On the Trail

Oregon's Prized Eyrie Whites

David Driscoll

It was the 1975 Eyrie pinot noir that first brought serious international attention to the wines of Oregon. Ten years previously, a young college graduate named David Lett had moved to the region with a few thousand vines and a theory—that pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot gris could flourish in the Pacific Northwest environment. In 1970, Eyrie Winery produced its first vintage of wine grown from David's original supply of 3,000 grape cuttings. Five years later, the pinot noir would be the talk of Beaune following its acclaim in a major French wine tasting event. It's been forty years since the Letts put Oregon winemaking on the map, and ten years since David's son Jason took over operations at the estate.  But it's only been a few months since our domestic wine team returned from a visit to Eyrie, brimming from ear to ear about their tasting experience with Jason and the crew. It was the white wines, however, that had their attention. It was the chardonnay and pinot gris expressions that they were gushing about—the old school white wines that seem to still reflect an old school winemaking mentality.

"There were bees everywhere," our customer service manager Joel Nicholas told me. "It was beautiful—we could see Mount Hood in the distance—but eventually we had to go inside because we couldn't taste the wines with all the bees swarming us." It was a ragtag group of K&L's manliest men who made the trip north including domestic buyer Bryan Brick, along with Redwood City's Dave Genevro and the SF store's Gary Norton. "Bryan actually got stung," Joel recollected with a laugh, "but you would have expected Genevro to be the one targeted considering he's six-foot-seven and there's a lot more of him to sting!" The boys went for a walking tour through the four main estate vineyards in Dundee's Red Hills where Jason explained how the history behind the location. "There's a sense of family and place there, besides the fact that this is pretty much where Oregon winemaking started, that really hits home when you're there," he continued. "Eyrie's chardonnay vineyards were planted from cuttings originally imported from Burgundy, eventually meshing with the cool Willamette climate to continue producing those European-style whites. It was a pretty amazing sight to take in considering that history."

After a thorough tour of the vineyards it was time to taste the wines. While the pinot noir always amazes, the boys were spellbound by the haunting delicacy of the whites. "They're simply tremendous," Bryan told me when he returned. "Not only are they delicious now, but you can age them for decades. There's no other place that I can think of in Oregon or otherwise that makes white wine with this type of purity, intensity, and focus with this level of value. You've got Mount Eden, obviously; but that will run you fifty bucks a bottle. Nothing's changed since David Lett started there." Eyrie was the first producer to plant pinot noir in Oregon and the first to plant pinot gris in the new world. "You leave Eyrie with a sense of amazement because these wines are so good, and with Jason in charge the winery is still being shepherded in the right direction. There's an immense amount of thought behind what they're doing. It's great that the wines still reflect that, but perhaps even better that the prices still do as well."

-David Driscoll