October 12, 2008

Wine Pioneer Made Pinot Noir a Huge Success in Oregon


By Ryan Kost

The Associated Press


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. He was 69.

Lett died of heart failure Thursday at his home in Dundee, said his son, Jason Lett.

Lett was the first to plant the pinot noir grape in Oregon's Willamette Valley, more than four decades ago. He 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.

Jason Lett said his father fell in love with wine when he went to California's Napa Valley to study dentistry. Distracted by the burgeoning industry, he soon dropped dentistry 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 region 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 rival for the top honor.

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

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

Originally published by BY RYAN KOST.

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