Quirky Labels for Wacky Wines

Thursday, 29 March, 2007
Neil Pendock
Wine pundit for the Observer, Tim Atkin may list “never trust a person who collects wine labels” in his enumeration of the Top 25 Wine Truths, but in the case of Peter May I’m prepared to make an exception. He’s been a judge on the ABSA Top Ten Pinotage Competition and so must be as squeaky clean as a Stelvin screwcap.
Peter describes this lavishly illustrated book as a celebration of those who have rejected pomposity and created wines with amusing names and clever labels. And the inimitable cartoonist Ralph Steadman certainly comes to the party with his image of an anorak on Bonny Doon’s Ptomaine des Blagueurs, described as “a certain genre of snaky, slithery, slimy, smarmy, sebaceous sommelier and the insufferable snobisme associated therewith.”

South Africa kicks off the hilarity with African Collection supplying the hiding place for the Devil (in the branches of a Baobab in which Pinotage is served), and provides the penultimate giggle with Bruce Jack’s Writer’s Block, a malady the Flagstone winemaker certainly doesn’t suffer from. 

On the way there’s an excursion to Van der Table and Under the Table, both (Table) mountain jokes and Rude Boy Chardonnay and Rude Girl Shiraz, illustrated with clothed models who drop their shorts as the wine is chilled (his) or warmed up (hers) – although the lady is viewed from the back (Peter’s rudely appropriate food recommendation: meatballs), while the chap offers full frontal vistas. 

South Africa doesn’t have all the jokes. There’s White Trash White and Redneck Red from the fabulously named Oildale Winery in Bakersfield, California, “strategically planted between pumping oil wells and oil sumps are rows of grapevines. This blend of oil- and tar-tainted soil lends itself to a wine grape flavour seldom duplicated throughout the world of viticulture.” And the inimitable Smoking Parrot Sauvignon Blanc from France is a play on words that makes Charles Back look like a novice: Smoking Parrot becomes Polly Fumé becomes Pouilly-Fumé, QED.

Of course some party poopers have no sense of humour. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms insist the iconic Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush from New Zealand be renamed Cat’s Phee for US consumption, while the State of Ohio takes exception to Randall Grahm’s Cardinal Zin under a statute ‘forbidding the depiction of children or religious subjects’, which all sounds very Taliban.

Californian winemaker Stu Pedasso supplies a cautionary tale to wannabe organic winemakers, along the lines of the nursery rhyme “there was an old lady who swallowed a fly”. To control vineyard pests, bullfrogs were hired. To keep the frogs in line, fifty Florida alligators were recruited, but while the alligators enjoyed frogs’ legs, deer ate all the grapes. So twenty-five giant (3m length) monitor lizards were imported from Indonesia. Not unsurprisingly, vineyard visits are strictly by appointment.  

My favourite is the faux-erudite Suckfizzle from the rhymingly named Stella Bella Winery in Margaret River, West Australia. The Great Lord Suckfizzle is a character in the classic bawdy tales of the giant Gargantua and his son Pantagruel, penned by the 16th century French monk Rabelais, who would have made a worthy addition to the tasting team of a medieval Platter Wine Guide.

Quirk Books - Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: odd wines from around the world, by Peter F. May