Original Vines

Photos by | Jason Kaplan

The winery that started it all expands and rebrands.

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An eagle flying over Oregon’s Dundee Hills couldn’t pick out Eyrie Vineyards from the surrounding landscape, which is uniformly covered with vitis vinifera vines.

But if the eagle swooped down for a closer look, it might notice the thick, gnarled trunks of Eyrie’s vines, as well as the highly developed ecosystem under and around the vines.

Those are the two clues that this patch of land nurtures some of the first pinot noir and pinot gris grapevines brought to Oregon from California by Eyrie’s founder, David Lett in the mid-1960s.

Eyrie (the name means “eagle’s nest”) is legendary amongst wine cognoscenti, and Lett, who died in 2008, is revered as “Papa Pinot.’”

He’s the wine pioneer who, back in 1979, proved beyond all doubt that pinot noir from Oregon could compete with wine made in other world-class growing regions, including the birthplace of pinot: Burgundy, France.

Thirty-seven years later, Eyrie (pronounced “Eye-ree”) maintains its position as a boutique winery, grossing $1.6 million in revenue and producing 9,000 cases of wine annually.

But reputations need nurturing. And Eyrie, says David’s personable 47-year-old son, Jason Lett, can suffer from what he calls “grandma’s wallpaper” syndrome, a condition triggered by the wine industry’s prodigious expansion in recent years.

“You walk into your grandma’s house and the wallpaper is wonderful or in poor taste, but you never notice it anymore,” says the younger Lett, who has managed the business since 2005.

“Eyrie is the grandma’s wallpaper of the Oregon wine scene; people expect us to be here, but it can be hard to get them to pay attention to us.”

IMG 0435Jason Lett, Eyrie Vineyards

Wine lovers paid attention in 1979. That’s when Eyrie’s 1975 South Block pinot noir won second place in the wine Olympics — the Gault-Millau French Wine Olympiades. The French were shocked, David’s hunch about the Willamette Valley was vindicated and Oregon pinot noir was on the wine map.

David practiced sustainability — no herbicides or insecticides — long before eco-friendly practices were in vogue, and he used a restrained, light approach to the actual winemaking.

Jason, a former biologist who took the reins three years before his father’s death, aims to follow in those footsteps. Together with his mother and business partner, Diana, he plans to evolve and improve the vineyard instead of focusing on galloping growth.

Not that he is ignoring the challenges facing the vineyard and wine country.

These include more winemakers but a diminished number of wine distributors; old vines producing great wine that is also susceptible to the plant louse phylloxera; and Oregon’s cooler climate, which will always mean lower yields than other wine-growing regions.

And there’s the juggernaut of California winemakers on their buying spree of Oregon wine properties.

“Eyrie is the grandma’s wallpaper of the Oregon wine scene; people expect us to be here but it can be hard to get them to pay attention to us.”

Consolidation and outside buyers are making it difficult for Oregon wineries to cling to a simple “we’re small wineries from Oregon” brand story, says Jon Bonné, former wine critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and author of the upcoming book, New Wine Rules.

Neither Oregon nor Eyrie pinot are the “shiny new things” in the wine world, Bonné says.

Nevertheless, Eyrie’s pinot pedigree and esoteric style of winemaking, as well as Jason’s willingness to experiment, have kept the winery relevant.

“The traditional course for wineries is to find what they do well and then keep doing it,” Bonné says.

Rebranding for a new generation, Eyrie in 2012 abandoned the term “reserve” — a descriptor almost as meaningless in the wine world as “natural” is in the food realm — and started using the moniker “original vines.”

The labeling term has dual appeal, better describing pinot wines made from a single vineyard plot and also from the original vines his parents planted.

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Jason jokes that he’s in winemaking not for big financial rewards but for “artsy fartsy” reasons. (He designed nine of the 22 different Eyrie wine bottle labels.)

He says he didn’t feel an initial career calling to winemaking and left the winery after high school. “At that time, Dad had quite a reputation and was casting a big shadow.”

But after visiting Oregon between grants to work a harvest, he realized the life he was seeking might be right in the Willamette Valley — despite some upheaval roiling the business at the time.

“There were multiple quittings and firings on both sides through the late ’90s and early 2000s,” says Jason, who has three daughters of his own. (Today the vineyard supports a handful of fulltime employees and doubles the workforce during wine harvest.) “Families and businesses are difficult things.”

Building on his father’s legacy, Jason is constructing a new tasting room on Eyrie’s Dundee vineyard slopes, with completed construction drawings for a 15,000-square-foot building.

A former turkey-processing plant, Eyrie’s current 7,000-square-foot winery and tasting room in McMinnville might eventually be relegated to wine storage. Jason is also making some sulfite-free wines, as well as endeavoring to put wines from the little-known trousseau grape onto the wine-popularity map.

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It’s a good strategy, Bonné says. “Eyrie started working early, but really at the right time, on varieties like trousseau, that go beyond traditional choices and now have a cult following.”

But are Eyrie’s plans, conventional and unconventional, sufficient to dispel “grandma’s wallpaper” syndrome?

Thirty years ago, David Lett helped lead a Willamette Valley wine pack that nurtured not only wine varietals but also a certain progressive viniculture. The group, including the Ponzis, the Adelsheims and the Sokol Blossers, lobbied for a 1973 land-use law that kept many vine-planted hillsides from suburban development.

It was also instrumental in getting Oregon’s Liquor Control Commission to adopt a landmark labeling standard mandating 90% of pinot content be pinot grapes. This is higher than the federal standard (75%) or the European Union’s (85%).

“Oregon [vintners] realized the existential threat wasn’t each other; it was bigger growing regions,” Jason says. “We had to do something to differentiate ourselves.”

It remains to be seen whether boutique Oregon wineries like Eyrie will hold their own in the vastly more competitive wine world now taking root.