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
Brian Doyle spent a year hanging around one of Oregon’s premier wineries, getting to understand the winemakers, the process of making wine, and the almost mystic quest for The Best Pinot Noir Wine in the World. The result of his observations and pondering is The Grail.
Doyle focused on pinot noir because it is the wine that Oregon is famous for. The well-drained, volcanic soil of Yamhill County is capable of producing pinots to rival wines from the Burgundy region of France. Oregon wineries produce a wide variety of wines, but pinots can make a winery famous – or drive the winemaker crazy. As Doyle learned, pinot noir grapes are the divas of the vineyard.
Doyle’s pinot schoolhouse was Lange Estate Winery and Vineyards in the Red Hills of Dundee, Oregon. Winemakers Jesse Lange and his father Don were patient and erudite teachers who explained to Doyle, not only the technical side of how to grow grapes and make wine, but the poetic and personal side of their business as well. Doyle augments their information with chapters on various related topics such as the history of the region, pinot noir from around the world, and his own musings on words, wine, dogs, friends, and spirituality.
One key theme Doyle plays on is the idea that, while good pinot must have structure, balance, and texture, there is a wide range of “pinotpossibility” for any pinot noir – from strong, heavy, substantive wines to lively, minerally, bright wines. This range makes it impossible to definitively decide what the “best” pinot noir is, any decision being, at best, an educated opinion. Thus the search for the Best Pinot Noir Wine in the World is as elusive a quest as for the Holy Grail itself.
It is good to keep this theme in mind when assessing Doyle’s writing style. Just as “good” pinot depends in large part on personal preferences, so good writing. Doyle is a good writer – a very good writer – and an accomplished wordsmith who takes obvious pleasure in the play and flow of words. But those who prefer non-fiction written in a crisp, journalistic style may find Doyle’s prose to be overly flowery. There are times his wordplay, elaborate descriptions, and alliteration get a little sing-song – like Peter Cottontail describing how to make wine. But his exuberant style always conveys Doyle’s good-natured enthusiasm for the stories he delights in telling.
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The Grail was a Book Sense Pick (now called the Indie Next List)
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. He also compiled the list of The 20 Greatest Oregon Books Ever that I am working on.
The Oregon State University Press sent me this book, along with several others, to review. So far, I have been very impressed with both books I have read. My review of City Limits: Walking Portland's Boundary, by David Oates, is here.