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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.

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