Sunday, July 24, 2011

Talking about Vine Talk

Recently I watched a marathon of WNET's and WLIW's Vine Talk on Create, one of the new national networks of PBS that came on the air with the transition to digital television in the United States. Vine Talk, which was created by Olive Productions, a production company owned by actors Stanley Tucci and Steve Buscemi, attempts, as one of the hosts says at the beginning of each episode, to demystify wine for the general public or at least the general public that might or does watch PBS.

Each episode of Vine Talk is hosted by Ray Isle of Food&Wine magazine and one of two sommeliers and wine experts, Stephanie Carraway and Emilie Perrier, and centres around six wines chosen by a panel of experts from a larger number of wines from particular wine regions of the world including Burgundy in France, the Napa Valley of California, the Barossa Valley of Australia, and the Mendoza region of Argentina. During each episode each of the chosen six wines are sampled by an audience present at each show taping downstairs and three to four "celebrity" tasters with varying degrees of wine expertise (none, some, quite a bit) upstairs (some might find this symbolism meaningful). The celebrity panel is guided in its wine tasting by Stanley Tucci, one of the executive producers of the show. At the end of each episode the audience and the celebrity panel chose their favorite wine from among the six.

I found the show interesting and, as someone who knows incredibly little about wine, occasionally informative. I learned much about wine, wine regions, wine microclimates, the impact of microclimates on wine, and more from the comments by the sommeliers, who remain upstairs with the celebrities in order to fill in their blanks about all things wine, from Mr. Isle, and from the "celebrity" chefs that are almost always in the celebrity panels of each show. The comments from some celebrity guests like John Litgow and Nathan Lane, both of whom seemed to think that their function on the show was to act as court jester during the evening (the late night talk show effect?), didn't do much for me. On the other hand Gay Talese's intelligent questions about wine were questions I would have wanted to ask of the sommeliers present at the Vine Talk table, Tucci's and Talese's memories of Italian-American childhoods filled with wine making and wine drinking were fascinating, and guest glassmaker Maximillian Riedel's discussions of wine drinking and the science of wine glasses--he argues that different wines demand different shapes glasses--was utterly fascinating and highly educational.

What is as much if not more interesting to me about Vine Talk has been the reaction to the show by TV journalists and web commentators. Troy Patterson's review of the show on Slate with the revealing title Coastal Elites Sipping Wine: Vine Talk confirms every Republican suspicion about PBS ( tells you all you need to know about his take on Vine Talk. And then there was this not unexpected cliched and stereotypical gem from Michael in the comments area under Mr. Patterson's "review":
"whether the show is about wine-tasting or stock-car racing, why should we spend TAX money to support it? There should be a strategic drive behind the use of OUR money; if we're talking about spending on TV, then it seems that it should educate, inform, or entertain. I'm guessing we have plenty of options for entertainment on TV, so that's probably not a good use of TAX funds. Educate or inform then? Well, we have many options for that in the media, too, so the compelling reason to use OUR money for this would be because it was something no one else was informing us about - like the old whitepaper/documentaries - and it was something that was worth all of us knowing about. So, I'm guessing wine tasting - not really a compelling reason there. It's a hobby. Now, if we were gonna' educate people on growing, or the business, or perhaps alcohol abuse - seems we might have a compelling reason - maybe. But this isn't an example Republicans should point to, it's an example ALL of us should point to and say - private funding is fine, but not with OUR TAX money."

I have to admit that I just love reviews like this. Not because they are factual but because posts like "Michael's" reflect a tendency in so much right wing rhetoric and demagoguery. They are full of ideologically correct fiction masquerading as fact. A couple of examples: "Michael" claims that Vine Talk is being funded by public tax monies but provides absolutely no evidence that the show is or was funded with tax payer money. In fact, Vine Talk was actually funded by Metrokane maker of the rabbit wine opener, wine preserver, and rabbit aerating pourer and by public television stations WNET and WLIW. "Michael" conveniently forgets or is simply ignorant about the fact that a significant percentage of the funds for public television comes from VOLUNTARY contributions by viewers and sponsors. So "Michael's" pronouncements to the contrary I am not sure we know fully how Vine Talk was funded. Was it funded with tax payers money? Was it funded solely by Metrokane? Was it funded, in part, by voluntary contributions from viewers? Gee wouldn't it be nice to get even a sliver of empirical evidence from ideologues and demagogues like "Michael"?

Beyond the facts related to the funding of Vine Talk so what if Vine Talk is funded by federal, state, or local governments? Tax payers money goes to help fund megacorporations like Boeing and Mobil so why not public television and Vine Talk, both of which serve important and critical education functions in American society and we have often, in the past, used taxpayer money for educational purposes. Vine Talk certainly teaches anyone a little something about wine and thus does educational work. I have a sneaking suspicion that this hellfire and damnation rhetoric about taxpayer funding of PBS is a lot more about greed and the unwillingness of many to pay taxes for almost anything if it means separating people from their beloved mammon. It is also, I think, about what it means to be an American. Many American conservatives of many different stripes have never, it seems to me, been able to come to grips with American diversity in all its forms. Americans, in general, have long had problems with increasing diversity in the US brought about by religious diversity, political diversity, and Southern European, Eastern European, and increasingly "non-European" immigration into the United States (ironically, of course, a lot of the Latin immigrants they appear to fear are actually, at least in part, significantly European). In the end I suspect that many on the "all-American" right would only be happy, irony of ironies, if all America and all of those represented on American television looked (unfortunately) like most of the folks on Vine Talk, minus the gays, of course, White.

Speaking or ironies, for many self-proclaimed conservatives PBS appears, if their rhetoric is to be believed, to be their ultimate liberal and left wing great satan. How a network that shows programmes like "This Old House", "The French Chef" (Julia Child once worked for the OSS), "The Donna Dewberry Show" (Dewberry is a Mormon and Mormons aren't particularly known for their political radicalism these days), "Barbeque University" and "Primal Grill" with chef Steven Raichlen, Lidia's Italy with chef Lidia Matticchio Bastianich along with its more political fare of documentaries and investigative journalism is sapping the conservative all-American red, white, and blue bodily fluids of US citizens has never been clear to me. In fact, I would think that many conservatives would cheer PBS for its highly decentralised and highly local structure and remember that local commercial television used to programme local cooking and children's shows that looked a lot like those on PBS once upon a time when the FCC was as interested in educational content as in sex, breasts, dirty words, and extending corporate dominance. PBS, after all, was meant to be and is still largely decentralised and local even if certain PBS stations dominate its airwaves because of size and hence revenue. But no, apparently many conservatives prefer mega centralised bureaucracies like, no not Stalinist Russia, but Clear Channel Radio to PBS.

But back to Vine Talk. Yes the show has some problems. Not all of the guests are particularly interesting and some, like Nathan Lane, were, at least to me, incredibly annoying. This may be just me but I prefer to learn more about wine than to experience an overload of the humour of Nathan Lane which I frankly don't find that humourous. But come on give the show a break. Vine Talk is still a relatively new show and is still finding its feet. Give it time. I know that being patient is difficult in an era where watching or reading something for more than a few minutes without an action/adventure cgi spectacular breaking out can seem like an eternity, but hey humour me.

Check out the Vine Talk website here

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