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Untrodden Grapes    by Ralph Steadman order for
Untrodden Grapes
by Ralph Steadman
Order:  USA  Can
Harcourt, 2005 (2005)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The antic illustrations (which remind me of Honoré Daumier's caricatures, especially one of Shopping Sisters (nuns) in Zaragoza) in this quirky coffee table volume make it an instant conversation piece. The lyrical text is an engaging combination of wine lore and travel literature. And let's not forget the humor, that makes it all go down as smoothly as a well aged Bordeaux.

In his Introduction, Ralph Steadman tells us that 'Wines have become market-force blends'. He bemoans the fact that nowadays 'There can be no room for temperament in wine, which is possibly the most temperamental liquid in the world save for nitroglycerin', and expresses the hope 'that there is still fun in wine'. Steadman then circles the world in pursuit of wine's 'hidden dimension ... its "raisin d'être".'

He begins in Chile with a subversive vineyard planted on hot mountain slopes, then heads to Spain to sample (along with the mice) sherries and tapas. From there, he wends his way to California, where one winemaker labors in a cloud of wasps and another is a 'Will-o'-the-wisp' idea generator. Then, he introduces us to Ernst Boggschafft's Pinot Point grapes, followed by (the ridiculous to the sublime) Dom Pérignon champagnes (which he compares to ballet dancers and actors).

After the bubbly comes Gascony's armagnac, and an aside on 'Wine Dogs of the World'. Next, Steadman heads to the wine juggernaut of South Africa, 'a land that awoke from a nightmare only a few years ago.' There, he tells us, his 'palate was awash with new dimensions.' An amusing essay addresses 'Wine Labels' ('Cardinal Zin' is a winner) and another takes on home winemaking in the UK.

Steadman heads to Sicily to comment on tasters' gesticulations and the Zibbibo grape, then on to Italy for the serendipitous discovery of the Castello di Mudonato. Next is Burgundy where wine is subject to 'familial chauvinism'. In Languedoc-Roussillon, we are introduced to Tautavel Man. Then on to the wineries of Alsace, including the Hugel winery's museum in the making, and Domaine Weinbach where I enjoyed tasting comparisons to aspects of Cinderella

Sip suitable glasses of wine, champagne and sherry as you enjoy the eclectic essays in Untrodden Grapes (which could just as reasonably be titled Ralph in Wine-derland. Any oenophile will enjoy the tidbits of history, and witty commentary on weird and wonderful vintners and vintages. Steadman concludes with a brief rant against those wishing to control wine, ending zen-like with 'Wine is ... wine.'

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