by Fred McMillin
for August 8, 1997

Winery of the Week

The Prince of Pinot

The vine in Oregon...

  • c.1825—Hudson Bay Company establishes Oregon's first vineyard at Fort Vancouver.

  • c.1855—Oregon's first winery is built by one Peter Britt, fermenting native American grapes brought from east of the Rockies.

  • 1966—David Lett plants the first Pinot Noir in Oregon's Willamette Valley at his Eyrie (eye-ree) Vineyards.

  • 1982—Critic Roy Andries de Groot rates the Eyrie Pinot Noir superb, the USA's best. David is becoming known as the "Father of Oregon Pinot Noir."
The Rest of the Story: David Lett needed a break. He'd just earned his philosophy degree at the University of Utah. Soon he would be starting dental school in San Francisco. So, he took a short vacation in the Napa Valley. Goodby root canal, hello U.C. -Davis viticulture grad school. Then it was on to some wine time in Europe. But where would he and wife Diana start their American winery? In spite of warnings from his professors about the insufficient sunshine, David was convinced the Pinot belonged in the Willamette Valley.

Fifteen years later the New York Times headline would read, "An Oregon Pinot Noir That Measures Up to the Noble Reds of Burgundy." The Eyrie Pinot had missed by only 0.3 points winning first place in a highly-publicized Paris tasting, featuring Burgundy's best.

It didn't take long for other vintners to catch on. The year the New York Times article was written, there were 400 acres of Pinot Noir in Oregon. Soon the total was 2,000 and growing. So, there's plenty of competition now, but all serious wine students certainly should try a bottle from the winery that started it all.

Just the Facts

Name Eyrie Vineyards
Location Near McMinnville, Oregon
Founded Vineyard: 1966, winery: 1970.
Principal Wines While the Pinot Noir is best known, the white Pinot Gris also is drawing high praise.
Origin of Name In 1965 as the young couple were planting their first vines, bride Diana saw a red-tailed hawk soaring to its nest in a huge fir tree and announced the name of the vineyard, Eyrie, which means "the nest of a bird of prey." A sketch of the hawk still graces their label.

Postscript: I confess to an emotional tie to the Willamette Valley. You see, my mother was the first woman to graduate in chemistry from the University of Willamette. I used to tease her that she wouldn't have passed if she hadn't married her chemistry professor...my father.

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

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