Mad Genius & Wine (and video games)

While I’m not really sure about this, I think I’m on pretty firm ground when I suggest that every industry has it’s small collection of "mad geniuses". You know the type I’m talking about. It’s not so much that they are truly mad, but rather so much more creative and innovative than the rest of the folk in their industry that they stand out. They seem…special.

I was thinking about this yesterday as I savored Easter Ham with my family and sipped on a Gewurztraminer. My brother, Tim Schafer, is the acknowledged "mad genius" of the video game world. His games (Psychonauts, Full Throttle, Grim Fandango) so stand apart from the ubiquitous "carnage and weapons" that is today’s common video game fare that he seems either odd or a genius to those in his industry or those who closely watch it. Of course, he’s really none of those. It’s just that he has extraordinary talent and is willing to take risks.

The wine industry has it’s own mad geniuses. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon is clearly the Head Genius. Grahm’s genius comes in the way he presents his wines and his way of thinking to both consumers and the industry. Grahm is a man with a sense of humor who is able to take his wit serious. He’s intelligent. He makes important points about the winemaking vocation through humor and irony that are on display in his wines, the packaging of the wines and the way he talks about wine.

Grahm made the point that cork is dead by touring the country and have wakes for the cork ("long liveGrahm
the screw cap!"). He wanted us to think about the near forgotten idea that minerality in wines is something to appreciate by making serviing wines "on the rock"…literally….by placing stones in wines and serving it. His newsletter is among the best because it goes far beyond the common newsletter fare of terroir, growing seasons and new releases and ventures into the realm of the philosophical, the poetic and the arcane.

You could argue, I suppose, that some of those who venture off into something very odd (think biodynamic grape growing) also fall into the category of "mad genius". But it’s not quite the same really. The mad genius doesn’t take a step beyond a common model (think organic grapegrowing). Instead, the "Mad Genius" stops people in their tracks because they simply move well beyond the common.

My brother-in-law Tim created a video game that asks the player to step inside people’s minds and do battle with the most dangerous elements of the psyche. It won numerous awards for best game of the year, best graphics, best sound, best, best, best. It sold well, but not nearly as well as some had hoped and not nearly as well as games with Big Guns and Big Blood. Psychonauts was groundbreaking work, clearly showed Tim’s genius and opens many doors for him.

But there is a lesson here. People like Tim and Randal Grahm succeed by working outside the mainstream because not only are they a little off kilter, but they are very smart and the talent they put on display is combined with some very insightful claims and ideas.

What I’m suggesting is this: The true mad geniuses, whether in wine, video games, art, or any other genre above all make us think. They made give us pleasure, but it’s those that make us think in ways we normally don’t that should earn out attention.

2 Responses

  1. Brian Ruff - April 19, 2008

    Hello and thanks for the article about “mad geniuses” in the wine country and in Sonoma. I’m 25 and live in Sonoma. I feel like a mad genius, but I am not sure what I’m a genius at yet… I’m hoping to change the world by thinking outside the box, but there seems like a find line between pursuing innovation and making enough money to pay the rent… heh.
    One “mad genius” idea I have. I’d love to hear your opinion you think if it’s too crazy:
    Better than virtual reality, is reality. If you have one person with a 3d stereo camera and you broadcast the signal to another person with a 3d stereo headset you end up with a real time virtual experience. The 3d monitor headsets are nothing like the 3d you see at the IMAX shows. The 3d computer headsets look 100 times better. You’re actually getting two images (one for each eye) and it’s crystal clear and immersive.
    So imagine a person who is paralyzed from the neck down. He can lie in bed and “control a character” in the real world. Some fun things to experience would be:
    Climbing half dome.
    Jogging down the Sonoma Overlook trail (local pride!)
    Riding a bike
    The best part is that the person in the bed can communicate with the person with the camera via phone. “Hey that trail looks cool, turn right there. Okay now go of the trail and let’s check out the creek.”
    So he can have this virtual experience of physical reality. The experience could also include a surround sound experience of course.
    I found your blog searching “Tim Schafer” in Google. As a fellow Sonoma High student I wonder if he could give me any advice on being a successful mad genius… Because until you’ve found success, people just think you’re mad! But I don’t want to bother a busy man.
    I’m also appling for a job at Telltale Games in hoping of working with Tim’s old co-worker Dave Grossman… I want to be a mad genius too…
    Anyways, thanks for the cool article and I hope all is well. Best, Brian. Sonoma

  2. Brian Ruff - April 19, 2008

    Sorry for the horrendous typos in my blog post above.

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