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01.27.2009

Crackpots, Wackos, Nutjobs and Wine: a Winning Combination.

Some of the best wines I've ever had in my life seem to have one strange thing in common. They are made by people that, depending on your mood, might be described as cranks, hermits, crackpots, wackos, or eccentrics. Winemaking it seems, tends to either bring out the strangeness in people, or it tends to simply attract the strange ones.

Every wine writer has at one time or another compared wine to alchemy, myself included. Such comparisons invariably focus on the magical qualities of wine that somehow end up being more than the sum of their parts. But the characterization of winemaking in alchemical terms may be even more apt for the parallels between the way that arcane science was practiced and those who are changing the game in winemaking.

As far back as the first century BCE, obsessed with the quest to turn lead to gold, many men literally spent their lives and their fortunes toiling in homemade laboratories. The alchemists were a somewhat furtive bunch, and even those that didn't prefer the company of their books to polite society were known for being more than a little eccentric.

Sound like any winemakers you know? The phenomenon that I'll affectionately call The Crank Winemaker is common enough that any wine lover will have heard of at least one or two. But much more interestingly, these iconoclasts tend to make some of the world's more amazing wines.

Winemaking at its most honest represents a truly creative act, one that an individual produces through a vision, a plan for how to realize that vision, and then the hard work to carry it out. Along the way, progress is measured most intimately -- the ache of the hands after pruning or leafing, the taste of a ripening grape in the mouth, the smell of the fermenter, and of course, the taste of the evolving wine -- all personal, visceral, and potentially private experiences. Winemakers, at least those who practice the craft on a scale proportional to their own capacities to manage the entire process, are essentially auteurs.

And the stories that they write are extraordinary:

Italian Prince Alberico Boncompagni Ludovisi
started making wine without any formal training, and then after figuring out how to make phenomenal wines (in part, he said, due to the thick white mold that covered everything in his cellar) he decided not to sell his wines to anyone. Only now after his death are his Fiorano wines available to the world.

Alsatian winemaker Marcel Deiss believes in part that he has a divine mandate to harvest and crush a bizarre mix of Riesling, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Noir, because in his vineyard they all ripen at the same time. Since he's already violating the rules of the appellation, he also goes ahead and labels the wine with the vineyard name rather than the varietal.

Slovenian winemaker Ales Kristancic of Movia gets farther off the winemaking map every time he starts a new expedition. His latest creation, Lunar, is not only fully biodynamic, but completely untouched by any mechanical, human or chemical technology from the point at which the grapes are removed from the vine. They're plopped into barrels and left alone until the juice is ready to be bottled. Never crushed, never filtered, never fined, never racked, nothing.

Josko Gravner, who makes wine in Italy's Friuli region, doesn't think traditional winemaking is quite traditional enough. Those wooden barrels that everyone has been using for centuries? Too much newfangled technology. Graver makes his wines in huge clay amphorae that are buried in the ground.

Austrian Roland Velich became obsessed with the untapped potential of Austria's Blaufrankisch grape, and was convinced it could make world class wines. So he decided to treat the grape from start to finish as if he was making top-flight burgundy. He sometimes only gets a few hundred bottles per acre out of his ancient vines, some of which are over 110 years old.

The godfather of Biodynamics, Loire winemaker Nicolas Joly, makes his Chenin Blanc according to Biodynamic principles, of course, but also exposes his wines to much more air than is normally recommended by racking far more often and more loosely than most winemakers would ever contemplate doing.

Closer to home, Randall Grahm, sometimes known as the enfant terrible of winemaking in the New World, has tried on many strange hats during his career, retiring each one when they are no longer seen as quite extreme. From his beginnings trying to make Rhone style wines in California, which the French said could never be done, to today's incarnation as a proponent of biodynamics and sensitive crystallization, Grahm may be the poster child for the Crank Winemaker in America.

This is but a brief excerpt from a list that contains names like Didier Dagueneau, Manfred Krankel, Abe Schoener, Fulvio Bressan, Stanislao Radikon, Eben Sadie, Sean Thackrey, Frank Cornelissen, and hundreds more.

Something knits together the clan of people that strike out to plant grapes where none thought they would grow, that throw away the rule books and make wine according to intuition, that combine grapes and wood and time in ways that no one ever considered before. I don't doubt it's the same thing that unites iconoclasts in every aesthetic field, from painting to cooking to architecture.

The fact that we can drink their work (perhaps excepting some extreme hermits, or extremely expensive examples) makes the Crank Winemakers stuff that modern odysseys are made of -- wines to strive, to seek, and to find ways to consume, as often as possible.

What we really need, though, are a set of Crank Winemaker trading cards, that we can collect and trade along with empty bottles of their wine, making sure that we've tasted their stuff while they're still in their prime, and reminiscing about the great vintages when they're gone.

Who would you add to the deck, and why?

Comments (12)

Jack Everitt wrote:
01.28.09 at 9:10 AM

Don't forget to the Exclusive card subset of Orange Wines.

Also Alder, I think you've caught up and maybe surpassed me in the drinking of this entire category. It's amazing, though, how you never see the Great Collectors of wine touching these wines, much less tasting them. Not even Mianis or Fioranos.

01.28.09 at 10:07 AM

Thanks Alder for tipping us off to a few more wines worthy of seeking out.

These 'wackos' seem to have a connection to the earth that most of us struggle to understand and their 'experiments' generally turn out pretty darn good. Their wines may not be squeaky clean and they will almost definitely inspire a few bizarre tasting notes, but that is exactly why they're fun to drink.

Come to think of it, maybe my 'nutjob' neighbor should turn his hand to winemaking!

Jake Hartinger wrote:
01.28.09 at 12:11 PM

I would probably add David Lett who planted the 1st commercial Pinot in Oregon. In the late 60s he was considered a unexperienced nut-job with 0% chance of success.

Rajiv wrote:
01.28.09 at 12:37 PM

It seems like nearly all wine makers strive to reach the pinnacle of their chosen style. These errant tinkerers, on the other hand, strive to create styles of their own. Without them, the wine world would never move forward!

Ludovisi in particular - his story is a real life fairy-tale...
Except better because you can actually drink his wine!

Sergey wrote:
01.28.09 at 1:18 PM

Thank You very much, Alder! You are quite right: genious winemakers obviously are different from other people...

Dylan wrote:
01.28.09 at 3:45 PM

I think creation can often be labeled as an off-beat process, I mean, consider the Snuggie.

But, in all seriousness, when you're creating something original, it will always feels odd. Even the creator doesn't know what to think of it because there's never been anything like it before. One can only experience doubt and darkness on originality's unbeaten path. Originality is impossible without creativity, these two go hand-in-hand. Why then, you may ask, are there so many "original" personalities involved?

Simply put, they're the only personalities right for the job. They are the only ones not afraid to be laughed at and mocked. They don't mind making one-thousand failures before they have one success. They merely keep at it until they do. It takes someone willing to let rumors fly while in pursuit of their own truth.

telepsychic wrote:
01.28.09 at 5:56 PM

Perhaps he's too much of stereotype of the cranky, loud prodigy, but Jean-Marie Guffens. A trailblazer of the Macon, he's a gruff, boisterous, unapologetic risk taker who makes sometimes erratic, often sublime wines. The Macon was too small to hold him; his particular kind of genius for white burgundy now fills many a Chablis and Cote de Beaune.

dfredman wrote:
01.30.09 at 9:35 AM

From Italy I would add
Emidio Pepe and the late Eduoardo Valentini for their ultra-traditional Montepulciano d'Abruzzo as well as Paulo Bea for what that label is doing in Umbria with Sagrantino.

The thing about Deiss is that he not only began labeling his wines by the name of the vineyards, but he succeeded in getting the AOC regulations changed so as to make this legal. More influential (and ultimately more important) in Alsace is the work of Olivier Humbrecht and André Ostertag, both of whom integrated their vision (including biodynamie) within the framework of the AOC and found success, although Ostertag initially encountered difficulties with his Muenchberg Pinot Gris and his use of "atypical" barriques, thus resulting in the fanciful A360P label until the AOC relented.

I don't see Randall Grahm as a crackpot or wackjob, just kind of an eccentric who likes to experiment with ideas that involve wine. In fact, that's probably the primary theme among all of the producers listed who are on the ultra-cutting edge of winemaking in their appellations: they are driving to create wine that pushes the envelope of what people believe the region or variety are capable of and they fine the means to make the attempt. Sometimes it works, sometimes the effort falls short, but everyone in the wine world benefits from the attempt.

And Jack, it's been my experience that the "great collectors of wine" are one of the most conservative, stick-in-the-mud group of wine drinkers out there. They're experts in whichever category they're comfortable with and don't like to expand the boundaries. It's their loss, but I still try to expose them to new wines - every once in awhile something takes hold and they go deep on something strange, unusual, and exotic....like Barolo, or Mosel Riesling! :)

German Wine Guy wrote:
02.01.09 at 8:41 AM

@dfredman..."or Mosel Riesling", that is an awesome recommendation!

Esping wrote:
02.05.09 at 1:04 PM

I really like the winemakers you mention and there are several more to add but I just don't like them beeing labeled as lunatics or wackos or whatever term you use. I think it's a bit patronizing and dissmive of the skill, hard work and experience from many generations that goes into their wines. Also, what is crazy about having a strong vision, strong ethics and intuition, not caring too much about ongoing trends.

Alder wrote:
02.05.09 at 1:47 PM

Esping,

Please don't be turned off by the words, which are used with great affection.

The main term I have chosen to use is Crank.

Here's the dictionary definition:

CRANK (noun) an eccentric person, esp. one who is obsessed by a particular subject or theory : "when he first started to air his views, they labeled him a crank."

If you prefer, the term iconoclast is also appropriate, though it doesn't quite have the same ring to it....

09.05.09 at 6:52 AM

At DeMorgenzon, in Stellenbosch, South Africa, we play music to our vines and our wines 24 x 7. We have weather-proof speakers strategically placed in the vineyards and in the cellar. We've carefully selected a playlist of Baroque music.
The results have been measurable, and extraordinary!

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