Thanks to John Cleese, Judge James A. Stewart now knows that Pinot Noir isn't a film genre involving femmes fatale and wrathful grapes.
"Isn't it a shame that this wonderful stuff, wine, can be a source of one human being's feeling inferior to another…The only purpose of this wonderful stuff is to give us enjoyment."—John Cleese
The DVD opens with a very serious announcer intoning against a Dionysian background of ancient revelers, obviously shot in a modern winery despite close shots that work hard to obscure the locale. Then we see a hand pulling that DVD out of the player. It's John Cleese (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Fawlty Towers), and he's throwing that one away in favor of something completely different, the less snobbish take on wine we're about to see…
In this program, which originally aired on cable's Food Network in 2004, wine lover Cleese focuses on one question: How do you figure out which wine you'll like? The show is framed around a wine-tasting party at Cleese's Northern California home, with guests including Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) sampling wines and reacting with surprise and natural humor as they learn that it's hard to pick out the $200 wine in a blind tasting ("That has got to be the $5 bottle. It's the best one," Fraser jokes) and other wine facts. To explain the six basic types of wine, the aging and fermentation processes, and proper care and storage of wine, Cleese relies on experts—mostly winemakers, but also restaurateurs and wine store owners.
Cleese, who has been making instructional videos since 1971, offers a few humorous moments, such as a skit in which he plays both the intimidated restaurant patron and the haughty maitre d', and a couple of anecdotes, such as his discovery while in France filming Monty Python and the Holy Grail of a great chardonnay that made him want to go on during a rainy, miserable shoot, but he puts the emphasis on conveying information here. You'll see traces of Basil Fawlty in his manner—that of the wide-eyed learner who talks with his hands, amazed at what he learns from the various experts—but no distracting catastrophes follow him. (Not so with Fraser, whose brief appearances include a lot of mugging for the camera that doesn't fit with the tone of the program.) This gives the experts a chance to shine, even with a little humor, as when maitre d'hotel Eric Maldonado explains how to study body language when deciding whether to trust the sommelier.
The production is typical of documentaries on the Food Network and similar channels, with factory-tour-style footage of winemakers in action, and facts and definitions flashing on the screen ("MALOLACTIC: A secondary fermentation during which bacteria convert malic acid into the gentler lactic acid." You'll probably have to pause the DVD to write it down if you really need it. I did.). Food show junkies might notice that the joke Cleese makes as he approaches a winery not open to the public, comparing it to a villain's secret lair from a James Bond movie, also was riffed (a lot) by Anthony Bourdain in the Vietnam episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on the Travel Channel. Promotional blurbs online tie this DVD to the movie Sideways, which filmed in some of the same wineries, but the scenery is incidental to the wine lesson.
The video is shot with mainly natural light, which leads to the occasional too-bright, washed-out scene, or scenes with Cleese's face partly obscured in shadow or bright enough that his mustache disappears. The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, mostly adequate, but with drops that lose lines during the party scenes and an echo effect during a scene in a fermentation chamber. In his additional thoughts, Cleese admits that Wine for the Confused sticks to wineries of California's Central Coast for one reason: "The budget we had for this program was a lot, lot less than you'd get for an NBC documentary." To cut costs, he adds, the crew overnighted at Cleese's home during shooting.
Since the original program only ran to 43 minutes, the extras make up more than half of the DVD presentation. When you see "Brendan Fraser's Vino Ruminations" fall flat, you'll realize that Koch Vision used just about everything on hand to push the DVD past the 90-minute mark, but the extended versions of the winery interviews will be interesting for a novice wine drinker looking to sample on an ongoing basis. Gainey Vineyard winemaker Kirby Anderson's passionate discussion of his preference for riesling wines over chardonnays may make you want to do an extended case study. Anderson, by the way, was assistant to the producer on A Fish Called Wanda; a bemused Cleese describing how he didn't recognize Anderson was the most interesting of Cleese's "additional thoughts."
I would have liked more information on how to pair wine with food (including, since it's Cleese, what wine goes well with Spam), perhaps in Cleese's "additional thoughts," but I realize they couldn't do everything in a 43-minute show. For that question, you'll have to do further reading, but at least you'll understand that reading better if you watch this program. I'd also have liked to have heard a few more of Cleese's anecdotes about his wine-drinking experiences. Still, the program is more focused than many Food Network shows, and provides a good basic introduction to choosing wine.
Wine for the Confused is a rental that should keep you from being too embarrassed at a tasting, or a purchase that can guide you through regular journeys into the world of wine. Court adjourned—preferably to Pommeroy's Wine Bar for some Chateau Fleet Street.
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