In 1965, a young upstart arrived in Oregon "with 3,000 grape cuttings and a theory." As the story goes, 25-year-old David Lett wanted to grow grapevines and make wine here. His University of California, Davis, professors said it was too cold and wet for the grapes to ripen. He started a winery anyway.
Those first pinot plantings, in the red, volcanic soils of the Dundee Hills, quite literally bore fruit. Other rebellious pinotphiles got the same idea. Today, the names read like a who's who of Oregon wine: Dick Erath, Dick Ponzi, David Adelsheim, Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol Blosser. But it was Lett's Eyrie Vineyard that would put Oregon wines on the map.
The prime real estate at Eyrie is less than an acre. The South Block holds only 10 rows of pinot noir. Lett bottled these grapes separately, rarely releasing them to the public. In 1979, Eyrie's 1975 South Block Reserve Pinot Noir was entered into the "Wine Olympics" in Paris. It came in 10th. Burgundy winemaker Robert Drouhin of Maison Joseph Drouhin called for a rematch. This time, the 1975 South Block came in second, behind Drouhin's best Grand Cru. In 1988, the Drouhin family founded its own Oregon winery.
This weekend, Oregonians will crawl across Willamette Valley's wineries, dyeing their teeth red and staining their new sundresses. Few probably realize the debt this yearly pilgrimage, and our state's wine industry, owes to those 10 rows of vines.
For that reason, we chose to taste Eyrie's 2007 South Block Pinot Noir, the last wine made by Lett before he passed away in 2008.
Happily, we didn't blow $189 on a lemon. This light rose-colored wine offered plenty of earthy aromas on the nose, with notes of cherry and watermelon rind. The wine has a beautiful silkiness to it, with more cherry, strawberry and a touch of spice on the palate, giving way to a long, pleasantly acidic finish. Personally, I'd have rather cellared it much longer, but alas, deadlines loom. Still, it drank very nicely for a relatively young drop, balanced and elegant, delighting both novice and liver-weary tasters. Reportedly, this is not the finest vintage of the South Blocks. It is, however, the only one we're ever likely to try—it's the first one released to the public since 1976, and the final one ever made.
DRINK: The Eyrie Vineyards, 935 NE 10th Ave., McMinnville, 472-6315, eyrievineyards.com. Tasting room open noon-5 pm Wednesday-Sunday. $5 tasting fee.