WINE ON THE AIRWAVES
With celebrity chefs and commentators all over TV and radio, we take a look at how much - and how well - attention is being paid to wine.
|Though programs dedicated to wine are still rare, celebrity chefs who handle wine well are helping to increase its visibility. We take a look at how well TV and radio are dealing with wine.||
Since Julia Child first raised her whisk for a Boston public television station in the 1960s, cooking has become a television staple. Celebrity chefs are everywhere these days, and especially on television. It has become possible to watch the trussing of a chicken on the morning news, the blanching of asparagus at 4 a.m. and to hear Emeril Lagasse boisterously holler "Bam!" several times in between. No longer relegated to low-budget programs on PBS stations, food has become an art form that even has its own cable channel. And where there's food, there's usually wine. Which is a good thing, since shows actually devoted only to wine are pretty rare.
"Wine is tough to do on TV," says Geoffrey Drummond of A La Carte Communications, the long-time producer of Child's and other cooking programs for the Public Broadcasting System. Unlike food, he says, tasting wine does not carry with it the variety of step-by-step visual material that mesmerizes viewers of cooking shows. "I've had lots of conversations with people in the food business and the wine business," he says. "Wine is such an interactive thing. There's so little process." The chefs he works with care about wine as an integral part of the meal, Drummond says, but food is, of necessity, their primary focus. Even Weir Cooking in Wine Country, with chef and cookbook author Joanne Weir, emphasizes the food of the wine country, rather than its wines.
Nevertheless, most television chefs sign off with a suggestion for pairing wine with the food, and some shows venture into the vineyards. Julia Child set the pace with her original French Chef shows, where a glass of wine was never far out of the chef's reach and to consume the final product without wine was unthinkable. When we're lucky, a knowledgeable chef—or the wine consultant—spends some time explaining the wine, discussing the textures of the food and not just what wine goes with it, but why.
We asked Matthew Stillman, manager of program development at the five-year-old Food Network (cable television's 24-hour food channel), if a wine channel could be far behind. "There's no aversion to the subject on the network; it's finding a really smart, noncondescending, nontechnical, highly narrative way to approach it," says Stillman. "You can take a really dynamic wine education course and it won't make really great TV. That's the struggle: to try to find something that will."
Radio discussions of wine and food, like the medium itself, go one of two ways: quick sound bites, or leisurely discussions. Food programs, minus the visual component, often move out of the kitchen and into the restaurant, while wine is easier to discuss. At the same time, serious discussion of wine doesn't have much "drive time" appeal: a half-hour of discussing yeasts can be downright dangerous for a tired driver, and rapid-fire wine recommendations are of limited use to anyone not able to jot them down. On radio, wine is covered through interviews with experts, authors and vintners; wine news and factoids; reviews of individual wines; on-air tastings; and call-ins—some more successfully than others.
For this article, we reviewed almost a hundred hours of TV and radio programming, videotapes and audiotapes of current regularly scheduled programming, and specials that focus on food and/or wine. We wound up with five categories:
"Starring Roles" are those shows where wine is actually the central topic throughout; we judged those on how well they present and handle their topics. Then there are the food-oriented shows, which landed in one of three categories: where wine is a regularly and intelligently handled supporting player, where wine makes frequent or occasional guest appearances of some depth, or where wine's role is usually small or nonexistent.
The majority of the celebrity chefs present wine on a regular basis as a pairing for food, but to belong to the "Supporting Role" category a show needs to do more than discuss wine intelligently: It needs to treat it the way wine enthusiasts would like to see it treated, with passion and as an integral part of the food experience. Here you'll find chefs who spend a good deal of time on wine, but also those who feature wine prominently on their sets and who clearly enjoy wine as part of the process.
There are also shows that stick entirely to food topics some days but, when they focus on wine, do it substantially and knowledgeably. In these cases, we call wine the "guest star." Others only acknowledge wine in passing, or don't give it much time compared to the rest of the topics they cover; here wine has a "bit part." Finally, there's the separate category of programs that visit wine in the context of vineyard and countryside: the travel programs we call "Road Shows."
No aspect of wine goes unremarked; Robinson covers everything from how the sense of smell affects what we taste to how geopolitics affects the global wine market. She might rhapsodize about the pleasures of wine one moment, but the next will find her touting the practicality of metal bottle caps. Her wit is wicked, and unlike many in the food and wine media, she asks the hard questions and keeps the tape rolling for the answers. She wonders, for example, whether a buyer for a supermarket chain is pushing the price so hard that a hungry French vintner will end up losing money. When the buyer replies that she believes no businessperson would let such a thing happen, footage of a sad-looking farm tells another story. That footage, and all the rest in the series, by the way, would be worth watching even without sound. The camera work and lighting have a painterly quality that is rare for television, and the producers make every frame count. The fact that the series was filmed in the mid 1990s makes some of the topical material a bit dated, but no less fascinating.
Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home (Various PBS stations) ***
This joint show with Julia Child and Jacques Pépin is a delightful point-and-counterpoint presentation of the skills of the home chef and the professional chef. Not a lot of time is spent on wine, but both Julia and Jacques are famous for enjoying wine while cooking as well as at the table, and that hasn't changed. They still cook in the French tradition—that is to say, with prodigious amounts of wine.
Taste (Food Network) ***
"Remember, life is a matter of taste," David Rosengarten says at the close of each edition of his show, Taste, and he is not shy about sharing his culinary and enological tastes with his viewers. Taste, primarily a food program that tackles everything from foie gras to bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches, periodically delves into the subject of wine, generally focusing on a particular region. At last, here is a TV food personality who is frank about wines he thinks are overrated.
When talking about wine, Rosengarten usually begins with a few words on topography, climate, and culture, occasionally displaying maps. He then moves on to a region's varietals and their qualities, both good and bad, offering ballpark prices.
In the next segment, Rosengarten prepares a dish, often regional fare, to go with the wine. The show's final minutes are devoted to tasting the cooked food with the wines. Rosengarten's lively, entertaining wine segments offer a little something for everyone, from foodies to wine novices to connoisseurs. When it focuses on a wine topic, Taste is the best food-and-wine show on TV.
The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter (Various PBS stations) ***
Chicago-based chef Charlie Trotter is known for dazzlingly complex combinations of flavors and textures that are as delicious as they are interesting. His show couples black-and-white cinema verité scenes from his restaurant kitchen with color footage of the chef demonstrating various recipes, many of which he pairs with wine. It's also the most lively of the PBS shows we viewed.
Trotter has an unusual facility for verbalizing how flavors work together, giving a play-by-play for the tastebuds, and it carries over into the all-too-brief pairings segments at the end of most of the shows. The pairings suggestions are usually educational, explaining as well as suggesting which wine works with the food, and why, although the subject sometimes is passed over with only a word or two: e.g., "serve this as a first course with Champagne." The wine recommendations can be a bit lofty—in one case, the only dessert wine suggested is Château d'Yquem—but when you're at the helm of one of the country's most exclusive restaurants, it's probably understandable.
East Meets West with Ming Tsai (Food Network) ***
Ming Tsai, chef-owner of the highly rated Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts, generally says only a few words about wine at the end of his cooking show, but they are choice and worth listening to. And he performs an invaluable service to wine enthusiasts by offering a framework for pairing wine with the increasingly popular flavors of Asia. Not all recipes get pairings discussions, possibly not to re-cover the same ground: "I'm a huge believer in Riesling and Gewürztraminer for a lot of my style of food because of the heat," he says. "If you try to drink a Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, it gets destroyed by the spice."
Still, when Tsai makes forays into other territory, he proves to be a thoughtful sommelier. Recently he built an entire show around pairing his food with Australian wine, bringing in Australian négociant John Larchet to talk about various Australian wine regions and styles; we'd like to see Tsai do more of the same.
Cooking Live and Cooking Live Primetime with Sara Moulton (Food Network) **
Sara Moulton, executive chef at Gourmet, started on the Food Network with a live cooking show aired during the dinner hour and appropriately called Cooking Live. A spin-off, Cooking Live Primetime, followed, and now Moulton can be seen live twice each weekday evening. In the first segment, Moulton generally flies solo, cooking up a meal and taking viewers' calls. In the second, aired four hours later, she is joined by a changing panel of guest chefs, cookbook authors, entertaining gurus, and food historians, who kibitz with each other and take turns cooking to a theme. Wine and spirits experts periodically turn up, among them Andrea Immer and Gourmet's wine consultant Michael Green. Like the food panelists, the beverage folk take turns presenting recipes and ideas, as well as wine picks suitable for the evening's theme.
Jacques Pépin's Kitchen: Encore with Claudine (Various PBS stations) ***
Also currently in release is Pépin's Encore with Claudine, the second series in which he plays culinary tutor to his adult daughter. Their father-daughter rapport is genuine and delightful.
Wine plays a visible role; Pépin uses it as an ingredient and offers intelligent and detailed pairings suggestions at the end of each show, highlighting flavor notes and giving comparisons to more familiar wines when pertinent. And he's no fool when it's time to allocate kitchen duties: "You stir," he says to Claudine in one show, "and during that time I'll taste the Madeira."
Epicurious (Discovery Channel)**
Epicurious, which airs twice on Friday afternoons (at 4 and 4:30 p.m. Eastern), is hosted by Michael Lomonaco, executive chef of New York's Windows on the World, and Ishbel MacIntosh. Each show builds a menu around a particular theme and takes viewers on an excursion to purveyors or growers whose products are used in the menu. Lomonaco and MacIntosh, who take turns cooking various dishes, make a good team: She's a former model turned caterer and TV personality; he's an actor turned chef who revitalized New York's 21 Club before taking on his current post.
Frequently, Lomonaco offers a brief pairing suggestion and a knowledgeable description of how the wine complements the food (as he does on his other show, Michael's Place, which can be seen weekdays on the Food Network). Occasionally, wine gets more air time, as in a segment in which MacIntosh visits Bordeaux and interviews Dewey Markham, Jr., author of 1855: A History of the Bordeaux Classification.
Martha Stewart Living (Syndicated; various stations) **
Martha Stewart has built a multimillion-dollar corporation around being the consummate do-it-yourselfer. But she knows when to seek outside sources, and for her TV show's occasional wine segment, she relies on The Wall Street Journal's wine writers, Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher. She generally calls them in for special events: Valentine's Day, New Year's Eve. The three taste and discuss and taste some more, sipping—not surprisingly, considering who the host is—from some of the prettiest glassware on television. Brecher's wine commentaries, in particular, bear a touch of the poet; his lyrical and articulate descriptions (dessert wines "leave a cloud of taste in your mouth") are a pleasure. Or as Stewart herself might say, "a good thing."
Regina's Vegetarian Table (Various PBS stations) **
With the ranks of vegetarians growing, Regina Campbell is onto something. Campbell, a former sports broadcaster and news anchor, offers up cuisine that is elegant, varied, and potentially satisfying to vegetarians and carnivores alike. And, as Campbell's "On the Road" segments show, we can dine this way not just at home but in an increasing number of fine restaurants.
Not every episode features wine, but when one does, wine gets serious treatment. Wine expert David Berkley, who since 1981 has served as wine consultant to the White House, offers thoughtful pairings. Berkley's picks are recapped in onscreen text, a viewer-friendly touch that helps when you've been slow to find your pencil.
In Food Today (Food Network) **
Taste's David Rosengarten's wine expertise also finds an outlet on this daily food magazine. The show, co-hosted by Donna Hanover, presents food news from all over, with a mix of studio interviews, cooking demos and on-location pieces. Wine and spirits are featured on the show with some regularity, in formats ranging from a quirky video essay on the blues singer who planted Delaware's first winery to a tasting of French wines with Mary Ewing-Mulligan.
Lidia's Italian Table (Various PBS stations) **
Watching Lidia Matticchio Bastianich on TV is like sitting in the kitchen with a best friend and watching her cook. She talks to you about her children, she tells you what she's doing with each ingredient, and every now and then she breaks into Italian. If your best friend could cook like Bastianich, who happens to be the award-winning chef-owner of New York's Felidia, you'd have it made.
Bastianich's show is one of those that does not delve deeply into wine. Well-chosen pairings are offered in some segments, and Bastianich is likely to describe the region of Italy that the wine comes from. In one episode, her son, Joseph Bastianich, also a restaurateur, appears for a discussion of Chianti, which accompanies one of the most beautiful pieces of beef ever to appear on television.
America Drinks: History in a Glass (History Channel) *
This two-hour documentary, produced by Atlas Media for the History Channel, does just what its title says: It traces the history of beverages and their effect on American society. Besides wine, cocktails, martinis, beer, Bourbon, soft drinks, coffee, and sweetened fruit drinks like Kool-Aid all get light-hearted yet surprisingly thorough scrutiny in this fascinating 100-minute documentary. Archival footage and narration by actor Mason Adams tells the basic story, with incisive commentary by the likes of Robert Mondavi, Bill Samuels, Jr. (the owner of Maker's Mark), and Wine Enthusiast contributing editor Paul Pacult. The section on wine is fascinating, but short. This charmer was produced in 1999; it's worth watching the listings for repeat broadcasts.
Hot Off the Grill with Bobby Flay (Food Network) *
Watching Bobby Flay on TV, you can imagine this super-chef turned cookbook author and television personality when he was in high school. He's just so cool, so completely natural. The fact that on TV he's cooking for a coterie of admiring pals and breaking them up with his jokes only enhances his cool-guy image. His food, however, belies his laid-back style with its color and vibrancy. Flay made his reputation with his innovative take on southwestern cuisine at his Mesa Grill in New York. On Hot Off the Grill, wine pairings are occasionally suggested, but not with any lengthy commentary. Casual is the order of the day. Even when wine expert Craig Petroff makes an appearance to discuss wine, he is introduced by Flay's co-host Jacqui Malouf as "Craig, our wine guy." Hey, when you think you're cool, you're cool.
Yan Can Cook (Various PBS stations) *
The Pacific Rim may have discovered the pleasures of fine wine, but you wouldn't know it from watching the eternally cheerful Martin Yan's exquisite preparations of pan-Asian food. Yan has, however, been known to devote a reasonable amount of time to sake.
Cellar Chat (KRSH, Santa Rosa, California) ****
Rusty Eddy's day job is in winery public relations and communications, but he has a radio gig on the side, and he makes the most of it. His Cellar Chat minutes are commentaries on wine and on the state of the world, and Eddy is an articulate and opinionated commentator. Here's Eddy on U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond's efforts to block the movement aimed at including wine's health benefits on warning labels: "This from the guy whose state is the number-three producer of tobacco in the United States." But that's just some days. On others, he offers wine recommendations, news items, gift ideas, and all sorts of wine-related essays. He can be funny, too. Here's his list of things you'll never hear a winemaker say: "Of course last year's wines were a lot better," and "I sure respect those wine reviewers. A score of 70 isn't that bad…"
The one-minute chats namedrop quite a few wine recommendations, so have pencil and paper handy, or push the "record" button.
KCBS Food News with Narsai David (KCBS, San Francisco) ***
Narsai David was one of the people who helped put the San Francisco Bay Area on the culin- ary map in the 1960s and '70s. His restaurant, Narsai's, was a destination eatery with a renowned wine list. In the late 1970s, this son of Assyrian immigrants began a second career as a broadcaster, hosting a national PBS cooking program as well as food-talk shows on San Francisco radio that cemented his reputation in the Bay Area's food world. Since closing Narsai's in 1986, he has become the roving food and wine editor for KCBS, filing five one-minute stories a day on weekdays from wherever his culinary travels take him.
Wine often figures in David's reports, and he is a knowledgeable taster and commentator whose style is accessible and down to earth. His brief reports focus on tastings, events, new offerings, and pretty much anything that strikes his fancy.
Mouthful with Michele Anna Jordan (KRCB, Sonoma County) ***
Food writer Michele Anna Jordan hosts this eclectic show, billed as "The Wine Country's Most Delicious Hour," each Sunday from 7 to 8 p.m. Pacific. Jordan, a contributor to Wine Enthusiast and the author of ten books, is part culinary sophisticate and earnest NPR interviewer and part unreconstructed hippie—a combination very much in keeping with her Sonoma County locale. That locale ensures that she covers wine extensively: she interviews winemakers, promotes local wine events, and once conducted an hour-long panel discussion on yeast and fermentation. Jordan runs a low-key show—she won't stop the conversation every few minutes to remind listeners who she is and who she's interviewing. Musical interludes are selected to make listeners smile.
On the Town with John McNulty (WWDB, Philadelphia) ***
John McNulty's motto is "Eat well and drink better." For years, the wine educator and radio talk show host has been exhorting his listeners to do just that. Tune into his show Saturday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m. Eastern, and you'll hear him chatting about wine, food, restaurants, cigars, and more with other wine folk, chefs, authors and folks who call in. To all and sundry, McNulty is uniformly gracious. His activities as wine educator, consultant, retail buyer, competition participant, and broadcaster all seem to merge into a great big continuum; reports on all find their way onto the air. "I'm a missionary," says McNulty.
Arthur Schwartz with Foodtalk (WOR, New York) **
Arthur Schwartz, a.k.a. the Schwartz who ate New York, holds forth on all things food-related weekdays from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern, and Sundays from noon to 2. The former food editor and restaurant critic for The Daily News and author of several cookbooks chats with guests from the food world, takes calls from listeners, and shares his encyclopedic knowledge of food.
Schwartz is something of a wine connoisseur himself, but for his Wednesday wine segment he relies on wine consultant Carol Berman (no relation to this writer). Each week, Berman comes up with one reasonably priced wine, and she and Schwartz taste and discuss it on the air. Berman's picks are interesting and her commentary is knowing and colorful (she pronounces a Beyerskloof Pinotage to be "leathery"). Schwartz makes sure that novices can understand what's going on, and he's frank on the rare occasion that he doesn't like Berman's selection.
The Splendid Table (Weekly, various National Public Radio stations) **
Lynne Rossetto Kasper's brilliant food magazine of the airwaves is must listening for anyone interested in wine and food. Kasper is the author of The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, and she brings the same voracious intelligence to this weekly program that she does to her writing. Short interviews with cookbook authors, chefs, purveyors, and experts of all sorts are interspersed with Kasper's own commentaries. The show is beautifully produced; musical selections are smart and funny. Wine is discussed frequently on this show, often by one of two regular guest experts, Wine for Dummies co-author Mary Ewing-Mulligan and wine consultant Joshua Wesson. Both chat with Kasper and give recommendations on varietals and regions, pairing suggestions, holiday ideas, and good deals.
Jazz Brunch (WFNX Radio Network) **
Jeff Turton has the mellow delivery of the classic FM station disc jockey. But in between jazz sets, he talks about wine: wine events, winemakers, wine pairings. Food, too: restaurant openings, cookbooks, sustainable agriculture, local farmers. Turton broadcasts his unusual show Sunday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern, and he is often joined by Howie Rubin, co-owner and buyer for a local wine shop. Turton likes to spot trends early (he was talking about California-based Rhône varietal producers years ago) and aims to "demystify" wine for his listeners.
Bon Appétit Lifestyle with Anthony Dias Blue (WCBS, New York) *
Anthony Dias Blue broadcasts in overdrive. In his less-than-a-minute features, he crams information as if it were the night before an exam. Trends, books, deals, places, and people in the food and wine world are all reduced to intriguing factoids and delivered in a fast-paced style that leaves time for a pun or a chuckle. Blue's audience seems to be the common man. He covers topics that news-radio listeners may not hear elsewhere but that wine-publication readers are likely to know. These mini-essays are each broadcast several times. Besides his radio gig, Blue is wine and spirits editor of Bon Appétit, a syndicated newspaper columnist, contributor to a laundry list of other magazines, author of several cookbooks, director of the San Francisco International Wine Competition, corporate wine consultant and more. Maybe he talks so fast because he's so busy.
Dining Around with Gene Burns (KGO, San Francisco) *
Food and wine are a sideline for Gene Burns—a major one, but a sideline nevertheless. Burns, whose 38-year career in radio has made him a national personality, spends weekdays hosting a political issues call-in show. On Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Pacific, however, he changes venues and becomes the host of a talk show focusing on food, wine and travel. Burns combines interviews with winemakers, chefs and cookbook authors, news of local events, reports on his personal wining and dining adventures, as well as reviews and recommendations. A radio talker in the grand tradition, he's likely to tell his Saturday listeners about the great wine he had the night before or the recipe he cooked earlier in the week. His formal wine segments run the gamut: from in-depth interviews with California winemakers like Tim Mondavi to more esoteric features on Canadian ice wines or wines from Romania. Through it all, Burns's easy, accessible style and comfort with the medium of radio make for an entertaining show.
Burt Wolf's Gatherings and Celebrations (Various PBS stations)
Burt Wolf is one of television's most widely broadcast food-and-wine specialists. He has done five series, which have been shown on PBS and the Discovery Travel Network, in news-report form on CNN, and on TV networks around the world. Wolf's passion is food, travel and cultural history, and viewers get generous doses of all three in Gatherings and Celebrations, a 20-part series currently in release. Wolf travels the globe in search of food traditions, spending New Year's Eve at Versailles, Robert Burns Night in Scotland, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Easter in Florence, and on and on. Wine is woven into the script wherever appropriate, and in several shows it's the centerpiece. Wolf wanders through vineyards and chandeliered dining rooms, tourist sites and restaurant kitchens, explaining customs and traditions as he goes. Although heavy on history, the series is far from serious; Wolf's puckish humor makes it all amusing and accessible.
Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert (Various PBS stations)
Veteran TV newsman Dave Eckert debuted this 26-part series in the fall of 1999, taking his camera crew all over the globe to create a travelogue of food and wine. Eckert interviews chefs and highlights their specialties; he visits markets, farms, fishermen, artisan cheesemakers, and travels to vineyards and talks to winemakers. The show alternates between Eckert's narratives and his interviews with locals—many of whom are not exactly masters of the pithy sound bite.
Production values are classically PBS—lots of still photos and indeterminate jazz backgrounds. Wine plays a prominent role; Eckert explores regional varietals, new wines, historic wineries, special wine events, and innovative farming methods. He also offers pairing notes in locales from Chile's Maipo Valley to Tuscany, from Sonoma County to the Hunter Valley in Australia.
New York Wine Country (WMHT, PBS affiliate in Schenectady, N.Y.)
This three-part series covers New York's wine country, past and present. Host Dave Povero narrates the fairly dry, documentary-style programs, which cover the wine regions of the Finger Lakes, Lake Erie, the Hudson Valley and Long Island. The series visits vineyards and we hear from winemakers and others on the development of New York's wine country, but the emphasis is on visiting the region and includes bed-and-breakfast recommendations. The finished products—the wines themselves—get fairly short shrift.
Wine Express (Romance Classics)
The great wine regions of the world conjure up images of romance, so it's not too big a stretch for Romance Classics, the station devoted to romantic movies and series like Great Romances of the 20th Century, to air a travel-oriented series on wine. Stefanie Powers, the actress who played TV's Girl from U.N.C.L.E. and Jennifer Hart in Hart to Hart, narrates the travelogue-format series, which focuses on individual regions (such as Chianti or Alsace) or entire countries (Portugal, Spain). Each show takes an educational tone and contains gorgeous footage of wine-growing regions, inside peeks at producers' facilities, summaries of the leading labels and varietals, and side trips to tourist destinations, as well as intermission-style wine tips. There is a lot of PBS-style slide show without voiceover. Oversimpifications and small errors of fact will distract those with wine knowledge.