I am seeing more and more what I like to call the slow democratization of wine. Thomas Friedman said the world is flat because a tech guy in India can do data processing for a company in California. I say the world is flat because I can get all kinds of wine by the glass at my local wine bar. Bartenders and servers are now as likely to be knowledgeable of the wine list as the sourcing of the chicken. I can go online and pick from thousands of bottles from small producers across the globe and make price comparisons across sites. Anyone can participate. This is what made the first episode of “Uncorked” hard to watch.
If anyone can be a wine expert anymore then why do I need to watch a few self-centered young New Yorkers traverse the city to meet up for tastings at 8 a.m.? And, I don’t really need to know that you are swishing and spitting to get rid of the toothpaste taste. We were already told that you life’s work is so time consuming that you had closed at 1 or 2 a.m. and then had to run to make your tasting on only a few hours’ sleep. Let’s hear about the wines! Or at least some gossip about the girl you picked up at a bar last night who only drank lager (oh, the tension it would create for you, the sommelier!).
In another scene they are gathered at an apartment deducing a red that must come from Burgundy, or was it Beaujolais? It felt too exclusive, when wine consumption should be inclusive. The fraternity of the main characters in cult classic Somm did not compare to the awkward chumminess of very different personalities in “Uncorked”. Maybe the cast just hasn’t gelled yet.
The show starts in the restaurant of one of the Master Sommelier candidates. They run through a flight of wines as the camera pans around and gives brief bios as the person appears on the screen a la MTV’s “The Real World”. One guy had taken the MS exam three times, another nine. But he’s persevering. No judgment.
The premise is set: we will follow the six Master Sommelier candidates through their daily rituals and see which cracks under pressure. Will the fissure be big enough for the MS judges to detect, or will they keep their composure and make it through the incredibly difficult service, blind tasting, and theory portions of the highly rigorous MS exam? I want them to succeed. As someone who would like to one day sit for the Master of Wine exam, my hat is off to them. I can relate to the tedious tracing of maps, the late night flash cards and endless blind tastings. I felt empathy for the one candidate with shaky hands who spilled part of an $800 bottle of red while decanting. The show seems not to have found its groove yet.
The most cringe-worthy moment came as they crossed over into Brooklyn. One of the worst things about wine today is the hipster sommelier who only wants to talk about Jura or sherry. And, here we go into the heart of Jura-dom. The overly exuberant and the unpolished sit down at a trendy Williamsburg bar. They are debating between a spatlese and an auslese. The climate is so cool in the region of Germany where these two white wines come from that winemakers often have a problem with too much acidity and not enough sugar to convert to alcohol. These particular wines are some of the few wines in the world that are legally classed by their must, or sugar, weight, which is so very cool! They legally have to have x grams of sugar to be able to be called spatlese or auslese! It was totally lost on them when the girls next to them asked why they’d ordered white wine with pork. The overly exuberant one spouted off some flippant remark comparing their choice to the commoner’s beer, because it’s easy. Or something. The girl was not impressed.
The two more likable characters are a girl from New York and a kid from Texas. She is self-effacing and enthusiast. He is totally out of place with his disarming laughter and unforced, charming demeanor in the bustling NYC restaurant scene. But neither is any match for the formidable judges that await them at the Eleven Madison Park “taste off”.
The second part of the first episode introduces the real stars: four Master Sommeliers at the top of their game. They are polite and restrained throughout the contest and we get a chance to see which of the candidates really shines.
I’ll certainly tune in to the next episodes of “Uncorked”, but I hope they tone down the condescension and play up the enthusiasm that initially drew them to this career. Wine should be for everybody to enjoy and those that know more should educate, not exasperate.