In The Eyrie Vineyard With Jason Lett

Ξ July 23rd, 2010 | → 3 Comments | ∇ Interviews, Wine History, Winemakers |

This is pt 2, the tentative conclusion to my interview with Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards. It is tentative because he is a man of many layers, at once open, yet reserved. He can be startlingly honest and subtle at the same time, in the same sentence. There is always more to learn from him. This interview, though detailed and thorough in its own way, nevertheless implies dozens more questions all of which he would be willing to answer. Some people I’ve spoken with establish an implicit contract. They make it clear from the first utterance just how much they are willing to discuss. They might imply advertorial conditions, a set of company-sponsored talking points beyond which they are unwilling to go. They might limit inquiry with clipped answers. But that is not Jason Lett’s approach. Ask him a question important to you and he will answer. He requires, I sense, a dedicated interlocutor. And I hope I have held up my end of the conversation.
Part 1
In The Vineyard
Admin This is a quiet place.
Jason Lett These are the original vines planted in the Willamette Valley. They are all planted on their own roots, so we’re going to do a little clorox wash before we go in. You just have to get a little on the bottom of your shoes.
We each step into a shallow pan of bleach.
JL So this is our tillage and cultivation center here. This is a flail mower. Its has two side cutters that I have folded over right now because we’re missing a snap ring…. But as we’re driving down the row we’re both mowing the middle but also underneath the vines.
That’s a clever design.
JL Yes. As it bumps into a grape vine it just pulls around the trunk. It is made by a local company called Rears. They build great equipment, and they came up with this design based on an older design, an Edwards mower that was used in apple orchards in Washington. So it’s pretty homegrown engineering. It’s built like a proverbial brick shit house.
At Parducci’s they had one of the strangest machines I’ve ever seen. It was designed for shallow spading. It was a series of spades moving in the oddest way.
JL Oh, yeah. A power spader. Those things are cool. It’s like a crankshaft with spades on it. They are fun to look at. But we don’t do any tillage here. And over here is our newest acquisition. Our vineyard manager, he’s been with us for 25 years now, this was kind of his 25th anniversary present, this tractor.
I can see it. After he blew out all of the candles, you put a blindfold on him and told him to come outside…
JL That’s exactly what we did! We hid it in one of the bays at the winery. We’d had our big harvest party, everybody was there. I said, “OK, everybody. We’re going out. Mamas hang on to your kids. It’s going to be dark in there.” So we went into one of the storage bays and closed the door. Nobody could see to the back what was going on. Then we flipped the lights on! And there was the tractor.
So at the heads, at the ends of the rows we’ve got these cordon-pruned vines. It’s just hard to get rid of these. They’re just too pretty.
In vineyards you sometime see the practice of digging down a few inches at the base of the vine in order to access the shallow lateral roots. I saw it demonstrated in Cahors; it was a method to improve vineyard health there. The shallow roots are then cut away so as to encourage deeper rooting. Is any of that done here?
JL Well, remember how you were observing how in Burgundy they clean-till everything or herbicide it so that there is nothing growing on the vineyard floor? Well, that means that every drop of water that hits the ground is available to the vines. So the plants are going to take advantage of that and put their water-collecting roots at the surface. That’s one of the purposes for leaving this full coverage here in our vineyard. It is to drive the roots deep. Basically, all of the weeds and companion plants handle all the minor rain events. This coverage all turns brown in late July, and it then acts as mulch. So we retain more water in the soil as a result of leaving the cover than we would if we tilled it up.
Then when harvest comes in October, and we start getting those rains that tend to panic people, this stuff is drinking up the water. The grapes, which are down into deeper sources of water, aren’t getting that big burst of precipitation; and so the clusters don’t get water-logged, for lack of a better word. This grass on the surface is drinking it all up.
And here you have a high admixture of red clay, yes?
JL Oh, yeah. This is classic Jory soil, red clay. Its got some really interesting properties. For a clay it’s stays really friable. It doesn’t seal shut in the Winter the way that a typical clay soil does. And so the roots still have access to oxygen. But it retains that ability of clay to hold water in the Summer. It’s a great soil for growing grapes on. It is very consistent throughout the hill. Where you have lots of different layers of stuff, sort of a layer cake of hard and soft, water can move in interesting and unpredictable ways. In some places where there hasn’t been a spring in 20 years might suddenly become one Winter very wet. In other places where I’ve managed that’s actually been somewhat of a problem. A part of the vineyard that wasn’t very vigorous before, and which you’re farming in a certain way, suddenly it has all this water one Summer. You then have to back off what you’re doing there, but then down on the other end, that’s gotten a little bit dryer. That’s one of the things Dad was looking for in a vineyard site in the Dundee Hills.
The Dundee Hills are composed principally of this material?
JL Yes. We’ll actually walk down and I can show you the other major soil. It’s like at the base of the Dundee Hills there is a kind of bathtub ring of Missoula floods soil.
Do you do much green harvesting?
JL Well, it depends on what the natural loads are. We are at a very wide spacing here. When my Dad came up here the common spacing he’d been trained to employ was 12 X 10. So, when he came to Oregon he was really going to pull it together and do hard-core Burgundian spacing. He narrowed it up to 10 X 6, which is now, of course, considered Combine spacing. But each one of these plants is stretched very wide. We ask each plant to give us a lot of fruit. But we also give each plant an enormous amount of resource. So, Dad basically determined this balance between how much we were giving the plant and how much we were asking of it in order to get what turns out to have been, intuitively, a really dialed-in balance.
If you look at these canes, none of the canes are bigger than my little finger. That’s really what you’re looking for. When you start getting thumb-sized canes, they’re shooting off secondaries all over the place; they start to clog the canopy; you’re not getting the sort of dappling effect; the clusters don’t have good exposure. And the plant invests more heavily in developing infrastructure in the form of canes than it does in actually ripening fruit. What we look for in the vineyard is this innate balance. And an innate yield level. These naturally yield about 2 1/4 tons an acre. We might come through and take off a little wing here and there. And that will get us down to 2. So we’re not having to physically shove the vines hard in order to get them to give us ripe, balanced fruit. It’s kinda been happening from the way the vineyard’s been structured since the get-go.
Is this a sulphur residue?
JL It’s sulphur and milk whey. The milk whey is actually a mildewcide. We used to use a traditional Bordeaux mix, but I don’t really like copper. It’s not good for people, it’s not good for the soil; so we replaced copper with milk whey. And we’ve seen improved health in the vineyards. Not what comes out of the sprayer smells like a latte! Two benefits. (laughs)
Jason then does a bit of work.
JL This was my first job in the vineyard. It’s called suckering. I was never sure if the sucker was the the thing growing off the vine or the guy doing it. There are lots to go. The guys were actually suckering and I said, “You know what? This is the perfect time to do some cane straightening.” So what we’ve done is pulled the canes up, tighten the catch wires together, tied each one. So we’re getting a good, upright canopy, which means we’ll get good airflow, good exposure, good spray penetration.
What is the vineyard’s orientation? North/South?
JL It’s actually East/West. One of the things Dad experimented with was which orientation works best. It’s funny. East/West, back in the 70s, he didn’t like very much because it was too cold. But in the era of global warming we get some of our best fruit from these East/West vines. He didn’t know it but he was preparing us for the future.
Was he an exacting records keeper? Did he record temperatures 3 times a day, take note of every rainfall?
JL Yes. We have really good historical notes. Unfortunately they are all on these 3X5 cards that are interspersed with his daily to-do lists and stuff. So he was able to go back and find anything. But if you go back into his card index it’s like… How did you do that? (laughs)
So, in other words, you’d have a complete record of climate data and changes in these particular vineyards…
JL Yeah. We’ve actually worked with a scientist up at the University of Washington who is looking at the oxygen isotope ratio in library wines to try and extract climate signals based on these wines. Really interesting stuff. Gordon Holtgrieve is his name.
Most of the vineyard here was planted between 1967 and 1974. The first vines were planted in 1966. There is a last block planted at Eyrie, in 1984. Because it is a due West facing slope, it is less than ideal. But we had a vineyard manager at the time who said, “Well, let’s just fill it in.”
These are actually the first rows right here. These are the ones my Mom and Dad laid out on their honeymoon. This is Muscat Ottonel. It is kind of a shy-bearing white varietal, something we have a cult following for. Some years we make 100 cases, in others we make 25. It depends on what it gives us.
I see that a couple have given up the ghost.
JL Yeah. Eutypa is kind of an issue with these older vines.
And that tree right there is the tree that is on the label. So when my folks were planting this vineyard there were a pair of hawks nesting up there. At the time there was a filbert orchard on the back side, so there were lots of squirrels for the hawks to eat. And they were hanging out there building their nest, and my folks were, you know, planting their vines, having their kids, and building their nest — that’s why they named it the Eyrie Vineyards. An eyrie is a hawk’s nest.
We just went through here and mowed last week. Our little wheel cutters, we had the wheels made big so they won’t go in too tight to the trunk. We come through here after the grass dries out. It gets it out of the fruit zone. But you know, when everything is up you can see what kind of diversity there is.
In California when we see grass standing this tall we often look for the nest spittle of leaf hoppers, a vector of diseases.
JL Yeah. The glassy-winged sharpshooter is definitely a concern up here. We find it in nursery stock from time to time, but it hasn’t actually naturalized. I need to knock on some wood here! But we’ve been lucky so far.
JL Not an imposing sight after a long wet Spring; but this is the first Pinot Gris planted in the United States. When Dad came up here from Davis he talked somebody into letting him get 160 from the research vineyard there. He planted the cuttings in a temporary plot down in Corvalis ‘65. It took him a year to find this spot. And then he dug up the vines he’d planted in Corvalis and brought them back up here. And this is now their home.
Do you get a lot of rabbits and wild boar? Deer?
JL No. Back in the day they used to be an issue. But now the deer all have other vineyards to eat. They don’t pick on us anymore. Even the birds aren’t the problem they used to be. I think it’s because there are so many more vineyards, and unfortunately, there is now a lot less habitat for wildlife. It just doesn’t migrate through much anymore. They used to have on the next hillside over a herd of elk. There were bear sighted in there, cougar and bobcat. The locals shot all the elk. And then they clear-cut the forest that the elk were living in to plant vineyards… And so we really haven’t nearly the wildlife anymore. The critters need continuous habitat. On the top of the hill we get a little deer damage, and a little bit on the very bottom of the vineyard.
We walk to a block of Chardonnay. Here Jason shows me the diversity of of the vineyard ground cover courtesy of the mower’s broken snap ring.
JL Here we’ve got panicum grass, wild oats, not sure what this is… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… just within this little 6 foot area we’ve got 6 species of grass. And then we have the broadleaf forbs, here’s clover… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, that’s lactuca, 6, 7, 8…, so 8 different forbs in this same area. Oh, I forgot the huge one I’m standing over, 9. And that’s just today. There is this whole cycle that happens throughout the year as new things come in. So this is a really important part of our viticulture.
We venture down to the lowest elevation in the vineyard. As if on cue, a female hawk soars overhead. Her cries, clearly audible on my recorder, punctuated our sentences for the next few minutes.
JL All the vineyards around us have been torn out and replanted because of phylloxera. But not ours. We’re right next to the first vineyard in the state to have it, as far as we know. Yet we’re still able to hang on to these vines. It’s present here, but we’re able to keep it to a dull roar. I think it has a lot to do with the dynamic that we create by having these other plants here.
And this is something your father practiced from the very beginning…
JL Yeah. He used to cultivate under the vines. We always left cover between. One other thing he did was occasionally to just mow under the vines. But then he went back to cultivation for a while. When I came back I said let’s get back to mowing again. I really like that approach. So that is what we’ve been doing ever since.
What we need is a friendly gopher to give us a soil sample here… You can see that we’ve pretty much got the same stuff here. This soil is getting a little browner. So we’re basically right at the bathtub ring where the Woodburn soil from the Missoula flood meets the Jory soil. And as we have walk down the row here you can see that we’ve much more brown here, much more friable. We’re right in the middle of this little chevron of Woodburn soil that comes up the hill here.
The skies are overcast, but very still. No shadows are thrown.
So what does this particular cloud configuration suggest? In California we might think rain.
JL It suggests more cussing and praying. (laughs) There might be rain coming but it kind of looks like that all day. So once the clouds have made the jump over the coast range there, they must be rung out enough so as not to drop on us. When we’ll see rain is when they start to stack up against the Cascades. Then the whole ceiling fills in.
The hawk’s cry is relentless. One is circling right above our heads.
JL So you can see where the inspiration for the label came from!
Can you imagine being out here, working one day and having those hawks screaming; maybe even seeing them mate. A horrifying sight!
JL No kidding! Watch out! And I’m about to have teenagers in the household. (laughs)
There’s a lot of work that’s been done here…
JL And to maintain it every year. We visit each one of these vines and tend them by hand between 13 and 14 times. I’m the closest person to full time in the winery. I don’t spend nearly as much time there as I’d like to. But we’ve got 6 full time people in the vineyard. That shows where are priorities are.
Are the vineyard folk Spanish speakers in the main?
JL Yes. There are all US citizens. Like I said, our foreman’s been with us since 1984. Our most recent hire was in 1997. We’re able to keep people around for a good long time. They know every vine. You don’t have to go in and look around to figure out what average thing you should do in a block and say, “Do it this way.” Because they are so good in understanding each vine individually. They are really farming at a vine to vine level. That’s ideal.
Then they come into the winery during harvest. I mean, I hire an intern every now and then, but for the most part the work is done by the guys in the vineyard. The winemaking informs the vineyard work. The vineyard work informs the winemaking. It’s a really great closed cycle for the people in the vineyard to also to be making the wine.
Do they have healthcare?
JL Oh, yeah. We give them full benefits. We do hire temporary work during the year, and a lot of the wineries in Oregon have gotten together to form a group called SALUD which is a non-profit dedicated to providing healthcare for the more transient portion of the workforce. There are mobile clinics that come out to the vineyards. If people have issues they are taken care of. We had an open heart surgery completely paid for by SALUD last year, as well as just dental and visual, and cholesterol, you know, just regular check-ups.
We turn to make our way back up the slope.
JL In 1979 a friend of my Dad’s who lived in Burgundy encouraged him to send her some bottles of wine for her to enter into an international wine competition. Dad looked around his cellar, and the Pinot Noir he was really proudest of came from 10 rows of vines down here at the bottom of the vineyard. He called it the South Block. He made his first dedicated South Block cuvée in 1975. These are the rows. It’s all Wädenswil clone. This is the Pinot I was talking about that tends to be a little more floppy, need more support.
I noticed in the winery, in the tasting room, there was a Pinot Meunier. Where does that fruit come from?
JL Right here. We have a tiny block, just a few rows.
Have you ever thought of playing around with a sparkler?
JL I’d like to. I’ve got the base wines in barrel, a rosé Pinot Meunier we made last year, it was our 40th harvest. i thought, well, we’ll do something fun and commemorative. But I don’t quite know how to go from the base wine phase to the sparkling wine phase in anything less than an industrial level. I need to talk to somebody who understands sparkling wine production on a smaller scale. If you know of anybody, I’d appreciate it.
I know a couple of people I could write.
JL So our first question here is how many of these are going to bloom. We can, with the kind of weather we’ve been having, and in spite of making sure we’re on top of the spray, we can get mildew development underneath the cap that will cause the berry to shrivel. Everything here looks really healthy and green, so I’m feeling pretty positive about this. But often by this time of the year these caps are starting to brown off and split at the bottom. They’ll start to fall away; that’s when pollination starts to happen. These caps can come off and we’ll have rain that totally blocks pollination. We can end up with 30% of the berries on this cluster actually setting fruit. So we wait to make any decisions about thinning until then.
Oddly, I’m reminded of a conversation I recently had with Ken Burnap, the founder of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard. I adore that man. In any event, he told me about Randall Graham stealing canes from the vineyard of Romanée-Conti and smuggling them into the US in his dirty socks.
JL I have a theory. Everybody in Oregon seems to have a row or two of a Romanée-Conti suitcase clone.
You’re kidding! It’s like most Americans have a Native American background? (laughs)
JL Exactly! But I’ve never heard of anybody actually making a wine from those canes decent enough so that they would graft over a bunch of stuff to it. You know? My theory is that at Romanée-Conti all around the edges of their vineyards they plant the crappiest Pinot clone they can find just to sandbag all the vintners coming in there to steal the cuttings!
Oh, that’s funny. You might be right! What do you think about wine blogger, by the way?
JL What I love blogging in general is that it has really decentralized the power structure of how people think about wine. This is important. Everybody’s a critic, that’s fine. At least everybody is thinking about it and not taking everything without analysis from an accepted mouthpiece. I really support that. It’s a refreshing change. I think it’s rocked the established media back on its heels and made it be more responsive and thoughtful to its readership and to the wines they’re tasting.
We arrive back at the car to return to McMinnville. The hawk begins to more loudly exult as though it alone had driven us from the vineyard. My conversation with Jason continues on for another two hours. He is a very generous man. A talented man. A happy family man. Not sure there is anything more to say.


3 Responses to ' In The Eyrie Vineyard With Jason Lett '

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  1. Erika Szymanski said,

    on July 27th, 2010 at 12:31 am

    Oh yes, I do think that there is more to say. A part 3, please? This is a great interview save that (like most good interviews) it asks more questions than it answers!

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on July 28th, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    Well, Erica, truth be told, I finally turned the recorder off. Mr. Lett is a private man. Ultimately, I felt it important to let him express himself without worry that all might be quoted. But I do agree with you. There is much more to say.

  3. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on July 28th, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    Well, truth be told, I finally turned the recorder off. Mr. Lett is a private man. Ultimately, I felt it important to let him express himself without worry that all might be quoted. But I do agree with you. There is much more to say.

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