Oregon's wine industry wouldn't be what it is today without Becky Wasserman.
In 1979, Wasserman, a French wine exporter, paid a visit to David and Diana Lett at their then-little-known winery in McMinnville. The Letts gave her a couple of bottles to take home, and from those two bottles sprang a billion-dollar industry.
The story of how Oregon wine became world famous is, of course, more complicated. It begins with the singular vision of the man now remembered as "Papa Pinot."
David Lett was born in Chicago in 1939 and grew up in Utah. His parents wanted him to be a dentist, so in 1962 he traveled to California to visit schools. On one of those trips, he went to Napa and met the legendary Lee Stewart at Souverain Cellars. Something about the growing of grapes and the making of wine captivated him. His son, Jason, today his father's successor at the winery, has joked that his dad was "hit by a cosmic brick."
Instead of dental school, David entered the programs for viticulture and enology at UC Davis, where he fell in love with the pinot noirs of Burgundy. He came to believe California was no place to grow that fragile varietal; a cooler, more marginal environment was needed. After graduation, Lett traveled throughout Europe's wine regions, talking to winegrowers about climate and variety selection, and concluded the Willamette Valley would be the best place outside of Burgundy to grow his beloved grape. He arrived in northern Oregon in early 1965, armed with 3,000 vine cuttings from selected growers and the ampelography collection at UC Davis.
That February, his widow recalls, he planted the cuttings in a little plot of land near Corvallis so they could start rooting while he began the hunt for proper land for his vineyard. And that summer, Lett tasted his first Marshall strawberry. Diana Lett says the experience convinced him he'd picked the right place for his grapes: "He loved the delicacy and all the layers of flavor that Willamette Valley berries express."
To support himself in those early years, Lett sold college textbooks from Northern California to Alaska. Wherever he spied land he thought might work for his grape stock, he took soil samples with an auger he carried in the trunk of his car. The Jory clay loam of the Dundee Hills won out, and in 1966 he purchased 20 acres of an old prune orchard about a 45-minute drive southwest of Portland at $450 an acre. He named it "Eyrie" for the nesting places of the red-tailed hawks that inhabited the fir trees above the vineyard. He also met Diana. They spent their honeymoon year transplanting and tending those 3,000 baby grape plants.
In 1970, Lett produced his first vintage, and in 1975, produced his first "reserve" pinot noir, comprised solely of wine from 10 rows of Wädenswil clone pinot noir planted in the south block of the vineyard.
Two of those bottles were the ones spirited away by Wasserman. Without the Letts' knowledge, she entered them in Gault-Millau's 1979 Wine Olympiades the following October. Eyrie scored in the top 10—the first time an American pinot had made such a showing. But outside a small circle of wine cognoscenti, no one paid much attention.
Then the Letts received a request from Gault-Millau for more of their 1975 South Block Reserve. There was to be a challenge tasting in the heart of Burgundy, featuring wines from the most famous house in the region, J. Drouhin. When the Letts' wine came in second in this rematch—just two-tenths of a point behind a 1959 Drouhin Chambolle-Musigny—the world took notice, and a struggling local industry took off, so that today we now have hundreds of new commercial wineries and a billion-dollar agriculture business.
In the following years, I visited the Letts' winemaking facility a few times during Thanksgiving weekend openings and was surprised to discover how much I enjoyed Eyrie's pinot meunier.