Will Wine Jump the Shark?

To jump the shark means to go ridiculously over the top in a desperate attempt to stay relevant.  The term derives from a famously terrible episode of Happy Days where a character called The Fonz jumped over a dangerous shark on water skis (Fonzie wore the skis, not the shark, in case that wasn’t very clear).  The stunt was supposed to keep viewers glued to their screens, but it ultimately failed to delay the perhaps inevitable demise of this long-running classic TV series.

Wine Comes to Reality TV

Fonzie jumps the shark

Fonzie jumps the shark

I wonder if the recent wine boom has reached the point where it “jumps the shark” — turns from a positive long term trend to a self-destructive short term craze.  You never know when this could happen.  The rising interest in wine, the growing number of wineries, and the fantastic popularity of wine lifestyle products continues with no end in sight.  Maybe it’s more than a rising trend — maybe it’s become a bubble.

I was worried for a while about the celebrity wine phenomenon.  Maybe this was the start of the sort of silliness that culminates in a shark-jumping, bubble-popping tragedy (to mix metaphors rather extravagantly).  But, having thought about it a while, I’m not so concerned (see next blog entry).  I am not entirely comfortable with celebrity wine, but I don’t think it does any particular harm.  But now there’s this: wine is about to enter a  more terrifying terrain of popular culture, one that lies beyond simple celebrity:  reality TV.  This has me worried about the future of wine.   Very worried.

You Can Almost Blame the French

A press release arrived yesterday from the Côtes du Rhône winemakers industry association.  They are pleased to announce that they are the sponsors of The Wine Makers, a reality competition television show that will be aired in early January 2009 on — get this — PBS, America’s national public television network.

As near as I can tell from the website and YouTube.com videos, The Wine Makers will be a lot like those other television reality shows such as Top Chef and Project Runway.  A dozen aspiring winemakers from all walks of life are selected (from a pool of over 500 applicants) to gather in Paso Robles, California for a set of competitions. Someone will be ejected from the contest each week until there is only one winemaker left.  The winner’s prize includes the opportunity to launch a wine label and a trip to France.  Celebrity judges from the world of wine appear each week to vote contestants off of the vineyard or out of the cellar.  You know how it works.

The downside of this project is easy to see:  making wine is reduced to a silly competition among amateurs and semi-amateurs.  We are encouraged to root for and against these contestants and cheer or moan when their inevitable errors force them off the show.  Reality shows generally highlight personalities and play up conflict.  They sometimes focus more on the harsh realities of life than the happy ones. Needless to say I wasn’t too thrilled to imagine wine trivialized in this way when I read the press release.  And I wasn’t very happy with the French, either, for sponsoring the show.

It is interesting to speculate about the  motives of the Rhone Valley winemakers in sponsoring this project.  The contestants won’t be making Rhone wines, of course — the show is set in California and Rhone wines can only be made in France — but it sounds like they will be making what are sometimes called Rhone Ranger wines — New World wines made from Rhone valley varietals like Syrah and Viognier.  Perhaps, in a rather unexpected turnabout, the French producers hope to raise their profile in the U.S. through sponsored association with New World Rhone wine wannabes.  Hmmm.  I guess I’ll have to wait and see how that plays out!

No Wine Before Its Time

And maybe I should withhold judgment about the whole reality show idea, too.  On one hand, I am put off by the idea of a reality winemaking competition.  On the other hand, the show’s producers promise that the competition will lead us through all of the stages of making wine.  So maybe there will be a significant educational component and instead of trivializing wine it will make us better informed about it.  I am all in favor of wine education and if it comes packaged in a reality TV format, well that might be OK.

I guess I will have to watch the show to find out.  Will I come away feeling like I’ve closed my wine knowledge gap with Master of Wine Jancis Robinson just a little?  Or will I feel more like The Fonz, speeding recklessly across the lake toward a ski jump and shark pool dressed only in a pair of Speedos and a motorcycle jacket?  I guess only time will tell.

Check you local PBS listings for The Wine Makers in January 2009. Are you interesting in being a contestant in the planned second season of the show?  If so, visit the website to learn how to apply.

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