Thursday, December 3, 2009
"The Winemakers" - Lacking Balance
If I were reviewing the PBS TV series “The Winemakers” as a wine, I’d give it two stars out of five, meaning it’s passable, but I’d hardly recommend that anyone go out of their way to find it.
At the outset, let me say that I think a reality series on winemaking is a bit silly. But given the identity of reality series these days, this idea is not as silly as most and truthfully, this one had a bit more dignity to it than most.
The series is either running on a PBS station in your area now or had just completed its run. This past weekend, the local PBS station in my hometown of Chicago ran all six episodes back to back, so I thought I’d watch and see how this would take shape.
Twelve contestants – six men and six women – were selected for this competition which took place largely in Paso Robles wine country (fittingly, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance was one of the sponsors of the series). Most of these contestants were in their 30s with a few a touch younger or older. Some were in the wine business already, while others were not.
Now a program called "The Winemakers" would make you think that the contestants would spend a lot of time in the winemaking process. The initial show was certainly a nice introduction to this subject, from harvesting grapes to taking those grapes into the winery and then crushing them. Watching these would-be enologists try and handle pumps and hoses was entertaining to say the least.
The problem for me with this series is that winemaking became almost secondary as the contestants were submitted to different challenges throughout the series. These ranged from pouring wines at a wine bar and discussing the qualities of those wines with the public to creating a label for their own wine as well as a business plan for selling their wine in the marketplace. The contestants who did not perform well at a particular challenge were eliminated from the competition; this was done until one winner was chosen from the final three participants.
Some of the challenges were quite good, especially the one in which the participants had to purchase wines to accompany a special dinner. God knows how much I have preached about wine and food being natural partners, so it was nice to see this point being covered in the series. Other challenges, especially the one where the contestants, organized into teams, had to create a table top presentation on a wine of their choosing - be it Champagne, Rioja or whatever - were dull and had little to do with anything.
My major problem with this series was that winemaking wasn’t that big a part of the overall presenatation. Maybe the producers thought that viewers would be bored by shots of the contestants in the cellar, but the series is called “The Winemakers” after all. And now many programs today, be they on cooking or carpentry, get quite detailed on the how-to of their topics? I would have liked to see more winemaking.
Also, during one program, the judges asked wine questions of several contestants to find out which of them they could eliminate. Some of the questions were rather difficult and trivial, in my opinion. Yes, it helps if a winemaker has a working knowledge of wine, but do they really need to know the appellations in France’s Loire Valley where Cabernet Franc is the principal red variety?
One of the questions was about the three varieties used to produce Cava. There must be hundreds of talented winemakers in California who have no idea what the answer to this question is. In fact, is it important to know this answer, except as a piece of trivia? The answer is no. If you are a retailer selling a bottle of Cava to a consumer or a wine salesperson trying to sell Cava to an account, I’d have to think that this topic will probably never come up. I know, as I spent several years both as a retailer and salesman.
In fact, having questions like this is something that drives me crazy, not only on this show, but also for sommelier exams. I understand that knowledge is power and people going into the wine industry need to have a good foundation, but enough is enough sometime. If you want to sell a bottle of Franciacorta, Italy’s great sparkling wine made in the classical method, it is important to know the varieties used. That’s because these grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (pinot noir) and Pinot Bianco - are used in other great sparkling wines (the first two used in Champagne). So there’s a way of comparing the flavors (and arguably qualities) of Franciacorta with Champagne, the sparkling wine everyone knows. But to worry about the varieties of Cava, well, I’m sorry, but that borders on being a bit geeky. I almost felt a little bit sorry for the contestants that were eliminated via the wine knowledge questions, especially as they probably believed going in that they were being judged on their winemaking prowess.
Finally, the show fell into the clichés of so many other reality series these days. You know the drill by now, as there is a line that is delivered to send a contestant off. In one episode set in a winery cave, the contestant sent home was told, “Please leave the cave.” How creative!
An even worse example took place during one of the later episodes, when the final four contestants were outside a winery standing in front of a beautifully manicured hillside vineyard. As three contestants learned that they were moving on to the next challenge, the one sent packing was told, “Please leave the vineyard.” I almost gagged, except I was too busy laughing. “Please leave the vineyard?” Why? Was this guy trespassing? Did he steal a barrel from the cellar? Did he call someone a bad name? Honestly, what a dumb line!
As I said earlier, this wasn’t as mind-numbing as some reality shows out there, but it could have been a lot more focused. I understand that a second season for this series is in the works. Let’s hope they filter and fine the rough edges, to use winemaking terms.
Text and photos ©Tom Hyland