Readers familiar with the work of Ralph Steadman might easily mistake the label cartoon on ‘The Ambassador’ Tempranillo 2007 (a new Canberra label) for an original from this great artist. I did, and was disappointed to learn that it wasn’t.
One glance at the quirky, stout, dinner-suited, moustachioed, florid-faced, red-wine toting ambassador stirred memories of Steadman’s extraordinary wine pictures – the endless stream in British retailer Oddbin’s catalogues; and the sheer brilliance in one of the best wine books ever, in my view, ‘The grapes of Ralph: Wine according to Ralph Steadman’.
It was published by Random House, London, in 1992 and is still available. Amazon offers used copies from $US12.95 and new ones at $US117.29.
Buy it and hang onto your sides. You could split laughing. Open a second bottle and it gets even better. Throughout the book words and pictures mingle in a flow of fact and fantasy at times difficult to separate.
Steadman 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 and buildings, landscapes, and wonderful character portraits.
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 sketches of wine paraphernalia, circa 1490, by ‘Leonardo da Steadman’ (I think that’s what it says. It’s written backwards).
Steadman portrays national identities without creating mere stereotypes. And the landscapes radiate almost as much warmth as the people.
His twenty-eight page Australian section sketches an exotic landscape that seems to have fired his imagination.
The opening double-page painting shows a vast blue-grey, red-streaked landscape with Ularu 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 glimpse animated wine bottles: one in Ned Kelly helmet a-la Sydney Nolan, dancing on a vast plain; two portrayed as ‘Kangarouge at Play’; and vignettes of imaginary wine figures, including ‘Barossa Pearl’. She ran a soup kitchen while her preacher husband travelled the outback warning against the evils of abstinence.
It’s a profound book, as engaging now as it was on its release in 1992. Mere prose can never capture its wealth of ideas.