Growing up the only exposure I had to wine occurred during our family’s once a month dinner outing to the now defunct Hong Kong Chinese Food Restaurant in midtown Anchorage, where we spent our winters. The same waitresses worked there for the several decades the business stood. Every visit they would happily greet us, sit us at a large round table (with a lazy-Susan in the middle that fascinated me), and bring my mom a glass of plum wine. It was her occasional treat. As a result, my wine exposure didn’t really begin until my late teens when my dad announced he’d be drinking a glass of Pinot Noir a day. The doctor had told him to.
My wine education, however, started with a succession of three moments I remember distinctly because of how they changed me. The first occurred when a friend brought me a bottle of good Chianti Classico for an early-20s birthday. It was the first time I realized red wine could be good. The second arose when my sister Melanie took my sister Paula and I out to dinner at the end of a long commercial salmon fishing season and ordered a high price bottle of Brunello. It was the first time I realized I could love red wine. The third, thanks again to Melanie, occurred when she opened a bottle of Eyrie Pinot Noir and told me their story. Listening to David Lett’s story of taking a risk by leaving California and planting in the Willamette Valley before anyone else had dared, then tasting the wine that resulted–it was the first time I realized by wine I could be enthralled. In this way, Eyrie Vineyards instigated my deeper passion for wine knowledge and wine tasting combined.
Eyrie Vineyards 2009 Pinot Gris
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In the late 1960s David Lett moved from the Davis area of California to Oregon, convinced it was the place to grow the cooler climate grapes of the Pinot family. After a year or so of looking for the right spot he settled in the Willamette Valley to begin cultivating the vines that would later transform the area into one of the highest regarded Pinot Noir regions in the world.
In the midst of introducing Pinot Noir to the valley, Lett also stood as the first to plant Pinot Gris in North America. Pinot Noir’s lighter sibling is now the second most planted variety in the Willamette and has spread to other areas of the United States Western growing regions as well. 1970 marked the first release of Eyrie’s Pinot Gris, the first to be bottled in the United States.
Pinot Gris shows as a grape of subtlety that is on the one hand seen as readily approachable (if for being inoffensive), but on the other hand sometimes boring because of it. It’s a reputation that winemakers of the Willamette Valley have worked to transform. In the midst of this transformation stands Jason Lett, second generation wine maker of Eyrie Vineyards. Alongside others of the Willamette Valley, Lett has worked to understand the best of the grape, and encourage the public to see its value. In his book, The Great Wines of America, Paul Lukacs credits Eyrie with opening the new standard for quality American wines of this varietal.
The 2009 Eyrie Pinot Gris shows a well-balanced combination of yellow skinned stone and orchard fruits along side the spice of citrus zest and grounding chalk minerals. The wine has an impressive range for its subtlety. It carries hints of smoke, and dried beach grasses alongside brightening acidity. This is a wine to drink with ease and attention both–it offers a story of features, while being readily drinkable.
Interestingly, David Lett remarked that he preferred drinking his Pinot Gris alongside salmon. I’d be thrilled to try but imagine it as most appropriate with the lighter flavors of a King, rather than the hardiness of a Sockeye. This wine made me crave ceviche.
Eyrie Vineyards 2007 Chardonnay
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Jason Lett continues the Eyrie philosophy of low intervention. His focus is on maintaining a healthy vineyard well-balanced too with other plant life and animals on site. The property readily includes wild hawks building their nests high above the vines–the source of the label name, Eyrie (the name for the nest of a bird of prey)–visiting vine tenders as they work.
Lett also describes how he keeps ground cover plants among the vines, such as simple grasses. The effect of having other plants growing with the vines is that they absorb the water from regional rains so that the vines have to root deeper to find their own fluids. As Lett explains, without this ground cover the vines become more water logged, thus diminishing the flavor of the grapes. Most fascinating, it would also appear that the focus on the balanced vineyard has helped to ward off disease bearing pests. Gratefully, Eyrie vines remain healthy even as some vine diseases have moved their way into Willamette Valley.
Eyrie’s Chardonnay is known for having incredible aging potential with vintages as far back as the 1970s still showing focused interest. Jason Lett describes himself not only as the president and winemaker of Eyrie, but also the curator of their wine library. The process of curating their extensive library includes thorough testing of each bottle that leaves the premises for tasting. As Lett expains it, older bottles are tasted and examined for flaws, and then reassembled to ensure high standards. Older vintages of the Eyrie Chardonnay have been highly praised by some of the best palates in the industry both for their quality and their incredible sustainability in the bottle.
The 2007 Eyrie Vineyards Chardonnay showcases a wonderful combination of ripe pear and melon alongside citrus and and crisp apple. The richness is complemented by hints of smoke and smoked meat, while the citrus and bright acidity are accented by touches of wild flower honey. I hesitate to gush too much, lest you not believe me, but my first thought in tasting this wine was to wonder why I hadn’t been drinking it all along, for years. There are yeast notes, pleasing minerality, and medium high acidity here.
It’s a wonderful wine.
Eyrie Vineyards 2009 Pinot Noir Original Vines Reserve
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The Original Vine Reserve ushers from those same Eyrie vines planted in 1966 by the Lett family. The rich flavors here carry excellent balance with concentrated aromatics, that shows as more delicate on the palate. The complexity here is lovely with dried red fruits on the nose opening to brighter flavors in the mouth. Hints of violet and black cherry on the nose grounding to red cherry and fig in the mouth. There are earthy mushrooms, touches of tobacco, and dried green herbs showing here, again with more dried aromas that open to fresher flavors. I love the smell of this wine. The texture in the mouth is smooth, with a pleasing range of palate complements. There is certainly great aging potential here, and the wine is also drinkable now.
To read more by me on Eyrie Vineyards 2008 Estate Pinot Noir, and their sustainability practices:
Or, about their Pinot Blanc:
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