Wine on television


Wine on television

Wine industry commentator Robert Joseph has recently written about wine on television. The reason we don’t have much wine on TV, he asserts, is because wine isn’t interesting as a subjectfor TV. It’s not visual enough. He lays down a challenge to anyone who disagrees: make a pilot program and see how many views you get on YouTube.

Robert is partly right. Wine doesn’t have the visual interest of food. But he misses (at least part of) the point. Successful television isn’t about the subject. It’s about people. It’s about personalities. Top Gear is the great example here. It used to be a show about cars, written for people with an interest in cars, and although it was good solid television, it had a limited audience, and was somewhat predictable.

Then they brought in three presenters and a format that changed everything. It became huge. People with little or no interest in cars still watched it because it was fun, it was fast paced, and the three presenters were engaging personalities, with James May and Richard Hammond acting as ideal foils for the super-talented Jeremy Clarkson.

What about wine? Well, look at Gary Vaynerchuck, who reached large audiences with a video segment that just involved him tasting wine on camera. He had an amazing talent for it, and lots of people wanted to watch him. Whatever Robert says, Vaynerchuck was huge (he’s stopped making wine shows now), and is now even huger as a social media marketing guru. It’s about the people. The personalities.

There are two types of wine television that could succeed. One is serious programs about wine, made for those with an existing interest in wine. Their audiences will be limited, of course, but there’s no reason they couldn’t work if they realized this from the outset. These shows won’t make prime time national TV, of course.

Then there are personality-driven shows with a fun element. What if, for example, a proper celebrity (and not just someone well known in the wine world) did a wine show? Then wine could really cross over into the mainstream. It’s not about the subject, it is about the people. People are interested in people. That’s the way we are made.

I don’t expect to see wine on prime time national TV any time soon, but unlike Robert, I am not ruling it out. I’d love to see people with talent do something different with wine TV, and I’m certainly not going to tell them not to bother from my vantage point on the sidelines.

21 Comments on Wine on television
wine journalist and flavour obsessive

21 thoughts on “Wine on television

  1. Hey jamie,

    I think you’re almost spot on here. But, I don’t think it’s about finding a “proper celebrity” but rather someone who is a genuinely talented presenter. Someone who is funny, engaging, and makes viewers want to hear their next word. Their secondary talent – though equally important – is to have a very solid amount of wine knowledge.

    The Top Gear comparison is fair. The presenters are car experts to a degree, but their real skill, or brilliance I guess, is their ability to engage the audience. Cars are secondary.

    Can you think of anyone who fits the bill?

  2. Hmmm… While I watch Top Gear for the presenters and guests, I also watch it for the cars (and other vehicles) and the things that are done with them. Top Gear is an intensely visual show; it’s impossible to predict what will happen, from playing rugby with cars to flying over caravans in a Volvo… That’s a tough call for a wine show to replicate.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, food programmes appeal because of the visible transformation – often almost alchemy – that the cooks create with their ingredients. What can wine people do with the liquid that would ever begin to compete with what anyone can do with a potato.

    Then there’s the repeated mantra of Gary Vaynerchuk’s “huge” audiences and I know that Gary talks of the 100,000 people who watched every day. The Youtube stats are less impressive: here are some typical Youtube viewer numbers from the early and most recent shows (you can check up to 900 on the site).

    New York state wines and a tour. Episode 64- 556 views 7 years ago
    Barolo and Brunello wine tasting of Italy. Episode #65 – 8,211 views 7 years ago
    Laid Back Friday with a Vin Jaune Episode #865 – 502 views 3 years ago
    A Mallorcan Wine Tasting with Some Interesting Grapes400 views 3 years ago
    Tokaji Tasting with Jean-Guillaume Prats — Episode #941 – 1,303 views 3 years ago
    2004 and 2007 Cote Rotie Tasting — Episode #925 – 896 views 3 years ago
    Moscato d’Asti Tasting — Episode #946 – 5,134 views 3 years ago
    Small Production California Pinot Noir Tasting — Episode #906 – 863 views 3 years ago

    The 5,000 viewers for Moscato d’Asti is one of the biggest audiences, possibly fuelled by people who’ve googled the grape name during the current boom.

    Since people keep challenging me to come up with a format I do think might work, my suggestion would involved asking celebrities to name a food or drink they enjoy and taking them there with accompanied by an engaging presenter/companion. It would emphatically NOT be a “wine” programme; it would cover foods and various kinds of drink.

    To the best of my memory, over the years, I’ve had at least 10 conversations with TV companies in the UK and overseas (including the BBC, Channel 4 etc) about a wide range of formats for wine TV. I’ve also been shown viewer figures for several UK series. This is the background to my belief that wine makes rotten television.

    I have never told “people with talent” not to bother. Quite the opposite: I’ve challenged them to produce a pilot on Youtube that would provide better proof of concept than anyone else has done so far.

  3. This was a very well-considered post Jamie. And perhaps it’s a matter of getting the format right?

    We have had wine programmes on national TV in the past, but only briefly. The trips to France and California featuring James May and Oz Clarke ring a bell. I thought they were effective at informing the novice wine fan, but I have no idea how well received they were among the masses.

    I think it can be done, but perhaps not on a weekly basis year after year. I think it’s good to run a short series every once in a while. Otherwise it could become a bit tired.

    Robert and Chris also make great points. I suppose the only way it will ever be successful is if the TV producers deem it to be. They’re the ones who know what makes a winner.

  4. Celebrities talking to me about wine? No bl…. thanks, there is enough of that in the Wine Spec and other places.

  5. Gary Vaynerchuk’s show wasn’t youtube based. People (me here in Peru, for example) watched it directly through the web site. However, Gary’s success is not easily replicable. In fact, there is not any N°2 on the wine vlogging scene. Gary was a category by itself. It is like reading Steve Jobs books hoping to create a new Apple phenomenon.
    Wine+food+travel TV shows could be the path to follow.

  6. What if good-looking and charismatic presenters and/or celebrities blind tasted wines out of each others’ belly-buttons and tried to guess the grape variety AND the identity of the celebrity? 🙂

  7. How spooky, Bob, that you came to mention the only truly successful wine publication in the world. I wonder if there is any connection between treating wine as a lifestyle product and making money – and treating it as a spcial interest subject and flirting with penury.

  8. Oz & James’s great wine adventure went down pretty well and brought wine to life, and it followed the format of Top Gear to some degree. Oz played the buffoon and James the hopeless student, bent on retaining his taste for beer. A boy’s trip in a Winnebago solved the problem. Good telly.

  9. Robert, you are wrong about Gary V and his audience figures. He primarily reached his audiences via his site, winelibrarytv, not using YouTube. View counts aren’t listed, but each of his vids (and these were one every couple of days) were getting hundreds of comments! It was big, by any standards.

  10. I take your point Jamie about Gary’s platform, but I think Youtube hits are a valid measure (given the absence of any other). And it’s interesting how poor the Youtube numbers are for most wine vids.

  11. Celebrity hosting is unlikely to work, because of the complicated nature of the subject. People who know wine will be unimpressed. The right presenter is vital.

    I think a good idea would be to have two guest tasters on every edition of the program (celebrities might well be involved here). One guest must be a novice and the other one must be an expert of sorts. Then the presenter takes them somewhere fun to experience a place and its wines. The two guests will give opinions that keep both your average telly watchers and your wine aficionados interested. With a bit of creative thinking, a few popular inserts can be part of every programme, along the lines of Top Gear. For instance, give the novice and the expert 30 seconds each to taste a wine in the dark (i.e. completely blind), while filming them with infrared. It’ll be both fun and informative to watch the different approaches.

    The problem with most wine programs is that it’s too dumbed down in order to appeal to the masses and generally degenerates into what can essentially be described as a travel or a food show with a theme. And there the competition is already pretty stiff…

  12. Like columns in newspapers any TV productions would not be aimed at wine enthusiasts because there are simply too few to be able to produce any return on investment for the maker so will have to be “dumbed-down” and have non-wine celebrity driven content in order to attract the viewers.

  13. Agree – not sure it needs to be a ‘currently famous’ person. Clarkson was only known in the car world as a previous presenter and May & Hammond unknown – the thing that works is seeing three bloke berking around and having genuine fun and banter (even contrived) on TV.

    Oz & James attempted this – did okayyyyy – but ultimately lost out because a) only so many road trips a show will pay for, and b) Oz (playing) the straightman appeared too serious and pompous – so it became about the pompous, pretentious wine snob trying to teach James about wine – the format would have been better if Oz had been allowed to berk about more, possibly add and extra presenter (one of the things that makes TG work is that two gang up on one – usually to do with their on screen persona – and do silly things on their trips….)

    What i worry is that someone does ok, (and I mean ok not great) and everyone else follows them. Look at Saturday Kitchen – not mainstream, tiny segment – but ‘some’ of the presenters appear to be trying to hard to be some of the other more charismatic presenters… That’s probably enough – I’m bound to have upset someone there….

  14. Top Gear is a format, rather than a show about anything in particular. If it resembles anything it’s The Goodies, with Clarkson as the pompous, easily mocked Brooke-Taylor, Hammond as feisty young Oddie and May very obviously Graeme Garden. Maybe they could do a one off as Top Beer…

    As for wine, I’m not sure that it’s ever going to provide a satisfying televisual experience. One glass of wine looks very much like another, no matter how lovingly crafted its contents. Perhaps a different approach is required- imagine ‘Black Books’ set in a local wine merchants. Plenty of scope there.

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