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The Eyrie Vineyards

History and Longevity - Wines of Wisdom from The Willamette Valley

Leonardo Da Vinci once wrote, “People of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, embodied this philosophy. Referred to by many as ‘pioneer’, ‘trailblazer’, or simply ‘Papa Pinot’, he arrived in Oregon in 1965—at a time when there was no wine commerce to speak of—with some vine cuttings and a firm belief that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay would find their New World home on the cool slopes of the Willamette Valley.

That same year, he planted the first Pinot Noir vines in Oregon on what would become the Eyrie Vineyard in the area now known as the Dundee Hills AVA. He also planted Chardonnay and the first Pinot Gris vines in the USA. Though his decision was met with derision by considered experts who thought the climate too marginal to ripen grapes effectively, his detractors were soon silenced when, in Paris in 1979, the Eyrie Pinot Noir ’75 came third in a blind tasting with some illustrious Burgundian competition—Oregon’s very own Judgement of Paris. The effects were immediate, placing Oregon, the Willamette Valley, and Eyrie in the gaze of the wine elite. Demand for the wines increased, along with domestic and foreign investment in the area. The Willamette Valley was placed well and truly on the map.

Though decades have passed, time at Eyrie has stood relatively still. After David Lett passed away in 2008, scion Jason, who’d returned to work full-time at the estate in 2005, assumed the mantle. Farming now considered cutting edge is, in fact, as it was 50 years ago: organic; no irrigation, insecticides, herbicides, systemic sprays or fertilisers; composting; cover crops; and a fifty-year history of no-till agriculture—a boast few, if any, can make. Jason explains: “The reason we do all these don’ts is to allow the vines to establish their own ecosystem rather than us being intrusive.” Their soils are ancient but agriculturally youthful and teeming with vitality and life.

"From the ‘grape-growing’ through the elevage, this is an artisanal, noninterventionist, unique operation that continues to turn out some of the most fascinating wines on the planet.” Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate

 

Eyrie Vineyards spans 26 hectares across five sites in the Dundee Hills AVA, which is nestled between the Coastal Range and the Chehalem Mountains, providing protection from the cool breezes of the Pacific and, consequently, slightly warmer conditions than elsewhere in the valley. The AVA is prized for its Jory soils, deposited as volcanic flow millions of years ago, which over time decomposed to red soil overlying a deep layer of basalt. These unique soils—Jory is the official soil of Oregon—are rich in iron and have excellent drainage and water retention, making them ideal for dry farming.

The five sites—The Eyrie, Daphne, Outcrop, Roland Green and Sisters—range from 67 metres (Sisters) to 260 metres (Daphne) above sea level. They are certified organic, and most of the vines are on their own roots. The vineyard work is done by hand, and the small crew of seven—with a combined experience of 180 years with the estate—visit each of the 50,000 vines 12 to 15 times throughout the year. As you go higher, it gets windier and colder and the soils get more volcanic, giving different expressions. In general, you can expect perfumed, elegant Pinot Noirs with savoury complexity and finesse to the fore.

The wines are produced in the original winery and, as in Jason’s father’s time, there’s little separation from the vineyard. He tries to do as little as possible to facilitate the fruit’s expression. Reds and whites are mostly destemmed, plunging is by hand and ferments are slow and natural—save for Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, for which he uses the same pre-GMO yeasts his dad used. Fermentation vessels are small, all wines go through full malolactic conversion and extended time on lees, and the use of new wood is negligible. A portion of all the Eyrie wines is pressed in a 60-year-old Willmes basket press, and there are 250 barrels in the winery, over 40% of which are 20 years or older and less than 5% are new. In fact, Jason still has some barrels in use from the original 1970 vintage.

While acknowledging the significance of Eyrie’s history, Jason has one eye on the future. In recent years, he has taken steps to future-proof the estate. All future plantings will oriented east to west, now unequivocally the best solution for ripening in the AVA. The more recently planted Roland Green and Sisters vineyards serve a dual function as sites with experimental, phylloxera-resistant rootstocks and varietal diversity. He has also modernised the Eyrie Cellar program, developing a 21-step process to ensure each bottle in the Eyrie Museum stocks arrives to the consumer in the best possible condition. We encourage you to read more about this and other fascinating matters on their excellent website.

Eyrie’s importance cannot be overstated, and it’s fair to say its future is in very good hands.

 

Currently Available

The Eyrie Vineyards Trousseau 2019

The Eyrie Vineyards Trousseau 2019

Inspired by the great wines he had tasted from Montigny-les-Arsures in Jura, Jason Lett planted the Willamette Valley’s first Trousseau Noir in 2012 in the 20-acre Sisters Vineyard. This directly south-facing vineyard is the lowest site at 67 metres and the youngest in the Eyrie fold. It’s named after the Pinot Sisters (Noir, Gris and Blanc) and is planted to seven different varieties. Hand-picked fruit was destemmed and fermented naturally in small, open-top 11-hectolitre vessels. Ferments were hand-plunged twice daily before a light pressing. The wine was aged in old oak puncheons for 10 months. To preserve the purity and bright nature of the delicate Trousseau fruit, no new wood was used and the wine was bottled unfined and unfiltered with just moderate amounts of sulphur. 

Wild, untamed aromatics swirl from the glass: red fruits, smoky reduction, freshly tilled earth and spice. It’s fresh and lithe on the palate, with savoury nuances aligned to red fruit and earthy flavours and juicy, supple textures with sappy acidity.

“Medium garnet, the 2019 Trousseau opens with wild, savory aromas of tobacco, leather, tar, briar fruit and nuances of Angostura bitters and underbrush. The light-bodied palate is chalky and refreshing with earth-laced fruit and an alluring, spicy finish.”
93 points, Erin Brooks, The Wine Advocate
The Eyrie Vineyards Trousseau 2019
The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris 2020

The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris 2020

At the same time as he was putting his Pinot Noir vines in the soil, David Lett planted America’s first commercial Pinot Gris vines in 1965. Pinot Gris vines can now be found in the Roland Green, Sisters and Daphne vineyards, as well as the original 1965 plantings in the Eyrie Vineyard. Not only did Eyrie’s Pinot Gris make the early running, to this day it remains a yardstick for others to follow. Like every practice at this historic address, Eyrie take the long way around when it comes to Pinot Gris. The wines age on lees for up to four times longer than many of their more commercial competitors, and the team do not block malolactic fermentation. The low-yielding but high-quality 2020 season gave fruit of a density and concentration, Jason Lett categorising it alongside the greats of 1988 and 1998. Hand-picked fruit was destemmed, pressed and fermented in stainless steel tank before resting for 11 months on lees before bottling. A Pinot Gris of depth and bounty, this is layered with citrus and florals, enticing sweet spices and some subtle wispy smoke. It’s beautifully textured, with linear acidity flowing through a melange of ripe fruits, toasty richness and generous weight. Great length too.  It’s very easy to see why this is considered the benchmark Gris of the Willamette Valley.

A Pinot Gris of depth and bounty, this is layered with citrus and florals, enticing sweet spices and some subtle wispy smoke. It’s beautifully textured, with linear acidity flowing through a melange of ripe fruits, toasty richness and generous weight. Great length too. It’s very easy to see why this is considered the benchmark Gris of the Willamette Valley.

“This is the bar by which many Willamette Valley producers measure their own Pinot Gris. Made with certified organic grapes, the wine’s pale moonbeam colour casts its glow on aromas of orange blossom honey, lemon verbena and a trace of vanilla. Flavours of honeycomb, lemon sorbet and white grapefruit complement a lithesome texture backed by acidity that packs a pop.”
95 points, Michael Alberty, Decanter
The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Gris 2020
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“A visit to the Eyrie Vineyards, where Jason Lett now presides, is like getting a history lesson in how wine used to be made, and some say, still should be made. From the ‘grape-growing’ through the elevage, this is an artisanal, noninterventionist, unique operation that continues to turn out some of the most fascinating wines on the planet.” Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate

“Eyrie wines are now made by Lett‘s son, Jason, who appears to have no quarrel with his father‘s aesthetic convictions. Eyrie wines have always been exemplars of finesse and nuance rather than inky-dark power, bullying fruitiness and heavy-handed oakiness. The Letts, father and son, have remained true to their school — and it‘s a fine, high-minded academy indeed” Matt Kramer, The Wine Spectator

“David Lett pioneered both Pinot noir and its white wine cousin, Pinot gris, the two grapes that define Oregon wine today. But just as important, he established the very tone of Oregon winegrowing: artisanal, individualistic, even idiosyncratic… You can look at Oregon’s 300-plus wineries and 17,400 acres of vines and trace it to Lett. But he left more than that. He bequeathed a uniquely Oregon ‘wine genome,’ one that others now seek to copy.” Matt Kramer, The Wine Spectator

Country

USA

Primary Region

Willamette Valley, Oregon

People

Winemaker: Jason Lett

Availability

National

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