Jason Lett had what you might call an early start in the winemaking business. Growing up on the Eyrie Vineyards in Dundee as the son of David Lett — one of Oregon’s wine pioneers — Lett started helping out at age three. “It is my earliest memory of feeling useful. I don’t know how helpful I actually was, but I felt useful,” he said with a laugh.
That early training stuck. Though his path took him to college, a career and other adventures — like starting his own winery —Lett eventually returned to Eyrie, where he carries on a family legacy of pushing boundaries in winemaking.
David and Diana Lett planted the Willamette Valley’s first Pinot noir vines in 1965, convinced that Oregon had the right climate for excellent winemaking. Their hunch paid off in 1979 and 1980 when Eyrie wines competed against French burgundies in Paris and Beaune — and won. “That was a watershed moment,” Lett said.
The Eyrie Vineyards’ accomplishment signaled the world that Oregon was ripe for wine production. Soon, French wine makers were exploring the region and moving to the state to start their own ventures. “We have gotten some very good neighbors in the process,” Lett said.
Lett said the winery, like many family businesses, was akin to having another sibling. Though he enjoyed working with this dad, the long hot days made college seem like a good idea. He pursued a degree in botany and started a career. In 1997, he returned to Eyrie to help with the harvest. “And I realized, ‘Oh my god, this is botany!’” However, the Eyrie was too small a kitchen for two cooks. He started his own winery—BlackCap — in 2002. In 2005, his father offered him his present job as winemaker and vineyard manager. “Dad stayed on as spiritual heart and technical consultant,” Lett said. David Lett passed away in 2008.
Today the Eyrie Vineyards comprise 118 acres, 60 of which are planted with grapes and 9 with hazelnut trees. The rest is pasture and forest. The company produces about 9,000 cases of wine annually. That’s more than half a million glasses, which sounds like a lot, but is roughly half of the output for an average Willamette Valley winery. Staying small is intentional, Lett said. “It is important to us that there is a single guiding philosophy behind the wine, and that is easier to achieve when there is one person overseeing the details.”
With vineyards in Dundee and a winery in McMinnville, Eyrie’s production is now half Pinot gris (it produced America’s first) and half a mix of Pinot noir, Chardonnay and more obscure varieties like Pinot blanc, Muscat Ottonel and Pinot meunier. Lett recently planted a new variety for Oregon — Trousseau, a red wine from the Jura region of France. “It is very refreshing and spicy,” he said.
Those with a taste for history (and Pinot) will be interested to know that the Eyrie is re-releasing library wines, including some of the South Block Reserve that first captured the world’s attention in France.
As for how Lett carries on the Eyrie legacy, Lett said, “I don’t think there is any one way to encapsulate that. The best way to experience it is by tasting our wines.”
The Eyrie tasting room is located at 935 East 10th Avenue in McMinnville and is open from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. For more information, visit http://www.eyrievineyards.com/.