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Oregon: The Pioneers of Pinot Noir

David Lett in his cellar c. 1970s. [Source: Linfield College]
David Lett in his cellar c. 1970s. [Source: Linfield College]

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

In the 1960s, the leading minds in American wine were convinced that there was no future for winemaking north of California. At the time, American winemaking was Napa Valley and its prophesied future was with Bordeaux varieties and Chardonnay. The University of California at Davis had already established itself as the premier viticulture and enology school in the country—a veritable womb for American rock-star vigneron.

But Davis didn't speak Pinot. There was some being grown in California at the time, but it was on the margin and largely being blended with other varieties with limited success. But a small faction of students at Davis were convinced that Pinot Noir could thrive in cooler climates north of California, despite the admonitions of their educators.

The Defectors
Richard Sommer was the first to defect, heading north to Southern Oregon packing Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Noir cuttings from Davis. He established Hillcrest Winery in 1961 in an old barn in the Umpqua Valley and made Oregon's first Pinot Noir in 1967. His small-scale success would eventually inspire those looking to escape the growing commercialism of California winemaking for something more provincial.

Four years later David Lett and Charles Coury would venture even further north to the Willamette Valley, which straddles the Willamette River and stretches, roughly, from Portland south to Eugene. Here on the red volcanic soil of the Dundee Hills, Lett and Coury would boldly establish a new frontier in American winemaking.

Though Coury's eponymous winery would close less than a decade after its establishment, his insistence, during the Davis years, that Oregon was the place for cold-climate varieties would solidify his role as one of the Oregon Pinot movement's greatest influences.

By 1968 Lett and Coury were joined by Dick Erath and Dick Ponzi, and from then on a stream of visionaries would file into the Willamette Valley and transform it into one of the world's great Pinot Noir terroirs in less than 50 years — growing the number of wineries from just 5 in 1970 to more than 350 today.

"Papa Pinot"
David Lett arrived in the Willamette Valley in 1965 at the age of 25 with 3,000 vine cuttings from Davis in the bed of his uncle's horse trailer. He originally planted them south of Salem in Corvallis, while he searched for vineyard land closer to Portland in the Northern half of the Valley. In 1966 Lett purchased 20 acres at $450 each in the Dundee Hills. Four years later, he bottled his first Pinot Noir under the Eyrie label and sold it for $2.65 a bottle. The same year he harvested the New World's first Pinot Gris, a variety that would eventually become the Willamette Valley's signature white wine grape.

For the first couple years Lett could barely convince an alcoholic to drink his wines, but things changed fast. In 1979, Lett's '75 Eyrie South Block Reserve Pinot Noir would take second place behind famed Burgundy producer Joseph Drouhin's 1959 Chambolle-Musigny in a blind tasting of American Pinot Noir versus French Burgundy. Oregon was officially on the international radar and pioneers looking for a piece of the action were pounding stakes into every naked piece of Willamette loam. Even Robert Drouhin of Joseph Drouhin established a winery — Domaine Drouhin — within eyeshot of Lett's.

Lett passed away in 2008, but "Papa Pinot," as he is affectionately known, will live on as the most important figure in Oregon's wine history. Since 2005, Eyrie's winemaking has been under the direction of Lett's son Jason, who has since upheld his father's penchant for honest, simple winemaking and has even made strides to push farming — which has been organic since the beginning — towards greater sustainability. The wines still represent the original Oregon model of restraint, elegance, and the tempered use of French oak à la Burgundy.

The Engineers
Though Dick Ponzi was not part of the gang of four Davis graduates, he came to Oregon for similar reasons. He and his wife Nancy had traveled extensively through Burgundy and had originally come to California in search of a place to make great Pinot Noir. At the time, the wines that were labeled Pinot Noir were largely blended with other varieties, as many still are today; hardly of the Burgundian persuasion and land costs were far too high.

The Ponzi's went north in 1970 to set up their eponymous winery near Beaverton in the Northern part of the Willamette Valley. With a background in mechanical engineering, Ponzi fabricated machinery now widely used in wineries around the world and brought a new sense of innovation to the winemakers that were writing their names in the sand. Ponzi Vineyards are now under the direction of the three Ponzi children: Luisa (winemaker), Michel (CEO), and Maria (Director of Sales and Marketing).

Dick Erath, who also has a background in engineering, was inspired to leave his field after an early garage winemaking experiment. After completing his coursework at UC Davis, Erath — part of the original gang — moved north in 1969, purchasing 49 acres and an unheated logger's cabin in the Dundee Hills. Erath harvested his first vintage in 1974, and would go on to produce Pinot Noir under the Erath label until 2005, when he sold the winery to mega wine conglomerate Chateau Ste Michelle.

Ever the pioneer, Erath, now 74, has said bon voyage to Pinot Noir and is on to a new frontier near Wilcox, Arizona where he's planted Tempranillo, Grenache, Primitivo and Mourvedre in the hopes of inaugurating yet another American wine frontier.

Western Promises
Though wine production in the state dates back to 1847 — when horticulturist Henderson Luelling arrived in the state via the Oregon Trail and planted Isabella, an American hybrid grape first developed in South Carolina in 1816 — the industry never quite took off until recently. Prohibition killed any momentum the state had found and when wineries began to pop up again in the 1930s and 40s their main production was berry and Concord grape wine.

In other words, before Sommer arrived in the late 1950s, Oregon was hardly a consideration when it came to American winegrowing. In just a half century, the state has proven that is one of the greatest terroirs for Pinot Noir outside of Burgundy.

The temerity of the men who swore off their formal education at Davis — or simply rolled the dice on an unknown growing region with one of the most ornery grapes in the world — captures the enduring promise of the American West: a place of incredible beauty, discovery, and ultimately prosperity.

The story of Robert Sommer, Charles Coury, David Lett, Dick Erath, and Dick Ponzi is a reminder that much of America's wine history is measured in decades and there is still so much we have yet to uncover.

-Talia Baiocchi

Talia Baiocchi is the founding editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her former life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.