Pioneer Pinot Noir vintner in Oregon

Times Staff Writer

David Lett, a pioneering winemaker who proved that the climate of Oregon’s Willamette Valley was ideal for growing pinot noir grapes, has died. He was 69.

Lett, dubbed Papa Pinot for having paved the way for the area’s thriving wine industry and helping to establish its global reputation for quality, died of heart failure Thursday at his home in Dundee, Ore., his son Jason said.

Against the advice of his professors in the viticulture and enology program at UC Davis, Lett arrived in the Willamette Valley in 1965, armed with a bachelor’s degree and 3,000 vine cuttings.


The Pacific Northwest had been dismissed as being too cold and wet for cultivating wine grapes. But within 15 years, the wines Lett produced at Eyrie Vineyards beat the best French chateaux in international competition.

Today, the region just southwest of Portland is renowned for its exceptional Pinot Noirs.

“He was certainly a visionary who saw Oregon as an opportunity for Pinot Noir and some of the cool-climate grapes,” Dick Ponzi, a veteran winemaker who established his vineyards in the Willamette Valley only a few years after Lett, said in an interview Saturday.

“He was dedicated to making the best wines, and was very meticulous that way.”

Born in Chicago in 1939, Lett grew up in Utah and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Utah in 1961.

Bound for dental school, he got sidetracked on a visit to Napa Valley and, captivated by the fledgling winemaking scene, enrolled at UC Davis and traveled to France to learn all he could about wine.

After graduating from Davis, Lett found his way to Oregon.

In his search for a location that closely matched that of the traditional Burgundy region of France, he discovered a climate just cool enough to allow for a long growing season and a harvest timed to the fruit’s peak ripeness.

In California, most winemakers were finding success with warm-weather grapes such as cabernet sauvignon and merlot.


But Lett was aiming for something more delicate and restrained than those big, bold red varietals when he planted pinot noir and pinot gris on 20 hilly acres in Dundee in 1966.

That same year he got married and made ends meet by selling textbooks.

He and his wife, Diana, converted an old turkey processing plant in McMinnville into their winery at a time when most valley farmers tended fruit or nut orchards. The company was named for the hawk nests crowning some nearby pine trees.

In 1979, Lett entered a 1975 Eyrie South Block Reserve Pinot Noir in an international wine tasting competition in Paris. It wound up third in the judging, shocking the experts.

The French, not willing to concede that an American wine could stand up to their best efforts, staged another competition the next year. Lett’s Pinot Noir entry moved up a notch, to second place, and pushed the Willamette Valley into the wine world spotlight.

Lett was a hands-on vintner, spending as much time among the vines as he did with the barrels.

“I follow the simple philosophy that the less man fiddles around with what is essentially a product of nature, then the better the product will be,” he said in a 1975 interview with The Times.


Critics praised the end result, often citing the wines’ acidity and minerality, their elegance and subtleties.

Wine critic Richard Nalley, writing in Food & Wine magazine in 2005, called the 2002 Eyrie Estate Pinot Noir a “perfectly balanced beauty, an ideal food partner that will improve with age.”

Over the years, Lett expanded the vineyards to a modest 50 acres but kept the yield relatively small by producing 6,000 to 10,000 cases annually.

He retired in 2005, turning over management of the winery to his son Jason, but stayed active with local conservation and land-use organizations.

In addition to his wife of 42 years and his son Jason, Lett is survived by another son, James; and two granddaughters.

A celebration of his life will be held after this month’s harvest is complete.

“The grapes come first,” Jason Lett said Saturday, echoing his father’s words.