Judge Josh Rode prefers wine from Oregon.
"Ah, the evocative glug glug of a peerless vintage, cascading into gossamer thin crystal!"
"Oh for Pete's sake, man, just drink it."
Car expert James May (from the British version of Top Gear) and wine expert Oz Clarke take a month-long road tour of some of France's best-known wine regions so James can learn about wine. He soon discovers there is more to the subject than he ever wanted to know.
Facts of the Case
All James was looking for was a way to tell which wine under £16 is good to drink. Unfortunately for that plan, Oz is not the sort of fellow who believes in going part-way when it comes to wine. It's all or nothing, and since they're stuck together for a month, Oz makes sure James' brain stays steeped in wine facts and lore. In order to get to all the places they need to go, James buys an old Jaguar because, "I hoped it would do the decent old Jag thing and break down…so I could go home." Alas for him, and fortunately for everyone else, it stays mostly in one piece throughout the show.
Each of the six episodes covers a region and a specific quality about wine, and each ends with a test for James to see if he's been paying attention.
• "Episode 2"—On to Languedoc-Roussillon, where Oz brings James to one of the few wineries that still use the human foot to juice grapes. James' test is to make his own wine and try it out on unsuspecting passersby.
• "Episode 3"—It's Provence, where James learns to match wine with food, then has to cook dinner and find a wine to go with it. His choice for a main course must be seen to be believed.
• "Episode 5"—In Alsace, Oz attempts to explain the French concept of terroir, which doesn't have a simple definition in English. In short, it means wines made from the same types of grapes will taste very different depending on the conditions under which the grapes were grown. James' challenge is to see if his palette is up to the task of recognizing the differences terroir makes.
• "Episode 6"—The last stop is Champagne, where Oz tries to convince James that Champagne (the drink) isn't so bad. But a visit to Krug doesn't do the trick so they find a dinky home-grown variety. James' challenge: list everything he has learned about wine in sixty seconds.
Oz and James' Big French Wine Adventure is a little of everything. It's part documentary, as Oz brings James (and the audience) to a large number of wineries and we eventually get to see the process of wine-making from picking to drinking. It's also a classic roadtrip show, with the dichotomous personalities of the two men creating the energy that propels each engaging episode forward. Mixed in with that is drama, as when Oz restrains himself from kicking James in the knee whenever James starts blowing his "ponce whistle" ("for when you're talking rubbish"). And romance, of sorts, since both men clearly enjoy the company of some of the French women they meet. (They even invite one to dinner. Poor thing.) There's also lots of authentic comedy. In some sense, you can think of Oz as the straight man to James' comedian, but they both have their own funny moments.
It's pretty clear from the onset where everything will end up. James starts with a little bit of an attitude and doesn't take Oz's lectures or lessons seriously, but as they progress through the regions, James becomes more and more engaged in the process until he realizes near the end that he has become one of the "wine ponces" he has been deriding the entire time. Oz and James bicker good-naturedly throughout the series, as anyone would if they spent a month sleeping in the same tent. But it's quite clear they like each other, so there's always a little tickle in the back of the viewer's mind that, just perhaps, James is faking his disinterest for the sake of the show. After all, there needs to be some sort of dramatic tension, doesn't there? But if that's the case, James should have won an acting award, because he seems genuine in his flippant attitude and growing appreciation, just as Oz's early frustration and later delight come through honestly.
There are some odd narrative choices. For instance, twice the two go to wineries where Oz waxes eloquently about the amazing wine to be had, only to have one or both of them fail to get a taste. Why bother showing James drinking water when the show is supposed to be about him learning to appreciate wine? There are also a few too many shots of Oz the Wine Expert expounding about the flavors he tastes. He often sounds exactly like the ponce that James thinks him to be.
None of that stops the impetus of the show, though. Each thirty-minute episode blazes by in a flurry of eye-rolling, teasing, wine facts, memorable tests, and lots and lots of drinking; especially since, even after he has discovered his own tendency for ponce-osity, James refuses to spit out the wine he is tasting. Not that I can blame him; those wines are expensive! One of the wineries has a vineyard where a single grape is worth £80. Naturally, they sneak over the wall and abscond with a few.
The 1.78:1 picture is clear and bright, with vivid colors that make France and its wines come to life. The Dolby 2.0 stereo sound isn't asked to do much, but voices and the pop of corks come through crisply. Thankfully, they didn't emphasize the sound of all those ponces aerating the wine with their mouths. There are no extras, which is unfortunate, but I suppose it would be superfluous to have a vignette on wine-making or something when it's all covered in the show.
Even if you aren't a fan of wine, Oz and James' Big French Wine Adventure is loads of fun and laughs (with a lot of learning) from beginning to end. Sit back with a nice, crisp Chardonnay and enjoy.
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