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From Chile to California, South Africa to Alsace, Ralph Steadman has seen the best of the world's wine-producing regions. On a search for the unique and original, he meets Aurelio Montes, the Chilean winemaker who planted syrah vines on a rocky, south-facing hill in order to "steal the wild complexity of the mountain's soul." In Spain, he learns of the white chalky soil called albariza that produces the sherry of the Jerez region. In California, the author describes crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, driving up ...
From Chile to California, South Africa to Alsace, Ralph Steadman has seen the best of the world's wine-producing regions. On a search for the unique and original, he meets Aurelio Montes, the Chilean winemaker who planted syrah vines on a rocky, south-facing hill in order to "steal the wild complexity of the mountain's soul." In Spain, he learns of the white chalky soil called albariza that produces the sherry of the Jerez region. In California, the author describes crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, driving up into Marin County, and meeting enthusiastic winemakers whose vineyards sit precariously on the San Andreas fault. As the journey continues on through Burgundy, Champagne, and Sicily, Steadman brings the landscape and its people to life with pictures and prose.
LOOKING FOR A PLACE TO LAND
Where to begin a new volume, after my first journey into wine territory down among the red men was not so difficult after all?
My wife, Anna, and I were invited to New York in January 2002 to the launch of Montes Folly, the "wild dream" wine of Chilean winemakers Douglas Murray and Aurelio Montes-a wine with which they have taunted the gods and defied the wisdom of the experts.
"It'll never work," the experts said. "The grapes will explode!"
"Good!" I thought. "Only an artist would think like that!"
At the launch, Aurelio, who pilots his own light aircraft, demonstrated what his natural winemaker's eye could only see from up in the sky. Through a series of color slides, he described the trials and tribulations that beset two wild spirits with a crazy dream. It was important to move half a mountain to realize it. I was proud to be asked to provide the artwork for the label-an angel to watch over their baby.
Being a romantic and a lifetime supporter of the maverick tradition in all fields of human activity, it seemed so natural, so organic, to establish the landscape of this new book where my last book about wine, The Grapes of Ralph, left off-in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. Such a strange and terrible place, but a link nevertheless to the land of Untrodden Grapes where I can put down roots and begin again.
Edward Abbey, the author of Desert Solitaire, wrote: "Enter at your own risk. Carry water. Avoid the noonday sun. Try to ignore the vultures and pray frequently." That is good advice to anyone, let alone to committed lovers of good wine. There are vultures everywhere-in deserts and vineyards, too-but there is also more rich life there than anyone dreams.
If you are a dreamer like Douglas Murray or Aurelio Montes, then you can be the Little Prince of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who believed that "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye."
Perhaps the perspective gained by pilots such as Saint-Exupéry and Aurelio Montes encourages a loftier vision. You are flying over the very place where your dream lies hidden when, in an instant, it is your heart that realizes that what you have flown over so many times before is where you want to be. Or, as the Little Prince explains, "What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well." And, "Pure logic is the ruin of the spirit."
Douglas and Aurelio had originally found their desert dream in 1972 on the sharp, south-facing slopes of the Apalta area of the Colchagua Valley. They decided, quite illogically, to clear the slopes of boulders and plant Syrah vines and thus steal the wild complexity of the mountain's soul.
Imagine the mountain knowing that you planned such a scheme. It might rise up and burst open like a volcano, pouring down rocks, lava, and mayhem onto your puny attempt to plunder its riches. In business terms, this mad scheme made Douglas Murray clutch his head with trembling hands and tap the brain of Alfredo Vidaurre, the third, inspired partner of this trinity, a Shakespearean accountant no less, who balances their books like poetry and tempers their raw animal enthusiasm with a financial whip. Though I must, just for the record, say that Alfredo, a decent and reasonable man, compulsively makes strange and provocative duck noises when he enters a room. I have been there on many occasions. I have heard them.
The vines would simply burn up in the direct heat of the midday sun. But Aurelio pacified Douglas with an explanation of why his agricultural scheme would work: his was a plan of extremes and, in fact, the very hub of the reason why the vines would survive-not merely survive but thrive-extracting the very complexity of the mountain and its weather and imbuing their bounty with the dramatic characteristics possessed by all great mountain ranges. Faced with such a deep, resonant idea, Douglas could only embrace it with all the passion he has for deserts.
For half the day the southern face of the mountain is shadowed and cool-even cold-but in early afternoon the sun is blisteringly hot. The slopes behind the vines, still cool, are shaded by the vines and create conflicting microclimates throughout the rows. Air turbulence is also a factor, as Aurelio knew from flying; vortices of hot and cold currents sweep through the vines throughout the day, providing massive ventilation beneath the leaves and never allowing pockets of stillness for mildew to flourish. The vines grow like wild children, adopting the tannic edge of life in such a restless place and absorbing the spirit of nature in all its untamed grandeur.
Together, Douglas and Aurelio set about the massive work of many years. They haven't tamed the mountain. They never could and never would want to. They are working and flying in the vortices of nature's gargantuan laboratory-inside a crescent-shaped cranny at over 45 degrees of slope broiling in over 45 degrees Celsius-nestled in the coastal range of the Colchagua Valley.
Douglas Murray says that the grapes are harvested by acrobats and, though the yields have been low, the power in the juice rewards the pair with such complex eloquence-the mountain's tears-that one day the mountain will surely offer up its heart.
Copyright © 2005 by Ralph Steadman
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CHAMPAGNE IMPRESSION 60
WINE DOGS OF THE WORLD 90
SOUTH AFRICA 96
WINE LABELS 126
WINE MAKING 138
WINE SUITE 233
OLD SYRAH VINES 242