Farewell to Papa Pinot: An Oregon legend dies

I remember David Lett a lot of ways, and not nearly as many as I wish I did: Here was a man, I always felt, I’d really like to know well. I didn’t. Although I’ve drunk a fair amount of his wine (again, not nearly as much as I’d like to have) we didn’t move in the same circles. Our paths crossed infrequently, and mostly anonymously — that is, I knew who he was, but he didn’t know who I was.

This morning’s Oregonian arrives with the news that Lett, founder of the pioneering Eyrie Vineyards, died late Thursday at his Dundee home. He was 69. The Associated Press filed this report, and gave the cause of death as heart failure.

Lett had passed the winemaking duties at Eyrie Vineyards to his son Jason three years ago, but it’s always been David’s spirit that’s defined the place. And what a place: a true slice of Oregon grit, a pioneering venture with a global impact, a place that knew what it wanted to do and stuck to its guns. Lett and Eyrie produced Oregon’s first commercial pinot noir in 1970, and to this day, despite the winery’s international acclaim, it’s still a little, musky-smelling, no-nonsense small-manufacturing joint in an old turkey-slaughtering plant across the railroad tracks in the McMinnville flats — in short, a glorious place to visit. No shimmering hillside chateau for David Lett: For him, it was all about the wine.

Lett had at least a couple of public images, and I suspect both had their measure of the truth. One was Papa Pinot, the genial elder statesman of the Oregon wine industry, a twinkling, silver-streaked Santa Claus of a man. The other was David Lett the irascible iconoclast, the fierce defender of making wines his way, which was, he believed, in the true traditional French manner. This David Lett believed in subtle, elegant, understated, long-lived wines that revealed their secrets in a whisper and were meant to blossom in companionship with food, not to stand out in a long line of gut-busters in a marathon tasting. He had little patience for younger winemakers who built high-alcohol fruit bombs and priced them through the roof, and he was outspoken about it, which didn’t endear him in some circles. I suspect he was proud of that. At heart he was a farmer and a chemist and a small manufacturer and an artist, and although he could be smooth, these are also identities that encourage a certain bluntness.

I used to drop down to McMinnville for Eyrie’s Thanksgiving weekend open houses, and every now and again, on the way back to Portland from the Oregon Coast, I made arrangements to stop by the winery to pick up a case of something — usually mostly whites, because although Lett’s pinot noirs have always been well-priced for their quality, I have a budget. Also, his whites were superb. Although he was apt to make dismissive noises about chardonnays — mostly, I think, in response to California’s overly oaked monsters — his own chards were wonderful: steely, balanced, nuanced and pretty but with a backbone that made you sit up and take notice. He was married to pinot noir, but he admired an attractive wine like chardonnay and a practical one like pinot gris, and he had an eye for the interesting oddball: the rough-and-tumble pinot meunier, the crisp and spicy muscat ottonel, which he produced bone dry, with the tiniest spritz.

Oregonians have a lot to thank David Lett for, and not the least his influence on the state’s balance between urban and rural life. Portland presses hard from the north and Salem stretches up from the south, and the great fertile soil of the Willamette Valley is in constant danger of being overwhelmed by waves of houses and shopping malls. The growth of the wine industry, which could never have happened without Lett and a few other pioneers such as David Adelsheim and Myron Redford and Susan Sokol-Blosser and Dick Ponzi, has tempered the drive to develop and kept the northern valley, quite literally, growing from its roots. Now the challenge is to keep it from being Napa-fied — to keep it real.

It’s no surprise that Lett wanted to be remembered by something more substantial than flowers. As the family put it on the Eyrie Web site: “David cared deeply for the land and for his family. In lieu of flowers or gifts, David’s legacy can be memorialized through gifts to ‘1000 Friends of Oregon,’ his favorite land-use advocacy organization, or ‘Families United,’ a local non-profit that supports assisted living for adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.”

And it’s no suprise that, as the family put it, “a celebration of David’s life will be held, as he would have wished, AFTER harvest.”

Lett was a genial host at those holiday open houses, and sometimes, when I stopped at the winery to buy a case, he’d drop over for a quick chat: a smart businessman, appreciating a customer.
I don’t generally go to winemakers’ dinners, but I did once, at the old Sante vegetarian restaurant in Southeast Portland, because Lett was on hand with his wines. He was pleasant and attentive and professional, taking care to move from table to table, talking a little bit with everyone.

As it happened, when he stopped by our table we were working on an especially spicy course — something Southeast Asian, if I remember right. The wine poured to go with it was Eyrie’s pinot gris, and my wife and I had just been lamenting that they hadn’t poured his muscat ottonel instead.

“How do you like the pinot gris with this?” he asked us, and I answered something diplomatic — something along the lines of, oh, it’s fine, just fine.

A look of slight disappointment crossed Lett’s face.

“Have you ever tried our muscat ottonel?” he replied. “That’s what we really should have poured. It’s got good acid and it’s spicy, and it would have paired a lot better than the gris.”

I felt like I’d failed a test.

But like a good teacher, he reminded me of something, too. Don’t settle for what’s OK, go for the best. And don’t be afraid to say what you think. It’s more interesting, and life goes better that way.

Farewell, Papa Pinot. I Wish I’d known you better. I’m glad I knew you at least a little bit.