THE VALLEY’S FOUNDING FAMILIES LOOK BACK ON THE EARLY DAYS OF OREGON’S PINOT INDUSTRY
In the 1960s and ’70s in Oregon, a billion-dollar industry was beginning on the backs of just a handful of families.
Many of them had recently moved to the Willamette Valley from California. None of them was business-minded — they were artists and scholars, engineers and scientists, liberal-minded people united by a fondness for fine wine, a love that was not widely shared by the rest of the country.
Talk about those early times, and the same few names keep cropping up: Dick Erath, David Lett, the Ponzis, Sokol Blosser, David Adelsheim, Chuck Coury.
They are the founders of the wine industry in the Willamette Valley. And thanks to their efforts, Oregon is today celebrating the 50th anniversary of the planting of pinot noir in the Willamette Valley.
Several of them agreed to sit down with the Statesman Journal for exclusive interviews about those early days.
For them, it started with the planting of grapevines in unfamiliar soil, just to see what would grow.
Oregon — its agriculture, its industry, its culture and its global reputation — has not been the same since.
THE VALLEY’S FOUNDING FAMILIES LOOK BACK ON THE EARLY DAYS OF OREGON’S PINOT INDUSTRY
The 1960s: ‘Papa Pinot’
In 1963, David Lett was heading from Utah to San Francisco, where he was to begin dental school, when he stumbled upon California’s now famous Napa Valley.
It was a serendipitous moment. The 24-year-old Lett decided to forgo dentistry and instead began studying viticulture at the University of California, Davis. Two years later, degree in hand, Lett began considering where he might purchase property to begin planting his first grapes.
He settled on Oregon’s Willamette Valley, specifically a south-facing slope in the Dundee Hills, where Lett planted his first 3,000 vines of pinot noir. The year was 1965.
“He really knew that the Willamette Valley was going to be the best place for pinot noir outside of Burgundy (France),” said Jason Lett, David’s son, in an interview with the Statesman Journal.
Lett’s reasoning made sense. Both Burgundy and the Willamette Valley fall along the same latitude of 45 degrees north, meaning they experience similar daylight lengths and changes. Additionally, both regions share cool climates that favor pinot grapes, notorious for their fussiness.
“He had his vineyard established, and he met my mom in ’66,” Jason Lett said. “They got married, I think, within six weeks of meeting each other, and she was immediately recruited with a shovel and a rain suit to help out.”
David Lett, who died in 2008 at the age of 69, earned the nickname “Papa Pinot” because of those first plantings. But he had only a couple of years’ head start on another young winemaker, whose name would also one day rise to the same level of esteem among wine aficionados.
At the time, Dick Erath was making wine out of his garage in Walnut Creek, California. But his full-time job as an engineer caught the eye of Tektronix, a company based in Portland, which brought Erath to Oregon for an interview in 1967.
Just as Lett’s journey was fortuitously sidetracked by Napa Valley, so too did the appeal of wine draw Erath away from his primary reason for visiting Oregon.
“This is where Chuck Coury comes into the seam, is when I did the interview in ’67, I stopped at his house in Forest Grove and we stayed up until 4 in the morning talking about growing grapes,” Erath said. “His master’s thesis was basically looking at the conditions to grow grapes … and his thesis paper basically predicted that Oregon would be a really suitable place to grow grapes.”
Dick Erath, a pioneer in the Oregon wine industry, speaks about Erath Winery.Brent Drinkut / Statesman Journal
Many of these early winemakers seem to have stumbled upon the Dundee Hills, rather than deliberately seek them out. Perhaps it was the proximity to Portland, Oregon’s center of commerce but also a starting point for many of them before they headed south in search of available farmland.
Perhaps they stopped when the country began to resemble the rolling hills of France.
“So I came up and did the interview, and on the way back down I stopped in Roseburg,” Erath said. “The only producing vineyard in the state at the time was Hillcrest, out of Roseburg, and I met (founder) Richard Sommer at a class in (the University of California) Davis I took in June. He was very enthusiastic and supportive of the notion I should come up here, too.”
Erath picked some of Sommer’s grapes from his Roseburg vineyard and, as he puts it, “smuggled them across the line.” The wine those grapes produced back at his California home, he said, was exceptional.
“I just fell in love with the wine,” Erath said. “It was those wonderful fruit flavors you get here under the climate conditions.”
By 1969, Erath had purchased 40 acres of property, also in the Dundee Hills of Yamhill County.
“That’s how it all got started,” he said. “I planted 4 acres with 22 varieties in 1969 just to see what would work. Now, we don’t even look at those other varieties anymore.”
At the same time that Erath and Lett were beginning their forays into the Oregon soil, David Adelsheim was halfway across the world. After being released from the Army while in Korea in 1968, Adelsheim was taking a well-deserved break, traveling across Europe and soaking up the culture, the food, and, of course, the wine.
“My passion for wine, I guess, grew out of the trip to Europe,” Adelsheim said. “Wine was actually something closer to an intellectual pursuit that had the added advantage of alcohol delivery. … The learning about place and the fact that this wine came from this place … was really appealing. I think there was an intellectual geekiness to it.”
The 1970s: History in the making
By 1970, there were about five wineries in the Willamette Valley, according to estimates from the Oregon Vineyard & Winery Census Report, produced by Southern Oregon University.
It was a busy year. David Lett produced his first vintage under his newly created winery, The Eyrie Vineyards. Two new couples had arrived in the area, purchased land and set to planting: Dick and Nancy Ponzi, who arrived from California with their children, and Bill Blosser and Susan Sokol Blosser, newlyweds who were recent graduates of Reed College in Portland. Both couples had grand visions of returning to the earth and farming.
“There was a big back-to-the-land movement, and we were a bit caught up in that, as you’ll find everybody else was,” Nancy Ponzi said.
“There was this energy in the air, this entrepreneurial energy,” said Susan Sokol Blosser, referencing a decade that included the invention of the cellphone, Microsoft and Apple. “I look back and I say we were a part of that. We manifested it not in technology, but we manifested it by starting a wine industry.”
By the following year, Adelsheim and his wife had also arrived in the area and bought their own property.
In those early years, it was impossible not to know your neighbors. Each new arrival to the Dundee hilltops was greeted warmly by the pioneering grape farmers already there. Lett and Erath had both been educated on viticulture at UC-Davis, but none of the initial families were experts in grape farming.
“We would get together, and Dick Erath was especially generous with his information,” Sokol Blosser said.
“We all followed suit, and we would get together and compare … it was a support group, really. We knew there would be strength in unity, and we worked together. And that has stood us well,” she said.
“The thing that most visitors, at least to the Willamette Valley, go away with is realizing this place is different because of collaboration,” Adelsheim said. “It’s not that no other place is collaborative, but we had no choice but to be collaborative. … Of the original 12 families, one guy had made wine before. Nobody had grown grapes; no one had ever run a business; no one had sold wine.”
The first half of the ’70s in that area was all about production. Erath had his first barrel of pinot by ’72; Lett had Jason, then just 3 years old, helping with the vineyard’s first vintage in ’73; the newly created Ponzi Vineyards came out with its first vintage in ’74.
But the latter half of the decade marked an intellectual shift, a realization among the budding winemakers that Oregon soil was producing something truly special.
“For me, personally, it was 1977,” Erath said. “I spent six weeks in Europe and probably two of those weeks in Burgundy, tasting wines. And I said, hey, I got stuff just like this back home. You know, that’s the validation that you’re doing the right thing.”
But the greatest excitement by far came in 1979, when Oregon’s young pinots began making their grand debut throughout the world.
That year was the Wine Olympics, an event organized in Paris by French food and wine magazine Gault Millau. It was a tasting competition featuring more than 300 wines from 30 countries, where tasting experts sampled and ranked each wine.
It was the sort of event the French expected to dominate. And then a pinot noir from Eyrie Vineyards, David Lett’s 1975 reserve vintage, won third place.
“Its success begets success,” Adelsheim said. “There’s lots of steps that help, and one of the first was the Eyrie pinots doing well in the ’79 and ’80 tastings.”
David Adelsheim, a pioneer in the Oregon winery industry, speaks about Adelsheim Vineyard.Brent Drinkut / Statesman Journal
The 1980s: French take notice
Robert Drouhin, a French winemaker, seemed to believe the Wine Olympics of the previous year was a fluke. How could Oregon pinots — a grape variety notoriously fussy to grow — possibly compare with the Burgundy region of France, which had been producing excellent pinot noir for centuries?
So Drouhin sponsored another wine tasting. But once again, Eyrie Vineyards produced a pinot noir that was on par with the quality of Burgundy.
By now, the number of wineries in the Willamette Vineyard had grown to about 30.
Erath officially founded Erath Vineyards, further solidifying his role in the budding industry. That same year, 11 wineries banded together to form the Yamhill County Wineries Association, which would become, more than 20 years later, the Willamette Valley Wineries Association.
Ask Oregon’s founding winemakers about milestone years in the industry, and they’ll mention a number of dates. But every single one of them brings up a wine tasting competition in New York City that occurred in 1985.
“We had a tasting of ’83 pinot noirs in New York City of Oregon versus Burgundy,” Erath said. “It was all blind, and it totally confused the wine critics. They thought Oregon wines were from Burgundy, and they liked the Oregon wines better, but they didn’t know it. Their saving grace was that caveat, well, these wines won’t age. Turns out they age quite well.”
“The tastings in 1985 of the 1983 pinot noirs, that had legs,” Sokol Blosser said. “They said, essentially, ‘We can’t tell the difference between Oregon and France.’ The top five wines were all from Oregon. … There were enough wineries at that point that there was an impact.”
But the following year, she added, Oregon winemakers made a crucial mistake.
“So Oregon springs to the fore in 1985, and the Oregon wine industry made a big mistake by touting the 1986 vintage, which was not a very good vintage, nor the 1987 vintage,” she said. ” So the wine writers essentially said, well, Oregon was a flash in the pan.”
But there were those who still saw great promise in Oregon’s rolling green hills. Robert Drouhin, of the 1980 Paris tasting, arrived in the Willamette Valley in 1987 and purchased his own property. By the following year, he had already produced his first vintage.
The arrival of the French winemaker was heralded by many in the area as another sign of the quality of their grapes.
“When Robert Drouhin came (in 1987), that was such an affirmation that he said, ‘There are only two places in the world that I would grow pinot noir, and one is Burgundy and the other is Oregon,” Sokol Blosser said. “We’d been saying that this is God’s country for pinot noir, but to hear somebody from the motherland of pinot noir say that, it was pretty exciting.”
The 1990s and 2000s: Picking up steam
The excitement surrounding Willamette Valley wineries in the ’80s had not gone unnoticed by others interested in winemaking. By 1990, the number of wineries in the area had doubled to 60.
By now, Lett’s son, who had once helped grow the grapes, was himself a grown man and back in the family business. Jason Lett returned to the vineyard to help his father in 1997, but the reunion was short-lived.
“It was rough, because this is a small kitchen,” Jason Lett said. “There’s not really room for two chefs in a kitchen of this size. And we just kept stepping on each other’s toes. … We had a very amicable parting.”
By 2000, the number of wineries had swelled to 110.
The wine that was being produced on the West Coast came to the attention of the average consumer thanks, in large part, to a film. “Sideways,” a movie prominently featuring both pinot noir and Napa Valley and starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, was released in 2004.
“There were two great grapes of America, and after ‘Sideways,’ there were three,” Adelsheim said. “That was sufficient to make Oregon up there with the central coast in California. We sold out of pinot just like they did, even though we were thousands of miles away. Suddenly, pinot noir became part of the elite.”
But there was another, more personal, transformation occurring among Oregon’s founding families.
Jason Lett officially took over as winemaker at Eyrie Vineyards in 2005, ending the era of his father’s widely recognized wines. Jason, then in his mid-30s, was painfully aware of the weight of the legacy that had just been handed to him.
“That leap of faith was both an incredible gift and also really, really daunting,” he said. “I can remember that first vintage, the 2005, I was a wreck for 18 months after I started this job. I was so nervous and working all the time. But Dad was there, and he was there to ask questions of.”
The Letts weren’t the only winemaking family moving into the second generation. Susan Sokol Blosser officially handed over the reigns of her winery to her children in 2008. The Ponzis had already surrendered the winemaking and marketing to their two daughters in 1993.
2010 and beyond: Promise for the future
Another milestone for Oregon winemakers came in the form of a magazine article.
In 2012, Wine Spectator came out with a now-famous magazine cover and 15-page spread declaring that “pinot noir has found an American home in Oregon.”
Much like the victory in the 1985 New York tasting and the arrival of French winemakers in the area, the article was even more affirmation to the quality of the grapes.
But for some, the praise was long overdue.
- “There’s an old saying that it takes 20 years to be an overnight success, and for us, it was more like 30,” Sokol Blosser said. “The Wine Spectator that suddenly declared that Oregon is the equal of Burgundy in pinot noir. How long had we been doing this? … They’re slow learners, what can I say?”
Now, 50 years after David Lett planted those first pinot grapes in the Dundee Hills, the Willamette Valley boasts more than 17,000 acres of grapes planted across 647 vineyards.
The Willamette Valley is responsible for 87 percent of Oregon’s pinot noir production, according to the Willamette Valley Wineries Association.
Those original founders say they still can’t believe their success.
“No one would have ever guessed it turns into this something-billion-dollar industry,” Erath said. “We never thought we’d be failing, but I don’t think we saw the growth as being as strong as it would be.”
“If anybody has told you they did, they were lying,” Adelsheim said. “There’s no way we could have known.”
lfosmire@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6709 or follow on Twitter at @fosmirel
Oregon pinot noir’s reputation has taken flight
FOUNDERS CREDIT CHANGING PALATES AND GROWING KNOWLEDGE OF GRAPE GROWERS AND WINEMAKERS
The message proclaiming that pinot noir has finally found an American home in Oregon, published in the December 2012 issue of Wine Spectator magazine, has been a long time coming.
But it’s only one of the many things that have contributed to the rising tide that has floated the boats of all Oregon pinot makers and raised the visibility of Oregon pinot noir over the course of its 50-year history in the Willamette Valley.
The rising profile of Oregon pinot noir among consumers in the United States corresponds to changing palates and tastes, according to several families who founded the industry in the Willamette Valley as well as Harvey Steiman, the author of the Wine Spectator article.
The varietal has also benefited from the collective knowledge gained by pioneering winemakers who sought to grow this famously finicky grape in Oregon’s equally fickle climate.
Oregon may share latitude with Burgundy, France, the world’s most famous region for growing pinot noir, but the marine influence on Oregon’s climate makes our weather a whole lot less predictable. Plus at the time that the wine industry was founded in the Willamette Valley, in 1965 and through the early 1970s, those families who came to Oregon from California had to learn from scratch.
“The direction that the Oregon wine industry seems to be going is to be ever more fundamentally professional,” said Steiman, who made his first visit to Oregon in the 1970s and began covering Oregon for Wine Spectator in the 1990s.
“When I first came to Oregon, everyone was trying to figure it out — where to grow pinot noir and how to grow it. After a couple of generations, we have reached a point where we have enough knowledge to dial it in.”
“If you want to make a riper style, you can do it in Oregon now. Those who want to make a lighter style can make it that way. I think if there’s an overall trend, it’s that there is a transparency that Oregon has been able to get, along with the richness that we can get on the West Coast because the sunshine is more than they can get in Burgundy. And the 2012 (vintage) is the perfect example of what I’m saying. It has all the ripeness that we could ask for, but it has this beautiful transparency that only pinot noir could provide in truly great wines,” Steiman said.
Susan Sokol Blosser, a pioneer in the Oregon wine industry, speaks about Sokol Blosser Winery.Brent Drinkut / Statesman Journal
Susan Sokol Blosser, who co-founded Sokol Blosser Winery with her former husband, Bill Blosser, said pinot noir is probably the most difficult grape to grow. They were among the first to plant pinot noir in the Willamette Valley in the 1970s.
“Cabernet will grow nice and straight. Pinot noir just wants to sprawl,” Sokol Blosser said. “You have to be very careful when you prune it and so forth, and it’s learning how to manage all the growth and keeping the clusters separate. This is all stuff we had to learn.”
One of the things they had to learn from scratch, for example, was how to trellis the vines.
“At one point I think at Sokol Blosser we had every trellis system known to man,” she said. “After all the trial and error, we went back to the three-wire system,” she said.
So why even try in Oregon to grow pinot noir, one of the most difficult grapes to grow and make into wine?
“Because when it’s done well, it is absolutely sublime,” Sokol Blosser said. “My favorite thing to say is that it’s not a wine that’s going to hit you between the eyes. It’s not a wine that’s going to knock your socks off. It’s going to seduce you and slip your socks off.”
When one winemaker learned something, that knowledge was shared around the tables and living rooms of those first families. This culture of helping each other out continues today. It’s one of the things that sets the Oregon wine industry apart from the competitive culture of California.
Trellis systems, vine spacing, planting densities, everything was shared.
“We would gather in our living rooms, in small groups, and discuss how you’re going to plant your grapes,” said Dick Ponzi, co-founder of Ponzi Vineyards, another of the Willamette Valley’s pinot pioneers.
Some of the stories, such as the decision on row spacing, are peppered with humor. When Ponzi visited Alsace and Burgundy, France, and noted the spacing of grape vine rows, it became apparent that the same spacing couldn’t be used in Oregon.
Dick and Nancy Ponzi, pioneers in the Oregon wine industry, speak about Ponzi Vineyards.Brent Drinkut / Statesman Journal
“Ultimately we decided pretty much at the time in the ’70s that we would use the John Deere dimension, that was the tractor. You could discuss all you want, but if you were going to work 15, 20 acres, you’re going to have to get a tractor down the row. So that was it,” he said.
Changing tastes and culture
The rise in popularity in pinot noir and the profile of Oregon pinot noir in particular, also had to do with a cultural shift in America that had to do with the impact of Prohibition.
During prohibition, the people who wanted to drink had to drink the stuff that was easiest to transport — liquor, said Jason Lett, winemaker and owner of The Eyrie Vineyards and son of another of the wine industry’s founders, David Lett. “And wine was really considered something that working-class people and Europeans, the Italians and other suspect characters were making in their backyards. And so there was no real fine-wine culture,” Lett said.
There was also a change in how Americans ate at home and cooked.
In the ’60s and early ’70s, spices other than salt and pepper were almost unknown.
“You were lucky to find Bay Seasoning at your store. But through the 1970s through the efforts of people like Portland chef James Beard and Julia Child, people became more and more enamored with this European ideal of going out and finding your fresh ingredients and harvesting herbs from your garden and cooking it in your kitchen and then to complete the circle, drinking wine with that,” Lett said.
“At the same time that we’ve had this evolution about food and the flavors that we we should expect and demand in food, there’s been the same thing in wine,” Lett said. What was popular 20 years ago was the wine equivalent of Coca-Cola: dark-colored, syrupy and full of vanilla flavors.
“I think people have gotten more complex expectations from what they drink, and they want to have their palate stimulated in more ways that just the sheer impact in the way the wine is having when you put it into your mouth. Even beginners know that they should be able to taste more than one thing in a glass of wine. And that’s really led people to look for varieties that are more expressive and more delicate and more food friendly like pinot noir,” Lett said.
As more people around the world become more sophisticated in their appetite for good and innovative cuisine, so will their demand for wines that go well with food such as pinot noir. And there’s plenty of acreage that’s available for growing pinot noir in Oregon.
Alan Campbell, a soil scientist, did a study of vineyard-suitable land in the Willamette Valley a few years ago and found that there was more than 100,000 acres of suitable farmland that could be still planted with vineyards, Willamette Valley Vineyards founder Jim Bernau said.
As long as Oregon’s winemakers are rowing in unison in the pursuit of making expressive and uniquely Oregon pinot noirs, it looks like there’s plenty more room for the rising ruby tide and more boats in Oregon’s sea of pinot noir.
Victor Panichkul is food, wine and beer columnist for the Statesman Journal. Reach him at (503) 399-6794, Vpanichkul@StatesmanJournal.com, follow at Facebook.com/WillametteValleyFoodWine and on Twitter @TasteofOregon.
Jason Lett puts own stamp on father’s legacy
AS EYRIE VINEYARDS MARKS 50 YEARS, JASON LETT IS PUTTING HIS OWN STAMP ON WINES
Jason Lett speaks about his father, David Lett ,who was a pioneeer in the Oregon wine industry and founded The Eyrie Vineyards.Brent Drinkut / Statesman Journal
In 1965, David Lett moved to Oregon from California with 3,000 grape cuttings and a dream of starting a vineyard in Oregon to grow pinot noir.
Those cuttings eventually found a home in the red hills of Dundee, where he planted a vineyard. He named the vineyard for the red-tailed hawks who made their home in the fir trees at the top of the first vineyard plantings, and he began writing the story of pinot noir in the Willamette Valley.
The Eyrie Vineyards was founded in 1970, the year after his son, Jason, was born.
As Eyrie prepared to mark the 50th anniversary of planting the vines this weekend, Jason took a moment to look back at the place in history that his father holds and stepping into his father’s shoes and carrying on his legacy.
A childhood in the vineyard
Jason grew up among the vines and in the winery; they were like siblings to him.
“When I came along, the first vines had already been planted, but our last big planting at Eyrie was in 1973 and 1974, and I can definitely remember planting those grapes. … In those days, my folks would recruit a lot of their friends, and so their friends would come, and they would bring their kids, and again it was just super fun, playing in the dirt, the shovels, the tractor driving around. …”
“I was about 3 and 4 (years old). I can remember our field manager at the time … and she was a great fisherwoman, and everybody had to learn to fish. That was just a skill that you had to have in life, and so she took me fishing, and I caught all of these fish and wound up really not knowing what to do with them all. So I can remember at least my contribution to a few of those vines was in the hole where the vine went, I would also put a fish in. And those vines are healthy to this day.”
“Growing up in a winery is a great thing for a kid because all kids like playing with their food, and in the winery, you get to do that on an industrial scale. So you bring the grapes in, you squish them, everything gets really sticky, there’s juice flying everywhere, and then you spray everything down with a hose. It’s great times for a kid. I really enjoyed growing up here,” Jason said as he glanced about the barrel room, the same barrel room where his dad aged wine.
“The first vintage that I remember well was when I was 3 (years old), in 1973. And I did things like spray things with water and throw clusters of grapes into the de-stemmer one at a time. And punching caps was always good fun. Those are still the jobs I like to do,” Jason said.
As he got older, invariably he got the question: “Are you going to be a winemaker some day?”
“The most annoying question that you can ask a kid who’s growing up in a winery is ‘Are you going to be a winemaker some day?’ ” So people asked me that, and I always politely answered yes. But I never really seriously thought I would. In fact, when I graduated from high school, I was like anybody else growing up in a small farming town. I’m going to the big city, and I’m not coming back.”
The long road back
Jason would spend about 10 years roaming the country before he heeded the call to come back. He hadn’t realized it at the time, but as he was exploring a career, he was laying the groundwork for becoming the answer to the question to which he politely replied so many times before.
“I started off as a creative writing major and quickly realized that if I wanted to write a novel, it would be best just to quit school and go try to do that. So I went out to Eastern Oregon, and the novel did not happen. The first 15 pages did, and then I needed to find something better to do with myself.”
He befriending some biologists who were working in botany.
“And so I worked with them, and I thought, ‘Wow, this stuff was really cool,’ and so I wound up going to school for botany. And to pay for it, I still had all of my farm-boy skills, so I would fix people’s cars,” Jason said.
He ended up with a degree in biology with a focus on botany from the University of New Mexico and later did some research at Oregon State University in the small fruits program that included blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, Loganberries and Marionberries.
During the harvest of 1997, his dad was short-handed, so he invited Jason to come back and help.
“I was between grants on a research project that I was working on, so I thought: ‘OK, I’ll come and check it out again.’ “
“I think every kid, up until the time they’re 13 or 14, admires their parents and what they do, and then after that time, there’s a period of pushing away, and I definitely went through that. When I came back in my late 20s, I was committed to making wine and growing grapes. But I don’t think that my dad knew to what extent I was. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure how much I knew either,” Jason said.
“I did know that I didn’t want to see Eyrie sold or fall into someone else’s hands. I did know that growing up among the vines, those were kind of like siblings, and I wanted to continue to have a role in taking care of them. But I didn’t know what that would be,” Jason said.
Jason worked with his dad from 1997 to 2000 and remembers it being a rough time because the winery was so small.
“This is a small kitchen. We make only 7,000 cases of wine. The average winery in the valley makes about 18,000. And so there’s not really room for two chefs in a kitchen this size. And we just kept stepping on each other’s toes,” Jason said.
At some point, Jason said he realized it was time to strike out on his own again.
“There was always a lot of goodwill there, but also I think at some point we just looked at each other and said at dinner time we want to be able to talk about something besides wines and business, and so we had a very amicable parting. And I went off and worked with other fruit crops. I worked with blackberries, strawberries and raspberries and then came back to winemaking through a vineyard management job in 2003 and started my own label of wine at the same time called Black Cap.”
Jason had been working on his own label for about three years when his father became ill.
“I think it was just very lucky happenstance that the opportunity for me to start my own label and manage this vineyard coincided with the time that Dad felt like he really needed to think seriously about how the (business) was going to transition. And so we started the conversation … and at that time, he didn’t want to invite me back as the winemaker; he wanted me to be kind of like his assistant again, and I said, ‘No. I don’t want to do that. I want you to have your wine, and I want me to have my wine and still be able to have that nice conversation at dinner.’
“And so we talked about six months about this, and finally, he wrote me a very very simple job description, which was he said ‘You’re the winemaker. You get to make all the decisions about the viticulture and the winemaking. Please ask me questions whenever you can think of one. But other than that, all decisions are yours.’
“Which if you think about it, for somebody who had started in an industry and whose blood ran pinot, it was an incredibly brave thing to do to turn it over to somebody as callow and inexperienced as I was. But that leap of faith was both an incredible gift and also really really daunting. And I can remember that first vintage, the 2005, I was a wreck for 18 months after I started this job … so nervous working all the time. Everything had to be absolutely perfect. Those were some very challenging years, those first years. But Dad was there, and he was there to ask questions of.”
His father’s legacy
In 2008, Jason’s father, the man who had who built The Eyrie Vineyards into what it was and who had helped plant the seeds of the Oregon wine industry, died from heart failure.
Surrounded by the French oak barrels — some new, some 10 years, 20 years or more older — Jason also is surrounded by the legacy of his father. The same office that his father used is cluttered with wine corkscrew collections, and the walls are dotted with historic photos. A proclamation in German honoring his father hangs in the center of one wall, and bottles of Eyrie’s wines dating back to the 1970s sit on an old desk.
Years later, in some ways, Jason still is coming out from the towering shadow cast by his father.
“I’ve made 20 percent of Eyrie’s vintages now. It’s not a big percentage compared to what Dad made, but I think it’s enough to feel like I’ve been established. And it is a little frustrating that Eyrie’s so affiliated with my father that sometimes I feel like I’m continuously in that shadow.”
“But things are changing now, and less and less do I feel like that’s even a question any more, and I think that people are finally understanding that the wines that are coming out of Eyrie are the ones that I and my crew have made and there’s a slightly different stamp there.”
“But there are really three principles that I inherited from my dad that I hope never change at Eyrie. And I feel like if we observe those three principles here as we work, then we will be honoring that legacy even if we do new wines or grow new varieties or experiment with different styles.”
Those three principles include stewardship of the vineyards, never letting the winemaker’s ego appear in the wine and making wines that will age well, Jason said.
It means that in the vineyard, Jason is making sure that the vines are part of an ecosystem and that he’s always working to preserve that ecosystem. Jason has certified the vineyard as organic and doesn’t irrigate or till the soil.
In the winery, the wine should never taste like it’s been made, Jason said. “It should always taste like an expression of the vineyard.” That means careful use of new oak barrels versus older, neutral oak barrels.
And lastly, but most importantly, it means taking care in the grape picking and winemaking process.
“The greatness of our region is defined by whether its wines age well or not, and Eyrie has a great reputation for how well its wines age. And that’s something I certainly want to uphold. And stylistically, that means that we’re not emphasizing alcohol. We’re making sure that we’re picking grapes when they’re fresh and the flavors are fresh and not after they’ve become over-ripened. Those overripe styles make wines that are really impressive in their youth but fall apart quickly or relatively quickly within about 10 years. And we’re looking at an aging window of 30, 40, 50 (years). We don’t know how far Eyrie wines can age. That’s something I want to preserve.”
In some ways, Eyrie and the winemaking industry has changed, but in many other ways, they haven’t.
“As I look around and I see all of the folks coming in with degrees in winemaking, I think they might be focusing so intently on the technical aspects, they might have missed some of the cultural things that you can bring in that add extra dimension to the wine that you’re making. But on the other hand, there are still plenty of those folks who come into this having been writers or painters or philosophers, and I think they’re making some of the more interesting wines out there.”
Pinot noir has never been easy to grow in Oregon. It’s not easy to grow now.
“The challenges of the viticulture and the rewards that we get from being in the climate that we’re in are still the same. There are great challenges, and there’s great potential and reward.”
What has gotten easier is money.
“If you want financing, you can get it now. And you couldn’t before. But the question is, does good financing lead to better wine? I don’t know. Look around us, we’re using primitive tools, and we’re making good wine. So I think as long as people can remember that wine comes from the heart, not from the wallet, then Oregon will always be a great place for pinot.”
Victor Panichkul is wine, food and beer columnist. Reach him at (503) 399-6704, at Vpanichkul@Statesman Journal.com, follow at Facebook.com/Willamette ValleyFoodWine and on Twitter @TasteofOregon.
Willamette Valley Today
Total number of:
Vineyard acres planted: 17,237
Willamette Valley % of Oregon production
72% of planted vineyard acreage
78% of wine production
87% of Pinot noir production
Major Vineyard Soils
Approximate number of Willamette Valley wineries through the years:
1970 – 5
1980 – 30
1990 – 60
2000 – 110
2010 – 300
2015 – 440
Data from 2013 Oregon Vineyard & Winery Census Report, Southern Oregon University.
© 2015 Statesman Journal, a division of Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc.