Valley is now more like Disneyland than anything else," Lett said two years ago. "Do you want the Willamette Valley to look like that? I sure don't"

Jim Bernau, the founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards remembers Lett advising him nearly 30 years ago as he searched for his own vineyard land.

"He gave so much of himself to the industry, this is just such a terrible loss," Bernau said. "We all benefited in the industry by the hard, groundbreaking work he did.

"People should raise a glass of pinot noir and toast his memory." Lett is survived by his wife, Diana, and two sons, Jason, age 38, and Jeff, age 40.