Archive for December, 2008

Remembering David Lett

Last night, my wife and I were lucky to be two of more than 700 people packed the McMinnville Community Center to honor David Lett, the Oregon wine pioneer who died in early October on the verge of what would have been his 38th Oregon wine harvest. (As with all things in the winemaking world, everything gets put on hold until the wines are safely in barrel. Thus the two month delay in scheduling the event — even David would have skipped his memorial if it had happened during harvest.)

A number of speakers remembered the man, including former Governor Barbara Roberts, winemaker David Adelsheim, and restauranteur Nick Peirano, the latter nearly choking up a number of times as he recalled his old friend. But most touching was his son Jason (pictured above), who led the crowd in a toast asking us to shout “‘Cheers’ loud enough for [his] father to hear in whatever vineyard he’s now tending.” Oh yes, I think he heard. So many lives have been touched by Lett, his irascibility, his generosity, his tenaciousness and his charm, it was — well, inspirational, I can’t think of a better word — to feel so many people bound to one another through him. In fact, probably half the people in the room would be grinding it out in different careers right now were it not for his 1965 “theory” that Pinot Noir would flourish in the soggy hills of northern Oregon.

In 2001, I was lucky enough to spend some time with him when I was completing Life in Vine, and I have about 45 minutes of an interview I did as we walked through his historic vineyard. I’m starting to cut together something out of it, but last night, as images from his life floated by on an overhead screen, I remembered one exchange in particular (embedded at right) that summed up so much about him for me.

As I begin to ask what possessed him to plant Pinot Noir, watch that grin spread across his face: He’s heard that question a thousand times before, and you can tell he’s got a witty, well-practiced response in his pocket, ready to go whenever I stop talking and let him unload it. But something happens in the course of delivering the line: its essential truth overtakes him. For Lett, Pinot Noir truly was a princess, and with all his soul, every fall for nearly four decades, he vied for her hand, more than once even winning it.

If that doesn’t make him a prince, to say nothing of a king, then I don’t know what would. Cheers, David.