An epitaph of good wine
Thoughts on David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards
By Tim Protzman firstname.lastname@example.org
I have the scariest costume this year. I’m going to dress up as my most recent 401 (k) statement. Dripping in blood-red ink.
Hopefully I won’t have to taste any scary wines this year. The scariest wine I’ve had this year was a Chateau Mucus, from 1991, probably one of the poorest vintages in recent memory. And it didn’t help that the guy who opened it had it sitting around in his tool box for a couple years after he’d been re-gifted it by a client who got it in one of those assorted Holiday Gift Packs where you get some crackers, well-preserved cheese and two reds and three whites. This is the wine equivalent of lime Skittles, always the last to be consumed.
The owner of Eyrie Vineyards, David Lett, died this week. I was saddened at the news, but it’s a testament to his wine-making skills that his epitaph in my mind will be the wondrously clear notes of his simple but elegant and honest wine. I first tasted its beauty in 1993. I was drawn to the simplicity of its label. The soaring hawk. The maroon/brown ink. The woodcut design. And the taste! I was really into cabernet sauvignons then, especially from Bordeaux. But this elegant, subtle wine wrapped around my tongue like warm fruit taffy. The layers! The subdued, almost submissive fruit. The slightly garnet color. Plus it was like $13.99, which it might be again with current economic conditions pointing to a period of deflation and then stagflation, with a chance of passing inflation.
And the Eyrie vintner was the first to see the Oregonian potential for Pinot Noir. He shall be missed, but remembered in every glass. Thinking back I can remember every detail of the little shop where I first found Eyrie. The bright all-glass front, the white wood wine boxes, the Sideshow Bob proprietor and his gentle defense of every wine in the shop no matter how bad.
David Lett, the late founder of Eyrie, also brought the clones in: Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, the second- and third-generation clones of Pinot Noir. These wines, rich, nicely sweet, but balanced with the perfect amount of tannic acid, give us a beautiful alternative to chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, which is Pinot Gris, with an Italian twist. Is it geography or are the grapes harvested sooner that make Pinot Grigio, fluid and tart, without the rich sugars of its non-Italian incarnation? I’m just glad we can taste all three side by side. Same grape, different interpretations.
The last thing about Mr. Lett and Eyrie Vineyards that impresses and shows his sense of adventure is his choice to pioneer grape production and winemaking in the relatively unplanted Willamette Valley in 1966. It gives hope that someday, on the higher slopes of south-facing hills surrounding the Great Bay, some intrepid New Hampshire vintner will crack the code and produce a terrific Cabernet Franc.
Here are the wines I tasted this week:
• 2004 Lan Reserve Rioja ($28.49). I bought this wine because I wanted to impress Christine. I was surprised that someone so new to the grape could have a thing for fruit-forward, structured, tannically dry Spanish wines. But she loved that pricey Priorat. But not the Rioja. It was one-dimensional and tannic, but the structure was there. However, I probably wouldn’t seek this one out again, unless it was on a restaurant wine list.
• 2004 Jarrarte Rioja ($27.99). This one fared a little better, but as the Kumar-esque proprietor said, “You’re robbing the wine cradle drinking bottles that young.” But who has time to let their wine age seven to 10 years? Produced by Bodegas Abel Mendoza.
• 2005 Pierre Lancon Domaine de la Solitude ($11.99). This Cotes du Rhone had its moments, but its biggest attraction is the low price.
• 2003 Guigal St Joseph ($32.29). I once had a bad first date that led to a bad long-term relationship. Should have known better. But an elegantly perfumed Chaves St. Joseph put stars in my eyes. This wine won’t have launched me into a bad relationship, but I am older and wiser now. This wine just didn’t have the intensity I remembered and it was pricey.
• 2006 La Crema from Sonoma Coast. I got this wine shipped to me from the producer. I had to jump through hoops to get the delivery address changed to a place where I’m freelancing on assignment. I’m never home from 8 a.m. ’til around 7 p.m. Boy, you would have thought I was trying to override the firewall on our Nuclear Launch Command! I find that yelling, screaming, crying and stealing that line from Stephen King, “Just give me what I want and I’ll go away!” delivered in a husky Halloween demon, voice pretty much gets you anything. And that was just to get past the computer. I did get the wine when a shipping company employee decided to own the solution and go above and beyond. For the rest of you, graveyard dirt harvested at midnight and blessed salt will remove the curse.
The Chardonnay was a little oaky and sour with a nice finish. The Pinot Noir is a worthy successor to the $13.99 Eyrie pinot, with 21st-century pricing and production methods. Chardonnay, $15.99; pinot, $18.99. Nice wine at a very good price.
• Herdade do Pombal ($11.99). You go to buy wine. They offer you a taste of something. It’s really good. But you don’t buy it. That’s what happened with this wine, and the Spanish Tempranillo that cost double the price wasn’t as good. So you go back and buy it later. Fruit-forward with cherry, grape and plum notes, Port-like finish, with a little baked fig flavor. Not surprised about the Port — after all, this wine hails from Portugal’s Alentejo region. One of the better-tasting wines I’ve had this year.