Considering there is a television show where a washed-up rapper learns carpentry from the Amish (Vanilla Ice Goes Amish), a show about prehistoric extraterrestrial conspiracy theories (Ancient Aliens) and a show where another rapper and his stoned friends watch a show about prehistoric extraterrestrial conspiracy theories (Action Bronson Watches Ancient Aliens), it’s difficult not to take the lack of US wine programming personally. Are we wine drinkers really lower on television executives’ priority list than competitive facial-hair enthusiasts (Whisker Wars)?
The wine shows that have been green-lit can be counted on one hand: Hugh Johnson’s Vintage: A History of Wine, a 13-episode series from 1989; Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course, which first aired on the BBC in 1995; Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure, which ran for two seasons in 2006 and 2007 on the BBC; and, most recently, The Wine Show, which was released on Hulu in the United States and Amazon Prime in the UK in 2016, and enters its third season later this year.
Each of these shows is excellent, in its own way. But, notably, each of these shows is British: made by British production companies and starring British talent. For Masterpiece Theatre–loving, Anglophile oenophiles like me, the cast of The Wine Show is a pure delight. The main presenters are Matthew Goode, a quintessential English lad whose recent credits include The Crown and Downton Abbey; Matthew Rhys (aka Mr. Keri Russell), the charming Welshman who starred in The Americans and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; and Joe Fattorini, the resident wine expert. (A rotating cast of guest stars drops in, including actor James Purefoy and critic Jancis Robinson in season two, and actor Dominic West, who is slated to appear in season three.)
The presenters’ chemistry is a huge part of The Wine Show’s appeal: Goode and Rhys are handsome, funny and charmingly self-deprecating when it comes to their lack of wine knowledge. Fattorini is enthusiastic and engaging, though, by his own admission, his taste skews conservative. He has a rather old-fashioned preoccupation with Port and other sweet, fortified wines, and during a travel segment in Georgia, he frequently mentions his “skepticism” of natural wine—which rings reactionary in a region with more than 8,000 years of wine-making history.
But there’s certainly more to The Wine Show than good-looking, accented men exchanging bons mots. Each episode includes at least one ten-minute travel segment, in regions as far-flung as Argentina and Australia, Greece and Moldova. This commitment to high-budget, global inclusivity is admirable, as is the balanced coverage of Old World and New, but in its quest to explore some of wine’s thornier, more political issues, The Wine Show sometimes bites off more than it can chew.
I cringed watching a segment at BARRA winery in Mendocino County, where the owner, in collaboration with a local sheriff, deals with California’s labor shortage in a “creative way”: hiring incarcerated people to work harvest. The sheriff assures Fattorini and his cohost that the workers are paid a “fair wage,” but there’s no deeper discussion of the systematic way the state of California exploits incarcerated people, often paying them as little as $2 per day to do incredibly dangerous work, such as fighting wildfires.
“We don’t shy away from tricky issues,” says Melanie Jappy, a 26-year television veteran and the series’ showrunner. “I want people to be curious. I want to open a door, and I believe wine can be a conduit for conversation. That said, there’s only so much I can do in a nine-minute segment.” She acknowledges the choice to shoot an episode in the Golan Heights—a region many consider to be occupied territory, whose wines should not be exported—was controversial. “To be honest, we hoped the episode would start a debate and stir up a bit of controversy. We were prepared for more criticism.”
While the crew was filming in Argentina in 2017, Donald Trump announced his Muslim ban, inspiring the showrunners to re-center the segment on the theme of immigration. Malbec—which hails from the southwest of France but gained an international reputation in Argentina—was painted as an immigration success story, a vinous rallying cry for free movement across borders. Yet the same episode features a rather breathless homage to 19th-century Argentine president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, calling him a “champion of immigration.” In reality, Sarmiento was a champion of European immigration, and was criticized even by his contemporaries for his oppressive treatment of indigenous populations—a confounding omission for an episode celebrating multiculturalism.
Are we wine drinkers really lower on television executives’ priority list than competitive facial-hair enthusiasts?
As I watched The Wine Show, I couldn’t help but imagine the US-specific issues I’d like to see a wine show cover: the challenges of sustainable farming in places like Napa and Sonoma, where land is prohibitively expensive and few winemakers actually own vineyards; or the constraints put upon American consumers and small business owners by our government’s trade policy and the addled whims of a sundowning president. But the maddening fact remains: Despite the streaming wars and the attendant rush to churn out ever more original content, an American wine show still does not exist.
Last year marked the 27th consecutive year of growth for US wine sales. More than 240 million Americans drink wine—that’s 40 percent of the drinking-age population—and of those people, 33 percent drink wine more than once per week. This is my data-analytical way of saying, “We out here, Netflix. Where’s our show?”
“The issue is format,” says Allen Salkin, author of From Scratch: The Uncensored History of the Food Network. “There are only three formats that work for food TV: Chopped, Bourdain, and ‘dump and stir.’” Of the three, the Bourdain model is the most natural fit for wine. It’s also the most difficult to pull off, requiring both a charismatic host and a big international travel budget. The Wine Show gets around this by relying on private investors. Its production company, Infinity Creative Media, where Jappy is director of programs, produces shows on spec in the hopes that broadcasters like Hulu will pick them up. In the UK, where the relative success of shows like Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure is proof that a market exists, an investor-funded wine show may have seemed like a worthwhile risk. But there are no such precedents in the United States on which creators can model new shows.
“People are super afraid of making a mistake,” says Russ McCarroll, a producer and former SVP of development at History and Discovery Channel. “Without some empirical evidence to point to”—namely, ratings data from an existing program—“it’s hard to go to your boss and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to spend $10 million on this project.’”
Even at the peak of food TV in the aughts—when more than 3 million Americans were tuning in to episodes of Top Chef, and the Food Network aired 16 hours of original programming per day—there were no shows focused squarely on wine. McCarroll says the “intimidation factor” was insurmountable, citing the fact that wine was considered alienating by cable’s mainstream, largely baby-boomer audience. “Wine is for rich people,” says Salkin. “It’s not a great model for a mass brand.”
But even if the viewers had been there, advertising—upon which cable networks utterly depend —would have been a problem. Many brands that were happy to align with a food program wouldn’t come near booze—a stigma best evidenced by the fact that advertising hard liquor on television was banned until 1996, three years after the Food Network launched. In the streaming age, however, it’s subscriptions, not advertisers, that bring in revenue.
Moving away from an advertiser-based model means that content creators have more autonomy than before: They just have to convince development executives that there’s a market for their show, rather than execs and a bunch of bigwigs from Tyson Foods or Kellogg’s. That doesn’t mean that funding is easy. Marissa A. Ross, contributing wine editor at Bon Appétit and author of Wine. All the Time., says she’s been pitching a wine show since 2012. It’s “a really hard concept to prove when most people’s association of wine in the media is Sideways or Stanley Tucci,” she says. After years of being told that her Bourdain-style travel pitch was too expensive, she decided to try a DIY approach to funding. But Ross, who is a leading voice in the natural wine movement, quickly realized that it would be difficult to find brand partners whose ethos matched her own. “It’s not like I can ‘Ross Test’ a plastic bottle of smartwater [referring to her penchant for chugging wine straight from the bottle] and still claim to love natural wines and the environment.”
When Viceland approached her to host a less expensive, Jeopardy!-style wine game show, she felt similar ethical pangs: “My whole approach to wine is, ‘Everybody is welcome! There are no wrong tasting notes!’ So I’m not going to go on some trivia show and say, ‘Nope, sorry; the correct answer was jammy.’”
However, she says she finally has a show in the works that aligns with her personal philosophy and addresses some of the bigger-picture issues facing the industry. If all goes according to plan, Ross will join The Wine Show in a rather lonely club of two. Counterintuitively, this might be exactly what The Wine Show needs to reach an even larger audience. Jappy says she’s happy for the competition: “The more wine content there is, the better the algorithm will work,” she explains, referring to the inscrutable, often aggravating way streaming services decide what we see when we type “wine show” into our search bar.
That may be true, but I like to imagine that viewers have some modicum of control. In the world of cable television, advertisers played an outsize role in determining which shows got made. But if streaming services really do care more about eyeballs than ads, then the future of serialized wine programming could be in our hands. The Wine Show has planted the flag, and it’s up to us, the wine-loving, content-thirsty masses, to tune in. Then, like the prehistoric extraterrestrial conspiracy theorists and competitive facial-hair enthusiasts before us, we will get an American show to call our own.