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The Wine that Shook the World
[October, 1999]

As far as the rest of the world was concerned, the Oregon wine industry began in Paris, France in 1979.

Of course, vineyards had been planted in southern Oregon twenty years earlier, and in the northern Willamette Valley since 1966, when a textbook salesman named David Lett edged the Eyrie Vineyards in among the fruit and nut orchards of the Dundee hills. But even though a hardy band of pioneers had been growing grapes and fermenting them quite successfully, that didn't mean they were making fine wine: to do that -- in the 70s, at least -- you needed a French address.

That all changed in 1979, when Lett entered his '75 South Block Pinot Noir in the "Olympics of the Wines of the World," a special tasting conducted by the prestigious food and wine magazine Gault-Millau. In those Euro-centric times, he could expect better odds sending a box of rocks; nevertheless, he says now with curmudgeonly certitude, "I'd always thought that we could do better than Burgundy. This was my chance to give it a try."

Working in his favor was undoubtedly the fact that the wines were tasted "blind," so judges had no idea about who produced them. Stunningly, Lett's wine finished third against a field of illustrious Burgundies from top vineyards, and the French whipped themselves into a mousse of outrage at the results. Here was an entry made -- for all they knew -- by savage cowboys in the skins of woodland creatures, and it had slipped past wines representing literally centuries of French expertise. Surely this was an erreur?

Robert Drouhin, scion of the powerhouse Burgundian négotiant Joseph Drouhin, certainly had his doubts, organizing a rematch the following year in which he substituted his best wines for those he deemed inferior in the Gault-Millau tasting. "Drouhin felt that if his wines were shown, the honor of Burgundy would be preserved," Lett jokes.

Naturally, the results were different, but probably not as the French had hoped: the Eyrie now came in second, a whisker behind Drouhin's redoubtable '59 Chambolle-Musigny.

Lett was still glowing from the '79 tasting when he heard the results of the event, which had been conducted without his knowledge. If the previous year's outcome signalled victory, this was the ticker tape parade, triggering international press coverage and a sudden interest in wines from the West. "All of a sudden, Oregon got credibility," Lett remembers today. "Before the tasting, I had to beg for distribution. Afterward, I not only got calls from individuals from around the world, but from distributors around the country, too."

Oregon is still feeling the aftershocks from these epicentral events. "What the Gault-Millau and Drouhin tastings did was set Oregon as a place where Pinot Noir could be produced in the US that could rival Burgundy," Lett believes. Winemakers immigrated to Oregon for a variety of reasons over the next 20 years, but the idea that this was even an option, to say nothing of a sound business move, was established in France in 1979 and 80.

One of those profoundly influenced by the outcome of the tastings turned out to be Drouhin himself. Even though he had visited Oregon before Gault-Millau, he now unequivocally understood the potential of the region, and his reaction in turn had a major influence on the growth to follow. By 1987, he'd established Domaine Drouhin Oregon just a few miles from Lett's vineyards. In a world where the French made Wine and everyone else made "wine", this was an endorsement of incalculable value.

Since then, the number of Oregon wineries has exploded to 136 today, bringing an estimated $100 million into the state's economy each year. Oregon now attracts top winemaking talent from around the world, and well-heeled investors who see sound investment and prestige in its vineyards. Fine wine now comes from Oregon, and thanks to the French, the world knows it.


©1999 Matt Giraud. This article originally appeared in October, 1999 in Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon.

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