Review of ‘The Grapes of Ralph – wine according to Ralph Steadman’

Tour a wine-producing area and the landscape, history, people, and food etch themselves on your mind. The result is an emotional and intellectual entanglement where the wine, wherever encountered thereafter, triggers memories of its origins.

Thus, knowing a wine is not only in the drinking, but in familiarity with the soil, history and landscape behind it. Sharing these often strong emotional attachments over a meal and a few good bottles might be easy with friends, especially amongst the vineyards. But to convey the feelings to a wide audience requires artistry of a very high order.

It takes not only a good artist, but one immersed in wine, wine lore, and complex landscapes, histories, and personalities. This is where British illustrator, Ralph Steadman, appears on stage with a dazzling book, The Grapes of Ralph (Random House, London 1992. RRP $49.90).

Buy it and hang onto your sides. You could split laughing. Open a second bottle and it gets even better.

Steadman doesn’t pretend to be a wine expert but, rather, an explorer and observer. Throughout the book words and pictures mingle in a flow of fact and fantasy at times difficult to separate. As the sub-title tells us this is wine according to Ralph Steadman.

He approaches wine as a drinker:

I tried desperately to savour the first tasted on my tongue, but thirst got the better of me and I gulped a mouthful which burst inside me like a warm sensuous bomb. I followed it with a piece of black bread and thought only of France and the sheer joy of booze at the right moment.”

But he’s not just any boozer as we see from this colourful tasting note on Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet 1982 tasted on its home turf, Coonawarra:

A massive body-it swells to Gargantuan proportions-the primal savage emerges-thunder in the brain. Time opens its doors and you come face to face with immortality.”

In 223 pages, Steadman dazzles us with impressions of Bulgaria, France, Germany, Portugal, Lanzarote, Italy, Australia, California, Peru, and Chile, dropping in four amusing interludes on various aspects of wine en route.

I counted 264 illustrations, ranging from tiny line sketches to double-page full-colour landscapes. These embrace wine, vines, grapes, wine tastings, mythology, wineries, other buildings, landscapes, and some of the most wonderful character portraits imaginable.

Colour sketches breath life into leading Italian wine makers robed in medieval, renaissance, and papal costumes (eg: a Florentine Angelo Gaja, “the Lorenzo de Medici of Italian wines”). And there’s brilliance in ‘Leonardo da Steadman’ (I think that’s what it says. It’s written backwards) technical drawings of wine paraphernalia, circa 1490.

Throughout the book Steadman’s characters strongly portray national identities without being mere stereotypes. And the landscapes radiate almost as much warmth as the people. Those I’ve traveled through live again under Steadman’s pen and brush. I particularly love his portrayal of Carema in Northern Italy, and Saumur in France’s Loire Valley.

His sketches of Australia I first saw in a wine catalogue produced by Oddbins, the giant English wine merchants. As I understand it they sent him on his one visit here to focus on Penfold’s winemaking facilities in Coonawarra and the Barossa Valley (where I’ve seen a barrel-end decorated in chalk by Steadman on that visit).

Despite the narrow brand focus, he devotes 28 pages to Australia, an exotic landscape that seems to have fired his imagination… and not just for the wine.

The opening double-page painting shows a vast blue-grey, red-streaked landscape with Ayer’s Rock and the Olgas thrusting through. Six pages dominated by Aboriginal themes follow, one with the caption: Homage to Australian Wine inspired by Aboriginal art–the only true culture to emerge from the Australian continent in the last 40,000 years.

We also get glimpses of animated wine bottles, one in Ned Kelly helmet a-la Sydney Nolan, dancing on a vast plain; ‘Kangarouge at Play’; and vignettes of imaginary wine figures, including ‘Barossa Pearl’. She ran a soup kitchen while her preacher husband traveled the outback warning against the evils of abstinence.

Steadman recognises the genius of Max Schubert “… With a touch of madness common to all genius, he created a classic upon which the whole Australian industry measures its quality. He quotes Max at length, and tops it all of with a beautiful portrait alongside his creation, Grange Hermitage.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. Just go and buy the book for its 264 pictures. These 750 words can never convey just how funny and moving it is.