Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.
Over the last decade, food TV has hit its highest (and arguably, in some instances, its lowest) point, cashing in on shows like No Reservations and Bizarre Foods, while the Food Network manages its assembly line of food celebrities. It's made waves on major network TV with shows like Top Chef, Master Chef, and so on, while wine--which continues to become a more irreparable fixture of the American table--struggles to find an audience, let alone a mainstream one.
Can it catch on? This year two new wine shows--Vine Talk and The Three Thieves--hit the small screen. Each lacks the appeal to really be mainstream, but their flaws can teach us a lot about what a breakthrough wine show needs, and doesn't need, to succeed.
A Wine Show About Three Cool Guys
The Three Thieves, which premiered in January on the Cooking Channel, follows three wine industry guys—Napa winemaker and restaurateur Joel Gott, wine entrepreneur Charles Bieler, and grape-grower/hotelier Roger Scommegna—as they travel around the world to find wines that are not yet imported, bottle them, and brand them in the U.S. It's on the right track in its attempt to lure people to wine through food and travel, but its premise seems to lack real meaning. In other words, how much do we really care about watching three guys travel around the world to find wine they can repackage and market for cash? Wouldn't it be a bit more provocative if it were more about great winemakers, their wines, and their stories within the greater context of regional history and culture?
What The Three Thieves has that other wine shows do not, however, is mainstream branding and access to a wider, more diverse audience. The show's pilot aired on January 27th and no new episodes have been filmed. According to Bieler the second episode will start production soon. Stay tuned.
When Celebrity Appearances Backfire
Vine Talk, which premiered in April, is PBS's wine show wherein actor Stanley Tucci, Food & Wine executive editor Ray Isle, and a guest wine expert (generally a sommelier) guide a panel of celebrities through a region/grape variety. In searching for a broad access point, it plays off the assumption that you can ask celebrities to talk about anything and people will probably watch.
Unfortunately, its perceived draw is also its Achilles' heel.
It can be entertaining, but its insecurity about letting wine be the central point of the show has it veering off, all too often, into a program about nothing in particular. Isle and the guest sommelier are left trying to add some value while the panel generally seems more interested in making jokes than truly engaging. As a result, the wine folk often come off like outsiders threatening to spoil the fun.
No Reservations, Wine Edition
While there are positive things about both shows, each lacks one or both aspects of wine that are visually provocative: the place it comes from and the people that make it. If those two things can be brought to the screen, think about the potential of the medium to educate people.
Let us, for example, quickly picture a wine show that brings food, people, and culture together in their place of origin. The characters will not be celebrities, wine personalities, or businessmen, but winemakers. Their eccentricities are often beyond the best imaginations of scriptwriters and their influences and motivations can provide enlightening windows into the culture and history of the place they come from.
Add these winemakers to the beauty of the world's many winemaking regions, pair with engaging host (maybe a young winemaker to provide expertise and establish a sense of camaraderie), blend in the region's history and food culture, get a good editor, and boom: a REAL show about wine that is humorous, visual, and educational.
It's only a matter of time.
A few months back Embassy Row--the subsidiary of Sony Pictures Television that's produced shows like Bobby Flay's Grill it! and Throwdown--made contact with a handful of women in the wine industry in the hopes of finding "a female Anthony Bourdain to host a wine travel show." Not a great visual, but you get the idea: No Reservations, about wine. it's exactly the sort of show that has a fighting chance at the mainstream. No news on whether or not the project has the green light, but it's safe to say that if it's on the mind of one reputable production company, it's on the minds of others. Eyes out.
Talia Baiocchi is the former editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her previous life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.