A Love Affair With Pinot Noir


July 07, 1991|By Michael Dresser

There's something about pinot noir that brings out the romantic in David Lett.

"Pinot noir should be feminine, delicate, silky, complex," he rhapsodizes as we sit and sip his wines. "It's the kind of woman you want to make love with."

It seems like an odd relationship between man and grape, but it's been going on for more than 25 years now. The affair has lasted ever since Mr. Lett, then a fresh-faced 25-year-old, loaded up his truck with vine cuttings and headed up the highway from California to Oregon, which he'd never visited, to test a wild theory that the state's Willamette Valley could produce America's greatest Burgundy-style wines.

As it turned out, Mr. Lett's theory wasn't so wild after all. Now a white-bearded eminence of 51, Mr. Lett has persevered to see his Eyrie Vineyards win international acclaim for some of the most authentically Burgundian wines made outside Burgundy's Cote d'Or. Meanwhile, a thriving industry has grown up around him -- swelling from two wineries in the Willamette Valley in 1970 to 65 to 70 today.

The valley produces a wide variety of wines including riesling, chardonnay, gewurztraminer, some delicious pinot gris and a smattering of underripe cabernet sauvignon.

Still, Oregon's claim to fame is pinot noir. Willamette Valley pinot noirs, especially Eyrie's, have fared so well in blind competitions with red Burgundies over the past dozen years that one major Burgundy producer, Joseph Drouhin, bought vineyard land in Oregon and has just released his first American pinot noir.

Mr. Lett, who started it all, was first bitten by the pinot noir bug at Davis in the early 1960s, when he had the opportunity to taste fine Burgundy for the first time.

He was fascinated. The wine was delicate, voluptuous and inviting, but not trashy or obvious. This, he decided, was the kind of wine he wanted to make.

After extensive study of climate records for a variety of locations up and down the West Coast, he chose the Willamette Valley as the place with the most resemblance to Burgundy.

It was an almost delusional leap of faith. Mr. Lett's viticulture instructors at the University of California at Davis warned him that Oregon was too cold to grow fine European grape varieties. jTC Why, after all, would anyone leave the benign climate of sunny California -- where vineyard land was still cheap -- for the unpredictable weather conditions of the Pacific Northwest?

Never a man to doubt his own judgment, Mr. Lett countered that California was too warm for the varieties he wanted to grow -- particularly pinot noir. To him, the fact that California winegrowers could harvest before the vine leaves changed color merely pointed out the Golden State's weaknesses.

"When a grape variety reaches maturity just at the end of the growing season, it's adapted to that climate," he says. And that, he added, is what he's found in Oregon, where growers regularly must wait well into October to harvest.

A quarter-century of growing pinot noir has done nothing to mellow Mr. Lett's opinions or to repress his spirits. As quick with an undiluted opinion as an unprintable joke, his eyes gleam with merriment as he preaches his gospel.

Why not stay in California and grow cabernet sauvignon? Because it's "a savage variety . . . a big, heavy thing you have to wrestle with." Gewurztraminer? "One of the nastiest grape varieties you'll ever encounter." Riesling? "Such a pain in the ass to grow in Oregon."

That's not to say Mr. Lett's interests are restricted to pinot noir. He makes one of the finest American versions of Burgundy's great white grape, chardonnay, and an exceptional pinot gris, an Alsace varietal that has been very successful in Oregon. For lovers of truly esoteric wines, he also makes tiny quantities of red pinot meunier and white muscat ottonel.

But with Mr. Lett, the conversation always seems to drift back to pinot noir -- especially the challenge of growing it.

These days, virtually every winemaker from Bordeaux to Big Sur mouths the same platitudes about making wines in the vineyard, not the winery. Then they go on to brag about their latest piece of cellar equipment.

Not Mr. Lett. He loves to talk -- in as much detail as you let him get away with -- about clone selection, trellising systems, organic growing (he's for it) and the role of soil composition (it's exaggerated, he says).

"I consider myself a damn good grape grower," he said during a recent visit to Maryland. "I have just enough oenological knowledge to cope with problems in the winery."

One thing that is certain is that you can't measure his abilities as a grower in terms of quantity. He's a devotee of small crops and prunes his pinot noir vigorously to keep his yields under 3 tons per acre. For the last three years, he hasn't had to prune, however, because nature has given him only 1 1/8 to 2 tons -- an amount he describes as "a little preposterous" in economic terms.

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