A Great Wine Tale

From the red hills of Dundee

THE GRAIL: A Year Ambling & Shambling Through an Oregon Vineyard in Pursuit of the Best Pinot Noir Wine in the Whole Wild World by Brian Doyle. OSU Press, 2006. Paperback, $18.95.

As you can see from the full title of Oregon essayist and Portland Magazine editor Brian Doyle’s latest book, he is a devotee of good wine. Doyle also confesses to being a “wine doofus,” which led to his spending a year visiting the Lange Winery and talking to winemaker Don Lange and his energetic, articulate 26-year-old son Jesse about the grapes they grow in the red clay Dundee Hills and the process by which these small, blueblack grapes become the complex elixir internationally renowned as Oregon pinot noir.

For all of us who know next to nothing about growing, making and appreciating a fine wine, Doyle’s enthusiasm for facts and lore relating to the pinot noir grape carries us into subjects we hadn’t imagined we wanted to understand. As Doyle follows the winery’s grapes from one October to the next harvest, he finds time to savor the stories and sample wines produced in previous years as well as record an astonishing array of information in a cracking great prose style, mate.

Doyle shares with us what he learns about the special soils in this part of the Willamette Valley, the history, weather and geology of the land. He writes about the wild creatures who still roam the nearby woods and those who travel by air, many of which are interested in the tasty grapes themselves. He chronicles what the Native American people who lived here before the white settlers came hunted, gathered and ate in this valley. He traces the history of the grape itself from ancient times to today’s hardy clones. And he documents the economic impact of Oregon’s expanding renewable resource: viniculture. And laced throughout the book are the fascinating characters whose lives and livelihoods depend on the “fussy” pinot noir grape itself.

The book is also the story of one contemporary winemaking business, which has remained human-sized. We observe the year-round, hand-care required at the Lange vineyards and winery — the planting of new grapes, the delicate pruning of the vines, the constant tasting and testing of the growing grapes as well as of the vatted wines and the ongoing task of keeping everything super-clean.

Late in the book, Jesse calls Doyle and tells him to come observe a day during harvest. In a crucial period that lasts several weeks, everyone works full-tilt until midnight or later every day to bring in the roughly 170 tons of grapes from Lange’s and neighboring vineyards and start making wine. Trucks deliver grapes, which form great stacks outside the winery. Tractors haul up bins of hand-picked estate pinot noir from the rows down the hill. The fermenters are working full time, and the crusher is going day and night.

“[T]here are about ninety things going on at once, and everywhere I turn there is activity, all of it purposeful and graceful, as if a huge sweaty machine smoothly in high gear,” Doyle writes. He asks Jesse, how do you keep track of all this? Insanely careful scheduling, the young winemaker replies.

Doyle subtly brings the reader to a new appreciation of wine through his perceptive portraits and the voices of the people whose collaborative enterprise makes this winery prosper. The muscle and creative talent to make a great wine involve an old-fashioned work ethic largely missing from our society, and the winery owners’ dedication to using the land in a non-polluting and sustainable manner is inspiring.

Doyle’s fevered dream of tasting the world’s best pinot noir filled me with the desire for a glass of Lange Three Hills Cuvee at least once this lifetime, and thanks to a few friends, wine-lovers all, my dream will also come true. Doyle reads at the UO Bookstore at 7 pm on Tuesday, May 9, following a wine tasting with Sweet Cheeks Winery at 6 pm. See you there.