On to the next 50
"This has been a really special year,” said Jason Lett, owner and winemaker of Eyrie Vineyards. “We’ve been preparing for it for a long time.”
As the story has been told myriad times this year, Jason’s father, David, known as “Papa Pinot,” and his mother, Diana, moved to Oregon in the mid-'60s to plant grapes everyone said couldn’t be successful in the Northwest’s cooler climate. On February 27, 1965, David planted the first Pinot noir vines in the valley. On the same date this year, the 50th anniversary, Jason and the entire winery family held a celebration.
Planning for the party began in 2009 with the making of a sparkling wine. “Because if you’re going to have a celebration, you have to have champagne.”
With the anniversary looming, Jason was spurred to start documenting the history of Eyrie and the local wine community as a whole. Digging through old photographs, publications and his father’s journal, “I was able to assemble a pretty amazing narrative,” Jason said. “It’s been a really special experience."
Jason coupled the history presentation with tasting points as he toured guests through a library of Eyrie wines. Another similar event was held on the eve of this year’s International Pinot Noir Celebration, a Chardonnay retrospective that included 38 vintages from 1970 to 2007.
The winery has 6,000 cases of library wine. When David passed away in 2008, Jason said they then realized the extent of what his father put away in terms of wine. He took on the challenge of ensuring Eyrie’s library was as good as it could be.
“The problem is, until you pull a cork on a bottle of wine, you don’t know whether it ages well or if the cork has let it down,” Jason said.
The winery began applying the process of opening all bottles of a vintage and blending the ones that passed a taste test, “so that you have a consistent perfectness,” and then pouring the blend back into the original bottles. “That’s not something anyone had done before,” Jason said. “We do that because if we re-release a bottle of wine, we want it to be perfect. We want it to show its best light.”
Jason took his presentation of Oregon’s wine history on the road to New York, London, Slovenia and Japan. “Just traveling around telling the story,” he said. “I knew I was going to have a lot of that to do this year. So I made my calendar open up until it was time to pick grapes.”
But it hasn’t all been history lessons.
“During the presentation, I wanted people to not think of Eyrie as this historical artifact, but to kind of understand what we need to do going forward to have another 50 years,” Jason said.
For that, Jason inherited the innovative nature of his father, who bucked trends by farming organically before organic certification, making more delicate Pinot noirs when bigger and bolder was believed to be best, and, of course, planting Pinot in a place despite the preconception it would fail in the region.
“In any region, any art form, what you have to worry about is complacency. I think we’re just getting started,” he said. This year, for example, Eyrie barreled a vintage of Trousseau Noir, the first time the varietal has been grown in Oregon.
After all the presentations and celebrations, Jason, and all the Yamhill Valley vinters were gifted a record-breaking harvest both bountiful and smooth to process. With the anniversary year wrapping up, “we’re looking forward to 75,” Jason said.
“What’s interesting about the last 50 years is how the growth of our wine community has been driven by people who came here motivated by aesthetics. They make this thing that expresses this place,” he said. “Going forward, there’s more people coming in with a more business model. So it’s going to be interesting how this plays out.”