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Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Papa Pinot’s Legacy

I was fortunate to be one of the 250 people who attended The Eyrie Vineyards Fiftieth Anniversary Vertical Tasting in Portland, Oregon, this past February 22, 2015, hosted by Diana and Jason Lett. This momentous event commemorated fifty years since David Lett planted the first Pinot Noir vines in the Willamette Valley of Oregon on February 22, 1965.

I have been enthralled with the story of David Lett and wrote extensively about the first plantings of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir in a previous issue (“Oregon Pinot Noir: Who Planted First?”: 1090/). It was not surprising then that I could not contain my enthusiasm for this occasion that was enlivened by cherished memories, abundant applause, lively toasts and extraordinary wines.

Speaking to an avid crowd of family, friends, customers, wine press, sommeliers, and winemakers from around the world, Diana Lett led off the festivities describing her first meeting with David Lett at a book publisher’s conference in the Midwest in 1965. After David had planted his first Pinot Noir cuttings in early 1965, he sold college textbooks to support himself, and this had led to the couple’s fortuitous meeting. Three months after their chance meeting, they were married, and Diana found herself in a muddy field in the Dundee Hills in a yellow raincoat, helping David establish the first Eyrie vineyard.

The remainder of the afternoon was orchestrated by Jason Lett, who provided his personal insight into the origins of The Eyrie Vineyards, the establishment of the vineyards and winery, the transition upon David’s passing in 2008, and the present challenges of the winery. Many treasured family photographs brightened the backdrop for the often humorous presentation. An extraordinary vertical tasting of The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir covering five decades was accompanied by Jason’s detailed insight about each wine. The celebration concluded with a clamorous sparkling toast with The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Meunier Rosé Brut Nature, Eyrie’s first sparkling wine. A number of the treasured wines tasted were offered for sale, with all profits donated to support the Cascades Raptor Center of Eugene.

Although Richard Sommer is credited with planting the first post-Prohibition Vitis vinifera including Pinot Noir in Oregon at Hill Crest Vineyard in the Umpqua Valley beginning in 1961, his marketplace demanded that he rely more on Riesling and red blends, and he never became renowned for Pinot Noir. Lett received considerably more attention than Sommer, and deservedly so, since his The Eyrie Vineyard Pinot Noirs set the mark and won international recognition for the fledgling Oregon wine industry. He became so revered by his peers that he was affectionately called “Papa Pinot.”

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