The Quiet Man, Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards, pt.1

Ξ July 16th, 2010 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine History, Winemakers, Wineries |

I was on my way to the noisy world of the Wine Bloggers Conference in Walla Walla, Washington. Two stops were planned along the way: Parducci in Ukiah, Mendocino County, and The Eyrie Vineyards in McMinnville, Oregon. Neither destination would disappoint. Indeed, each in its own way would be a revelation. Let me explain…
Jason Lett would never claim that he possesses a near-encyclopedic winemaking knowledge. It is irrelevant to his mission of crafting some of the finest wines made in the US. What he does know of winemaking has come, I would argue, from two equally important and complementary sources: his father, the legendary David Lett, and Jason’s own explorations, his university training, the experience gained from producing his first label, Black Cap, and that he assumed responsibilities for winery and the viticulture in 2005.
Yet it must be difficult to grow up the son of a legend. How to find your own way? After all, a father has his ways and methods, he holds onto his truths with a firm hand. What the son first learns is how to do things the right way. Much later comes a son’s wisdom to do things his way. This is both homage and the only way forward. If I may be permitted a possibly undeserved familiarity, Jason’s quiet confidence tells me that The Eyrie Vineyards’ second iteration will continue to produce wines not only consistent with its historically exemplary standards, but will excel. And since 2005 Jason has not missed a beat. As he said to me, “Even the clamp on a hose, if not properly tightened, can affect the wine. There are hundreds of things to consider.” What he did not say was that such a refined, intimate winemaking knowledge was his. But, humility aside, it is.
A brief gloss on The Eyrie Vineyards: All of there vines are on their own rootstocks, including David Lett’s original plantings from 1965. It must add something to the taste of the wine. Hard to say. It may be that American rootstocks used for grafting express subtle distinctions in their rooting systems as opposed to varieties growing on their own.
Organic from the beginning, The Eyrie Vineyards are not irrigated, forcing roots deeper. (About this readers may learn more in part 2.) Oak is of particular disinterest. Chardonnay sees around 3% new oak. Jason is looking for only for a little help with color. The rule is that the fruit is never to be outshone by wood. To this end Eyrie continues to use barrels decades old. More, The Eyrie Vineyards is the expression of four properties that range in elevation from 200 to 900 feet, all in the Dundee Hills. Jory soils dominate. They are composed of a lighter red clay and differ in important ways from Willakenzie, a richer soil, heavier clay. Though phylloxera was introduced to the Dundee Hills in the ’80s, it has never been a problem for Eyrie. The thought is that this is because they don’t rototill. Phylloxera seems to need rototilling to expand its range. Native organic flora encouraged at Eyrie includes weeds as they are part of the local ecosystem; yet they are kept in control because of the flourishing region-specific biodiversity growing alongside. Again, all of this will be learned in part 2.
For those traveling near McMinnville, Oregon, take an hour out of your day to visit The Eyrie Vineyards tasting room which may be found at 935 NE 10th Ave. Full details may be found here.
A final note: Special thanks to Ben, a resourceful individual working for Hertz in Medford. In addition to rescuing stranded motorists, he is a home beer brewer. Should his product finally come to market, I’ll be first in line.
In The Winery
Before heading out to the vineyards, Jason shows me his parents’ original barrel room, the greater space in which the tasting room is situated.
Admin What was this building originally?
Jason Lett Some gal showed up one day and told me it was a originally a Hershey’s chocolate plant during the Second World War. This is the first room that my folks occupied, back in 1970. They had plans drawn up for a winery to be built on the hillside overlooking the vineyard. But no bank would loan them any money because they were just a couple of crazy kids. So they found this place. It was vacant at the time. It was a perfect winery. There are two layers of cork in the walls and ceiling. There used to be windows but my dad blocked them up. He wanted to create the dynamics of a cave in here. It is very cool in here. The thermal mass in this building is the wine itself. There are 10,000 gallons of thermal mass in here. That keeps the temperature low. And the concrete floor.
All the barrel cleaning is done in here? And the waste water, how is that treated?
JL Yes, we clean the barrels here. The city of McMinnville invested a lot of money about 10 years ago in a processing plant to handle the stuff and get it back downstream in a good condition.
Did the city build it with the wine industry in mind?
JL No, it was for the capacity of the town. But they over-built it. A lot of the towns around here didn’t have the foresight. It’s a good place to have a winery just from a green perspective. You know, the streets are already here, the water infrastructure is already here; we take the chlorine out of the water with a big charcoal filter; the three-phase comes in on the wire; we don’t have to drop a big infrastructure onto farmland in order to make wine here. The infrastructure is already here. From a green perspective wineries should probably be built in town.
You were asking about barrel cleaning, well, when my folks moved into this room, they came here with 30 new French oak barrels. And here are several of them. We’re still making wine in these original barrels from the 1970 vintage. Anything with the letter ‘S’ and a number lower than 30 is from the original vintage. Dad came up with some very good techniques for keeping barrels in sanitary condition through the years.
What kind of techniques?
JL That’s a trade secret! (laughs) The Pinot Gris is done in unjacketed tanks. We do inoculate with Champagne yeast, good old EC-1118. The great thing about it is that it is very neutral. It doesn’t really impose any of its own flavors. Seems to me that if you’re trying to talk about the vineyard you don’t want to necessarily want to impart flavors from the yeast. The very best case scenario is when you can use the yeast from the vineyard. We’re successfully able to do that with smaller fermentations, but with these big tanks, if they start going sideways, it’s a major investment. I’m a little bit more conservative in my winemaking approach with the Pinot Gris, the Pinot Blanc, than I am with the Pinot Noirs.
And how often do you top off?
JL Right now we’re doing it every two weeks. When summer comes we’ll start doing it every 10 days. I like to stay on top of that. We’ve certainly had longer topping periods in the past. Dad preferred a more oxidative winemaking style. One of the nice things about these older barrels is that they are really tight. They don’t transfer oxygen as much as a new barrel would. Certain vintages, like the 2008, we had to keep in barrel forever! That was a big, structured vintage. It needed a lot longer time to open up. And since we’re topping at a tighter interval, they weren’t getting as much oxygen contact that way; so it just took its time getting that micro-oxygenation through the walls of an old barrel. Most of the cooperage in here is French; we’ve got a little bit of Oregon oak. That’s kind of fun.
What do you get from them?
JL A lot of oak. With Oregon oak you have to use it homeopathically. The flavors are great, but they are so strong. Our cooper who does these, every thing is three-year air dried. He’s also doing a rock salt soak in these. It pulls some of the tannin before he assembles the barrel. And they’re incredibly well-made. Since we’re keeping barrels around for the texture they impart rather than the flavor, the quality of the construction is probably the key point for us. The barrels here… there’s one from 1993, here’s one from 1970; this is a mid-1980s barrel; these guys down here are from the late 1990s… we probably have some of the oldest cooperage in the United States in continual service here. Well, shall we run out to the vineyard?
On The Road To The Vineyard
You know, I was talking to the winemaker at Ridge, Eric Baugher. And he told me that for their Montebello they use a very complex mix of French and American barrels. But the American oak is sourced from a number of very specific forests each of which he claimed imparted different characteristics to the finished wine. What do you think?
JL From a botanical point of view, oaks are probably the most prone to hybridizing of any broad leaf tree in that group. There are 200 recognized species of oak in the United States. Red oak versus White oak is a woodworker’s term. It really doesn’t have anything to do with flavor. They just cross like crazy. You’ll see some funny little shrub oak in Colorado, in the Four Corners, it’s a White oak. The Quercus garryana we have here in Oregon is also a White oak; but they are incredibly different species. I just like to make a wine in barrels made from oaks on the other side of the hill!
In terms of looking at an oak mix, oak is such a limited part of the flavor profile of our wines that I don’t obsess about it too much. We kind of go counter to the trend. If you’re employing more oak in your blend then you’re probably going to more toward a darker toast because those tend to give you the coffee and cocoa tones that integrate better. This is all well and good. But for our style we find that the light toasted barrel is preferable. For one thing, you get less bubbling, and issues inside the barrel, but also in a very moderate new oak program – ours is about 5% – those flavors actually integrate better. In a high concentrations, yes, it’s like licking a plank. But to mix one of those barrels into 25 neutral barrels and all of a sudden you get this beautiful support from the wood without any obvious or overt oak signature.
The valley floor here used to be covered with Quercus garryana, Oregon White oak, before colonization. The Native Americans used to do controlled burns to maintain clearings, but the whole white oak ecosystem was basically a whole complex of plants and creatures that were adapted to the White oak, living in conjunction with it. Now we have isolated pockets of trees on the hillsides. You don’t see it so much on the valley floor; the ecosystem is very different.
The White oak is a massive tree. It has a lot of branches as opposed to the European oak which are grown in rows close together so they don’t branch very much on the bottom. They tend to be very slender and long, and very straight. Ours are almost exactly the opposite. It takes a bit of a different approach to make barrels out of Oregon oak. But Oregon oak is distinctly different from what people call ‘American’ oak, most of which comes from the South Eastern part of the United States, from a warmer climate, longer growing season. The oak tends to have wider rings and have a little bit more of that vanilla, coconut characteristic.
It’s ironic to talk about the oak signature at Eyrie!
Well, coming from California it is increasingly difficult to find lighter-oaked wines. Fortunately I live in Santa Cruz. Our AVA has a quite a number of cool climate sites. Wines tend to be marked by restraint. There is some experimentation. But it is not a particularly wealthy AVA, and holdings tend to be small. New technologies are not immediately embraced owing to their expense.
JL Well, if technology made great wine, then jug wines would taste better than artisanal wines. In fact, the opposite is true. In the end, what determines great wine is not the amount of technology you can throw at it but the amount of personal dedication. And I’m not sure why that reflects in the flavor, but it seems to.
I think that a lot of the larger producers realized a long time ago that they could not win the battle over artisanal quality. So what began to happen, I think, is that it dawned on them to limit, through the use of wine critics and to some degree even the Wine Institute, the general development of consumer wine education, the deepening of the understanding of wine. Larger producers seemed to say “If we can keep the consumer dumb as a post then we’ll have a chance in the marketplace.”
JL (laughs) You’re a subversive, Ken!
Very much so! (laughs) So what has essentially happened is that the California wine industry is to some degree dedicated to the proposition that the consumer remain ignorant. That means they needn’t worry about the use or consequences of technological fixes as such. That many wines approach the character coca cola and the unctuous mouthfeel of cheeseburgers is not really a problem. The consumer is always right, after all.
JL So we’re in the Dundee Hills. There is a big wheat field over there. That is the last big chunk of ungraped land on the hillside. And that’s owned by Old Man McDougall. He must be 150 by now. But he’s holding out. He’s not going to let these fancy grape people plant everywhere! And I actually love that. It really reminds me of the way the hill was when I was growing up. We were a very, very minor part of the farming scheme in Oregon back in those days. Grape growing was not a very big deal. There was a huge and diverse agriculture around us. Lots of cherries, cane berries, prunes, and, except for Old Man McDougall, most of that has been supplanted by grapes.
It looks like McDougall’s property has a southerly aspect as well.
JL He’s got a beautiful piece of land. It’s right next to the Stoller vineyard. I’m sure that Bill [Stoler] just looks over the fence and just drools. Yes, it faces South and rolls East, a great exposure for grapes.
End Of Part One
Part 2 will begin with our arrival at the vineyard.


4 Responses to ' The Quiet Man, Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards, pt.1 '

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  1. on July 16th, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Thanks so much for this great interview. I heard an excellent interview with David Lett on NPR just before he passed on. It is wonderful to hear the same kind of grounded passion, knowledge, and committment in Jason’s answers. The berry does not fall far from the vine. Eyrie should be proud, and so should Oregon.

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on July 16th, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Thank you, Todd. I did have the foresight to link the NPR interview to David Lett’s name, in bold type. It may also be found on The Eyrie Vineyards site. Part 2, our walk of his parent’s original vineyard, will be posted Sunday evening. It was a rather sublime visit.

  3. Jacques said,

    on July 19th, 2010 at 11:39 am

    Did I miss it: I can’t find part 2? I am ‘hooked’ and can’t wait to read your version of this “walk in the vineyard”. Great read. Cheers!

  4. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on July 19th, 2010 at 11:45 am

    Hi, Jacques. Thanks for the comment. No, you didn’t miss part 2. I will post it late Thursday (7/22). It is well worth the wait. Cheers.

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