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Current Challenges at The Eyrie Vineyards

Challenge I: Cellar Certification

What do you do when you inherit a 6,000-case library of wine? In Jason’s mind, the challenge was clear once his early assessment indicated noteworthy bottle variation in the library. While Eyrie library wines had been stored in ideal conditions, it became apparent to Jason that there was bottle inconsistency, and he did not feel comfortable in showing or releasing the wines unless pre-oxidation (premox), cork taint and bottle variation could be dealt with. He found that 60% of the bottles were perfect, 30% showed premature oxidation, and 2-10% showed cork taint.

David had accumulated a treasure chest of wines for several reasons. He believed the wines of the Willamette Valley would never realize true success and respect unless the wines showed age ability. In addition, when David found wines to his liking, he stashed them away with no intention of releasing them. Some wines were produced in experimental one-barrel lots, making them unlikely candidates for commercial release.

Even when the Letts struggled financially in the early years of the winery, David put aside cases, and continued to do so throughout his career. He eventually amassed an incredible library representing the total output of all the varietals produced at Eyrie, a rarity among wineries in the New World.

Jason established an ingenious 21-step process called Cellar Certification which is unrivaled in its thoroughness. He developed techniques and designed equipment that would allow each bottle in the library to be appraised, tested, and if pristine, repackaged to guarantee perfect consistency. The process led to extremely small amounts of residual oxygen in the new bottles. An incredible number of man hours was required over 10 years to refine the process. The first suite of Cellar Certified vintages was released in 2013, and Eyrie is proudly the only wine estate in the world using this certification process. Jason's goal, like his father's, is to help advance the reputation of the Willamette Valley as one of the world’s great regions.

For the Cellar Certified wines and all wines produced since the 2008 vintage, Diam corks have been used and there has been no issues with cork taint or premox since. Jason believes that premox developed in earlier vintages of Eyrie wines from less dense corks, a discovery that needs to be further researched.

All the wines tasted at this Fiftieth Anniversary Vertical Tasting were Cellar Certified wines.

Challenge II: Replanting & Expanding the Vineyard

When David establishing his plantings in the Dundee Hills in 1966, he knew that the Phylloxera aphid was not present. He also knew of the potential for its destructive powers, but he chose to plant his vines on their own roots un-grafted, believing that the advantages outweighed the risks. Own-rooted vines have the advantage of being more drought and disease resistant, their trunks can be renewed easily, and many believe they produce better grapes.

In the early 1970s, Oregon’s winegrowers imposed a strict quarantine to prevent the importation of tainted soil and most vineyards were planted own-rooted for decades. In 1990, the first case of Phylloxera was found in the Dundee Hills and the pest has quickly moved into and destroyed the vineyards surrounding Eyrie. Despite the avoidance of soil discing and tilling and other precautions, in 2005 the original vines at Eyrie succumbed by showing the first signs of weakening, and over the past ten years the areas of affected Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris vines have merged and enlarged.

Rather than tear out the original vines, new acreage is being planted, viewed as an opportunity to trial different rootstocks and new grape varieties, including the Willamette Valley’s first planting of Trousseau Noir (2012), and the expansion of Melon de Bourgogne and Pinot Meunier plantings. Eyrie currently owns an additional 55 acres of land suitable for additional vineyards.

Healthy original vines are being identified to use as mother vines to graft and propagate, allowing the preservation of Eyrie’s genetic vine heritage for the future.

Challenge III: Building a New Winery

McMinnville has developed around the winery, making it impossible to expand. The low ceilings provide an appealing atmosphere, but prevent efficient use of space and forklift assistance. The interior of the current winery is pictured below.

Jason also feels there is import in vinifying wines close to the vines. These considerations have led Jason to design a building that would in theory allow him to make wines without the use of electricity or forklifts, yet enable him to use these modern assists if necessary. The winery would be constructed with hand- made wine in mind, drawing on the principles of ancient Roman and Burgundian cellars. The winery would be sited as David had planned, overlooking the original vines at The Eyrie Vineyards.

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