passing the baton

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Eyrie Vineyards was the featured winery at a landmark winemaker dinner last night at the Steelhead Diner in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. A joint production of winemaker Jason Lett and chef Kevin Davis, it marked the end of an era, and a very promising new beginning. The genesis of the dinner, Jason Lett explains, came about this way.

“My father, David Lett, was lured to the Willamette Valley by the extraordinary flavors of the local produce. He established the first plantings of vinifera wine grapes in Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1965. The rest, as they say, is history – a history that I would like to invite you to taste once again. Seattle chef Kevin Davis of the Steelhead Diner was also lured to his trade by the local produce (of the rivers as well as the fields). Given our similar philosophies, we decided to team up for a special dinner.”

As good as the menu was – Willapa Bay Shigoku oysters on the half shell, Totten Inlet geoduck tiradito, slow braised Alaskan halibut cheeks, roasted spring lamb with locally foraged morels and grilled Copper River King salmon – it was the wines that were center stage, and they really held the spotlight.

David Lett’s last vintage as winemaker at Eyrie was 2004 – he passed away last summer. Jason Lett’s first vintage was 2005, although he had been making his own wines (under the Black Cap label) since 2002. The wines poured with the dinner were David Lett’s final reserves, Jason Lett’s new 2007s, and some extraordinary bottles from the library.

Eyrie Vineyards, as Jason notes, was the first important and most influential winery in Oregon to plan pinot noir and pinot gris. “My father”, says Jason, “always made wine to surprise.” By that I think he means to say that Eyrie wines never tried to fit the mold of popular (or critical) taste. They were made strictly according to the principles that David Lett passionately believed in.

In one of the last interviews I had with him, he put it this way:

“The whole idea of wine is the wonderful variety of it depending on where it’s grown. When you start playing around and trying to make immediately gratifying wines, it gives you a leg up on the market, and for a number of critics those big, alcoholic dark wines find favor. But God it’s a sin, particularly with pinot noir. It’s so delicate to begin with. Cab is different, cab tastes like cab. You don’t have that in pinot noir. You have a number of things that express themselves; they are expressed by the sites, and can certainly be manipulated a great deal by winemaking, which I don’t think is a good thing.”

Eyrie pinots have always been made to express the estate terroir; grapes ripened at moderate sugar levels, given minimal exposure to new oak, hands-off winemaking. They have not always shown well right away, and often it is years later that the true genius of David Lett emerged in the elegance, classicism and poignancy of his greatest wines. I do not, nor should anyone, handcuff Jason to those same exact techniques, but I believe he will keep the principles alive.

For the record, the wines last night were glorious. David Lett’s 2004 Eyrie Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir ($57) is a wonderful bottle, lucid, refined, a gorgeous evocation of the grape with delicate cherry fruit, hints of pepper and spice, the gravitas that comes from 40-year-old vines. Paired with a still-youthful 1994 Reserve, it was apparent how much life this great wine has ahead of it.

Jason Lett’s 2007 Pinot Noir ($28) – the regular estate bottling – was impressive for its clarity and definition also. Though 2007 is not considered an easy or a great vintage in the Willamette valley, the conditions that year perfectly suited the Eyrie style, and this tight, delicate wine expresses pinot noir character in a Burgundian style so often quoted and so rarely found in Oregon.

Other new releases include the 2007 Pinot Gris ($16) and 2007 Reserve Chardonnay ($33). The latter was paired with an extraordinary 1985 Reserve Chardonnay. Subtle, expressive, polished winemaking on all counts. The baton has been passed. David will always be missed; but clearly his last wines will live for decades. Meanwhile, it’s a new day at The Eyrie Vineyards, and the son is shining.

The Eyrie Vineyards was the featured winery at a landmark winemaker dinner last night at the Steelhead Diner in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. A joint production of winemaker Jason Lett and chef Kevin Davis, it marked the end of an era, and a very promising new beginning. The genesis of the dinner, Jason Lett explains, came about this way.

“My father, David Lett, was lured to the Willamette Valley by the extraordinary flavors of the local produce. He established the first plantings of vinifera wine grapes in Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1965. The rest, as they say, is history – a history that I would like to invite you to taste once again. Seattle chef Kevin Davis of the Steelhead Diner was also lured to his trade by the local produce (of the rivers as well as the fields). Given our similar philosophies, we decided to team up for a special dinner.”

As good as the menu was – Willapa Bay Shigoku oysters on the half shell, Totten Inlet geoduck tiradito, slow braised Alaskan halibut cheeks, roasted spring lamb with locally foraged morels and grilled Copper River King salmon – it was the wines that were center stage, and they really held the spotlight.

David Lett’s last vintage as winemaker at Eyrie was 2004 – he passed away last summer. Jason Lett’s first vintage was 2005, although he had been making his own wines (under the Black Cap label) since 2002. The wines poured with the dinner were David Lett’s final reserves, Jason Lett’s new 2007s, and some extraordinary bottles from the library.

Eyrie Vineyards, as Jason notes, was the first important and most influential winery in Oregon to plan pinot noir and pinot gris. “My father”, says Jason, “always made wine to surprise.” By that I think he means to say that Eyrie wines never tried to fit the mold of popular (or critical) taste. They were made strictly according to the principles that David Lett passionately believed in.

In one of the last interviews I had with him, he put it this way:

“The whole idea of wine is the wonderful variety of it depending on where it’s grown. When you start playing around and trying to make immediately gratifying wines, it gives you a leg up on the market, and for a number of critics those big, alcoholic dark wines find favor. But God it’s a sin, particularly with pinot noir. It’s so delicate to begin with. Cab is different, cab tastes like cab. You don’t have that in pinot noir. You have a number of things that express themselves; they are expressed by the sites, and can certainly be manipulated a great deal by winemaking, which I don’t think is a good thing.”

Eyrie pinots have always been made to express the estate terroir; grapes ripened at moderate sugar levels, given minimal exposure to new oak, hands-off winemaking. They have not always shown well right away, and often it is years later that the true genius of David Lett emerged in the elegance, classicism and poignancy of his greatest wines. I do not, nor should anyone, handcuff Jason to those same exact techniques, but I believe he will keep the principles alive.

For the record, the wines last night were glorious. David Lett’s 2004 Eyrie Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir ($57) is a wonderful bottle, lucid, refined, a gorgeous evocation of the grape with delicate cherry fruit, hints of pepper and spice, the gravitas that comes from 40-year-old vines. Paired with a still-youthful 1994 Reserve, it was apparent how much life this great wine has ahead of it.

Jason Lett’s 2007 Pinot Noir ($28) – the regular estate bottling – was impressive for its clarity and definition also. Though 2007 is not considered an easy or a great vintage in the Willamette valley, the conditions that year perfectly suited the Eyrie style, and this tight, delicate wine expresses pinot noir character in a Burgundian style so often quoted and so rarely found in Oregon.

Other new releases include the 2007 Pinot Gris ($16) and 2007 Reserve Chardonnay ($33). The latter was paired with an extraordinary 1985 Reserve Chardonnay. Subtle, expressive, polished winemaking on all counts. The baton has been passed. David will always be missed; but clearly his last wines will live for decades. Meanwhile, it’s a new day at The Eyrie Vineyards, and the son is shining.

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