Best known for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson, which lend a twisted portrait to the writer’s persona and an imaginative perspective to many of his works, Ralph Steadman’s decades-long career reaches far beyond that gonzo life. A prolific illustrator and painter, he has created thousands of pieces on a range of subjects, including numerous works inspired by fine beverages. In addition to books like The Grapes of Ralph (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), Still Life with Bottle (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1997) and Untrodden Grapes (Harcourt, 2005), Steadman has partnered with numerous beverage producers on original label art, like Bonny Doon Vineyard in California, Montes in Argentina, Kaesler Wines in Australia and Maryland-based Flying Dog Brewery, among others. A Ralph Steadman Retrospective Exhibition tour is scheduled to begin this year, launching in Washington, D.C., on June 16th, followed by stops in California, Kentucky and Oregon.
How did you first get into the wine world?
I was rung up by Gordon Kerr in 1987 and asked if I would like to go to France, to Château de Jau, to stay there and observe, and do some drawings of it and some people who produced the wine. It was for their catalogues and they wanted to focus on different wine areas. The first one, I thought that would be it, but a couple of months later they asked me to go to France again and then it just went from there. It was quite fascinating. In fact, what was nice, it wasn’t politics. At the time, it was all kind of new.
“Snobbery is the biggest futility in the wine world.”
Do you find similarities in the ways that people approach and appreciate both art and wine cultures?
Definitely—snobbery is the biggest futility in the wine world. Notes of different silliness, of butterfly wing and things of that kind. It can get a bit pretentious, and what was great was meeting all the real people and workers and learning about the process. It was a much realer way of learning about wine. All these different wine merchants were sending me boxes of wine, so we built a wine rack in the cellar and filled it. Blow me if someone didn’t hear about it and one night, without us being aware, the cellar door on the outside of the house was broken and the whole lot was taken! I lost the heart to collect it after that.
What is your favorite subject and approach to wine art?
The variety of characters, areas, growers, pickers. The people who used to pick the grapes with these shoulder baskets, and I did drawing of them heaving them into the wine cart. I just liked looking at the real people and meeting them. And not being too serious about it. Sometimes a view would take your breath away, and I would try and capture that because then you didn’t need to be funny.
Wine & Art Through Time
1549–1292 BC Ancient Egyptian painting, artist unkown; fresco, Egypt
715 BC Cup with the goddess Hathor, artist unknown; ceramic, Egypt
Do you feel your approach provides an honest view into the occasionally stuffy world of wine?
I think so. I think we added a certain dimension to the wine world. The fact that we went to the places made all the difference. It was a first class experience.
How do you choose the products that you want to work with and create label art for?
I was asked to do particular wines and I got to know some of the winemakers. There was one who made his own wine in his backyard. I think if they asked and I liked them, I just did it.
Why did you decide to venture into the beer world and produce the labels for Flying Dog Brewery?
Hunter had been asked if he would come up with a motto by [Flying Dog Founder] George Stranahan, who also made whiskey [in Colorado, where Flying Dog originated], and he came up with “good people drink good beer.” I suggested “Good beer, no shit” which they wouldn’t use at first. Then Hunter asked if I would do some label art, so I did. Then they wanted another, and another… They ask for work, and I just do it. They are a great company to work for.