SPITTING DEEPLY-hued, vintage pinot noir onto a crushed white marble path isn’t everyone’s idea of wine evaluation, but I was going with the flow. This was Beaune, the 14th century capital of Burgundy, and my host the negociante, Robert Drouin, of the stellar Gallic smile and ancient family estate that included cellars beneath cobbled streets, full of priceless, hirsute bottles stacked like vinous Methuselahs. On the patio table behind us stood a big silver colender full of ecrivisse awaiting our gustatory attack, while overhead the sun anointed the fabulous Cote–d’Or.
Follow me now 6,000 miles westward, to an old board-and-batten structure on a back street in McMinneville, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a former pickle factory transformed into a winery. No crushed marble here, just bare floors and a cluttered desk, and in the chair the bearded David Lett, founder of Eyrie Vineyards in the Dundee hills. His 1975 South Block Reserve pinot noir had in a blind tasting held in Paris in 1979 beat out the best of the French wines, including Robert Drouin’s. In a subsequent tasting the Reserve again defeated all but Drouin’s ’59 Chambolle Musigny. “Now,” Lett told me, “our only competition comes from Burgundy.”
Both encounters occurred a long time ago. By the early 20th century there was a plethora of competition in Oregon, so much in fact that Eyrie’s restrained pinot was superseded by more powerful, fruit-forward wines. These came to represent in the popular mind the best of Oregon pinot – dark, almost chewy, sometimes over-powering the food they were supposed to complement - but the best have since trended back toward Burgundy’s model.
“We’re the sushi of the Oregon pinots,” said Jason Lett, David’s son, the last time we spoke. He had taken over running Eyrie according to the precepts of Lett pere: no irrigation in the vineyard, no “cides” (poisons) of any kind. Eyrie’s estate pinot is fermented in small bins, punched down every few hours, and put into old barrels for two years, without filtering or fining, resulting in subtle but complex wine requiring aging.
Tomorrow: More Willamette...