Tim James: Great wine scenes on TV

By , 19 September 2022



Surely many watchers of TV series (or films for that matter) must react with some smug pleasure or irritation the incidental references to a particular interest of their own. So, an architect or interior designer watching Borgen might pick up details about Danish buildings or furniture which others might not even notice; or someone interested in fashion would register Shiv’s dress sense in Succession,  note that the dreadful father and dreadful older son in that fine series tend to wear the same sort of peaked cap and might be alerted to some significance in that. Etc. And I – we – might notice interesting references to wine and enjoy congratulating ourselves on being cogniscant (cognoscenti as we are!) of what the hoi polloi just wouldn’t appreciate.

It actually seems to me that there’s quite a bit more about vaguely arcane wine stuff in the better sort of TV material these days than there used to be. Where one might previously have just seen a bottle with carefully hidden label being poured, now there can be quite a bit more, and it frequently makes a meaningful contribution to an understanding of the whole – so long as you’re clever enough (like us) to pick up the references.

Conor Roy hyperdecants in Succession.

The Succession series (revolving around the Roys, an ultra-rich media-business family in New York) has a number of rather tasty wine passages, revealing different aspects of their ghastliness. They drink a lot of wine in fact – but rather shockingly, nearly all of them hold their glasses by the bowl rather than the stem. Whether this is intended to show us something (that money doesn’t always bring “culture”?), or is ill-informed direction, I’m not sure. No wine-scene more amusing, and getting quite a bit of subsequent online commentary, I believe, than when son Connor offers a glass of burgundy, declaring that: “I hyperdecant. You don’t hyperdecant? You’re just doing regular decanting?” By hyperdacanting he means he aerates the wine in the kitchen blender he’s pouring it from. This, he says, “softens the tannins, ages the aromas. You can age your wines five years in ten seconds, truly.”

Some of the family are not only wine-drinkers, but own vines in Germany. Tom and Shiv receive what appears to be the first case of their wine: “It’s the Spätburgunder. Our vineyard!” says an excited Tom – who is possibly facing prison and has declared his deep worry about the cuisine there, including the “toilet wine”. Shiv’s not paying attention and couldn’t care less about Tom’s first disappointment, which is that their wine has a screwcap. But they don’t much like the wine (and the second bottle’s no better), though Tom starts off staving off disappointment, as we all have done in hope for our bottle: “You kind of have to meet it halfway, right?” Then: “It’s not floral. It’s not sugary, or vegetal. It’s quite agricultural, you know, it’s, it’s, er…. It’s not very nice, the wine, is it, Shiv?” This might well be a subtle metaphor for the state of the marriage, but it might also be a sideswipe at fashionably “natural” wine – though in fact we’re not told more along those lines than that the wine is biodynamic.

A wine scene, incidentally packed with snobbery, that also pleased me greatly, occurs in the final series of Better Call Saul, the prequel series to the brilliant Breaking Bad. It comes suddenly and surprisingly, as the evil rich in Better Call Saul (drug lords in Mexico and New Mexico) are vastly more into whisky and tequila. But the splendidly imperturbable, well-groomed ­– and terrifying – Gus Fring is, we learn at this point, something of a connoisseur.

Gus sits at the bar of an expensive restaurant where he’s clearly well known and orders a glass of a wine called Dressler & Vaughn – it’s a red, served in a burgundy glass and I think it must be an invented label. The sommelier, David, comes in and they clearly know each other and chat amicably (there’s even a bit of flirtation, perhaps). Asked how his wine is, Fring’s face gives what might be an almost imperceptible grimace – one muscle moves, or perhaps two. “ “Enough said” says the sommelier, and asks the bartender (named Brett! Is that a joke, I wonder?) to get the bottle recently left behind by a “Cadillac cowboy” – who’d ordered it to impress his partner but settled instead for a rum and Coke (Diet Coke, which seems to upset David even more). The wine turns out to be a Côte-Rôtie, Rostaing La Landonne – the vintage isn’t mentioned or perceptible. Nice to have a syrah instead of the usual bordeaux or burgundy in posh occasions.

Gus Fring savours Syrah in Better Call Saul.

“Remarkable!” is Fring’s judgement of this wine, after a bit of swirling and sniffing and tasting. He tells David that he’d once bought a “rare vintage” from this region, a 1978, that David had mentioned. He’s saving it for a special occasion…. Off trots David to get a bottle of Guigal (presumably one of the LaLa wines) that the restaurant owner had bought. But, in his absence, something suddenly comes over Fring and he quietly rises and leaves. Perhaps he’s remembering a former lover (lot of online speculation about that), but perhaps he’s just remembering that he has a lot of people to kill, etc, before the “special occasion” he mentioned comes around.

It’s one of the great filmed wine scenes, I think, with some genuine wine interest but also serving to deepen understanding of a character and a situation. Perhaps some people would have found it not quite as useful as the Succession tip about how to age a wine five years in ten seconds, but you can’t have everything. Incidentally, if you do want to try that little trick in your own blender, I’d suggest you don’t do it, until you’re quite convinced that it works, with an expensive bottle of burgundy.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


1 comment(s)

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    Pieter de Klerk | 19 September 2022

    Gotta love Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad – both quite brilliant!

    Tim, it’s actually quite remarkable that – apart from movies with wine as a main theme (Back to Burgundy, etc.) – holding a wine glass by the stem in movies and TV series is actually extremely rare. Aside from the odd accidental stem holding, bowl-clutching is the order of the day in Hollywood.

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