Ralph Steadman, the Modern Wine Artist

Months before taking the Certified Sommelier Exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers, I sat by the pool with some friends, studying Ralph Steadman’s run-down of German wine classifications with accompanying pictures in his book The Grapes of Ralph: Wine According to Ralph Steadman. “Tafelwein is the wine that Mercedes advise you to use in an emergency to top up the brake reservoir in the rare event of a disc brake leakage caused by a temperature burst at boiling point because you have just seen the whole of the Rhine valley over a period of six hours at 200 km per hour,” I read aloud to a friend, and then showed him some of the paintings with sinister-looking grapes on the vine with eyes.  “Adam,” my roommate remarked, “I think you’re probably the only one using that book to study for the exam.”

“You’re probably right,” I responded, “but I can actually remember some of what’s in this book.”

It seems fitting that my preferred gift for the wine professional, novice, art lover, or curious thinker is one I can never seem to find in a bookstore.  The Grapes of Ralph is a wholly original account of the artist’s many experiences tasting wine around the world.  I first happened upon the book through his follow-up to it, Untrodden Grapes, when I found the latter in Half Price Books a few years ago.  As is my penchant with this blog, I am interested in wine writing that says more than someone’s subjective tasting notes or technical data.  Steadman’s signature art and underrated writing style hooked me immediately.

Untrodden Grapes reads like the artist’s collection of notes, outtakes, and B-Sides that did not make the final cut for The Grapes of Ralph, yet it seems to appear on shelves more frequently (and more stores are capable of special-ordering it) even though the first book won a Glenfiddich Award for Food and Drink Book of the Year.

Steadman is best known in the U.S. for his collaborations with late journalist Hunter S. Thompson, for whom he illustrated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.  The artwork added to Thompson’s signature hyperbole with sensationalized depictions of long cigarette holders and skeleton-like limbs.  This work and other cartoons caught the attention of English wine purveyor Oddbins, who commissioned him to illustrate a wine list and then visit various producers in the world.  These travels unlocked what comes off to me as a more personal artistic expression from him.  We see how wine spoke to him, and literally see it through his eyes in the collection of paintings he composed.

Even when Steadman does provide his tasting notes, his unconventional prose brings a different perspective on how we can taste wine: “we drink a bottle of Santa Rita Medalla Real Cabernet Sauvignon.  This has a more interesting, homespun Chilean taste.  It is much sharper and brighter in colour — more the child, and livelier for its innocence.”  I can think of no professional, focused tasting where someone describes a wine as a lively, innocent child.  It seems ironic that the wine business has a need to exude charm in every aspect of its products, yet seems to miss the point when honing in on a wine’s acidity level instead of its personality.

As I look back through the book each time I show it to someone, I always find familiar wines I now sell but did not previously recognize, a reminder that the artist’s knowledge was far ahead of mine.  One of those books that changes how I view a fundamental aspect of my life, Steadman brings wine to life through his words and images.  Perhaps he and Hunter S. Thompson found kindred spirits with one another because they chose not to hide their presence from their work, recognizing that readers were seeing the world through their eyes.  And through the eyes of such passionate observer, there is no doubt much more to excite our taste buds, nostrils, and thoughts.