Recently, Republican legislators and their allies have devoted some energy to agitating against the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The florid grandstanding, the ritualized rhetoric, the improv comedy of James O'Keefe's NPR sting—what a waste of effort. Any budget-cutter or culture warrior hoping to rig an argument that federally funded television exists to serve the coastal elite need only have told her audience get a load of Vine Talk, debuting this month on PBS. Hosted by actor Stanley Tucci, this series finds famous people tasting wine and attempting to discuss it, while very literally nibbling on cheese, not to mention charcuterie.
For political purposes, it would suffice to showcase the show's lightly ridiculous title sequence. Vine Talk films at WNET's Lincoln Center studios, and its opening includes staged scenes of unreasonably happy young professionals at frolic on the grounds of that high-culture complex: A gentleman smilingly squires his date up the stairs from the 1 train. A grinning couple prepares to enjoy a leisurely repast on a sloping lawn, a jaunty baguette jutting in their picnic basket. Ultimately, five oenophiles hoist glasses of red in front of the plaza fountain, as if raising a solemn toast to Art or celebrating the favor of a god who has granted them, in his mercy, Cole Haan loafers.
We are warmed up for the first episode—"Navigating Napa Valley Cabernets"—by a pleasant fellow named Ray Isle, who is an editor at Food & Wine magazine and this program's "wine host." "We take the mystery out of discovering a great wine," Isle promises in the intro. "Have you ever been handed the wine list in a restaurant and realized you have no idea what wine to choose? I've felt that way. It was stressful!" I, too, have shuddered with this particular nausea. My coping strategies have included bouncing the ball into the court of my dinner partner with an air of regal deference, pleading for the waiter's guidance with puppy-dog eyes, and simply ordering another gimlet, please, up, and choosing the second-cheapest Malbec.
Having proved himself empathetic to the status anxieties of Vine Talk's core constituents—who may or may not be elite or coastal but surely reside in an Upper West Side of the mind that knows no geographical bounds—Isle then introduces Tucci, who will lead us in an effort to "de-stress." In turn, Tucci introduces the week's guests—Nora Ephron, John Lithgow, Jonathan Waxman (best known as the chef and owner of Barbuto), and S. Epatha Merkerson (best known from Law & Order). "Nothing takes the edge off of investigating gruesome murders in the Big Apple like a nice cabernet," Tucci says of Lt. Van Buren, with succulent hamminess.
Isle then briefly throws things to a "wine expert" named Stephanie Caraway, who functions as something like the Vanna White of sommeliers, a wine rep—one of those well-informed lovelies who pour their sacraments with a coy hand at store tastings—transformed into a Robert Palmer girl. Her eyes pierced me, even during a dumb set-up in which she descended a staircase while giving background on each of the six wines that the celebrity panel—and also a group of mortals nosing and swishing their glasses elsewhere in the WNET studios—would be tasting blindly.
Then Ephron—whose easy, ironic verbal wit is one of the episode's saving graces—poses a question to Isle: "Are they all gonna taste the same?" Then Lithgow—whose mild buffoonery is not ironic enough—takes a sip of some Mondavi hooch and weighs in: "I feel like Bart Giamatti," said he, confusing the star of Sidewayswith his father, who once ran a college in New Haven and a baseball league in North America. Tucci points out that Bart Giametti is dead. Lithgow counters, "Well, I feel like him, too."
The table talk—about food, mostly; about nothing, also—does not grow substantially more substantial than that, unless you count Lithgow's anecdote about how, back at his apartment, he has "a chicken slow-cooking even while we speak," and for that I fault the editors' reluctance to let an organic conversation emerge. Tucci radiates suave hospitality, but hospitality does not in itself make for a good TV host. This is not a juicy chew-and-chat show on the order of Jon Favreau's Party of Five.
Vine Talk indeed strips away the mystery of wine, along with much else interesting about it. The wines are "sharp" or "less sharp" or "good" or "plummy" or "nice" or "mellow" or "kinda elegant" or "earthy." Ephron dispenses all the best adjectives and similies in the course of getting perhaps slightly loaded. "It's sort of like suede", she says of a 2006 bottle from Silver Oak Cellars. "It's velvety. Don't you think it's a little velvety in addition to being suede-y? I think so." Waxman restrains himself from coming on like a know-it-all, much as he restrains himself from furrowing his brow with puzzlement when Lithgow says that his chicken "can cook for anywhere from, like, six to eight hours."
At the episode's end, Stanley and his guests vote to chose their favorite wine of the six, as does the not-quite-in-studio audience. The non-celebrity favorite turns out to be a 2004 bottle from Atalon Winery, one that Lithgow and Merkerson earlier determined to have a "funny radishy sort of aftertaste." The celeb fave is that suede-y number, which carries a retail price tag of $100. "Most expensive wine," teases Isle. "You guys are shameless." Lithgow exults: "See? We know what's best!" It's possible he might be kidding, but, sheesh, what can you say? Drink responsibly.