In the final scene of Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo the mad actor, Klaus Kinski, smiles broadly. He is standing on the bridge deck of the steamship Molly Aida heading home. The film is set in the Amazon Basin during the rubber boom of the late 1800’s. In the story, the main character – Fitzcarraldo – tries to amass a fortune collecting and selling rubber so that he can finance his dream - to build an opera house in Iquitos, the remote Andes city where he lives. After attempting a feat of epic proportions, his plan fails. However, in the end, Fitzcarraldo does manage to bring an opera troupe with him on board the Molly Aida as he heads home. Fitzcarraldo stands on deck. In one hand he grips the back of a red velvet chair – in the other, he holds a cigar. In exultation, he listens as performers sing arias from Bellini’s The Puritans in the open air above streaming water. It’s a grand image and, perhaps like Fitzcarraldo, creating this image was Werner Herzog’s ultimate dream.
On a shelf in my studio, I found an old journal with an entry I made in 1993. In it, I had recorded the words of author and critic, Adam Gopnik discussing artists Louise Bourgeois and Ilya Kabakov.
They are the connection between a single consciousness and the world around it, but they allow meaning to emerge on its own, unchaperoned by certainty.
Over the years I have recorded many statements like this in an attempt to penetrate the ineffable. In his book - Reading Between the Wines - Terry Theise made frequent forays into this territory.
It’s time to tell what wine can mean in a person’s life. But to do this I have to ask you to accept the ethereal as an ordinary and valid part of everyday experience (and) the ethereal can be forbidding when it isn’t grounded in counterpoint to the ordinary.
Fitzcarraraldo is a film about the meaning of life. It links the ordinary to the extraordinary by means of the film’s centerpiece – a visual record of the daunting effort required to move a 320 ton steamship over a mountaintop by hand. To make his film, Werner Herzog spent four years living in the Amazon jungle. He used three different ships to complete his film including the 320 ton steamship he hauled by hand – many hands – over the mountaintop. To use special effects to tell his story would have been a lie and he didn’t want to lie about something so important. The steamship was his visual metaphor and connection to the real world. The effort required to haul it by hand over a mountaintop was, certainly, unchaperoned by certainty. Later, in his diary - Conquest of the Useless -Herzog refers to – the helplessness of dreams over the heaviness of reality – no doubt the grand lesson he learned while filming Fizcarraldo. Werner Herzog earned the pleasure of the cigar smoked at the end of his film.
While watching the steamship Molly Aida move inch by painful inch up the mountainside, I turned to Kim and said – that makes me think of Bloomer Creek. It made me think of the effort, so often daunting, to establish our vineyard and winery. It made me think of the work we did by hand to establish Barrow Vineyard, clearing a field - abandoned for 30 years - on a hillside overlooking Seneca Lake. How trees and bushes flourished next to the old vines and needed to be plucked out one by one. Rotten posts needed to be gathered and rusted trellis wire coiled and thrown into heavy piles. There were days of raking, clearing the field of old vine stumps and roots that needed to be burned. Often we joked that our work felt prehistoric. It certainly looked prehistoric - like a primitive ritual - with the bare terraced hillside at dusk covered in small, smoking mounds. Watching the Molly Aida inch up the mountainside also reminded me of times during harvest when I conjure memories of mountain climbing - don’t look up; just keep moving; put one foot in front of the other and you will make the summit – in order to motivate myself and finish picking my row. It made me think of being on the press deck at the end of harvest with all grapes picked – tons of grapes picked by hand – crushed; pressed; and fermenting. Exultant, Kim, Katy and I drink beer to celebrate. After many toasts, we smile and watch the rising of a cold, quiet moon.
Fitzcarraldo standing on deck smoking a cigar is an iconic image to me. Perhaps it’s iconic to all obsessive dreamers- artists- vignerons - or perhaps it’s because of my painting entitled – After the Meal, Nestor Lit the King’s Cigar. It’s a title Kim came up with for the painting I made in 1995 in memory of my father – born Nestor Pandelis, who died suddenly, almost overnight. White cards, porcelain knobs, and a gold box tied with a small, red ribbon are arranged on the shelf of an old organ. A cigar box top bearing a picture - Webster/ Golden Anniversary – and a card, the color of a yellow bird, with three red stars all in a row - lean on the dark mahogany shelf. Four brackets - like lion’s paws- stretch outward toward the viewer. A small metallic object, like a miniature battle helmet, sits in front of a thin coil of gold wire, pinned in a loop to a white card. I had devised my own ritual.