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?
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