Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bloody Nora That's Good: Oz & James Big Wine Adventure: California

James May & Oz Clarke
Growing up lower middle class in small town Ontario, I never had any exposure to fine wines, or for that matter, wine at all (except for the occasional bottle of Mateus or Baby Duck my parents would buy). Beer and whisky were the preferred beverages around my home for the adults in my life. How it came about that I now make my living writing and talking about wine would have made my 14- or 15-year-old self laugh his arse off. But that's what I do. In 1990, I was working in a wine and spirits retail store. The manager, for some reason, asked if I wanted to set up a fine wine corner in the store. I knew nothing about the beverage, so why he asked me I have no idea. But, since I was bored doing little more than stocking shelves with Bacardi Rum and working cash, I said sure.

Several months later, I was invited to an event to herald the launch of a new red Bordeaux wine called 1725 from the French company Barton & Guestier (B&G). Most Bordeaux red wines are made by blending together Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot (and occasionally other grapes). The tasting allowed us to try not just the finished wine, but also the three grapes on their own to see what the components tasted like outside of the blend. Despite knowing nothing about wine, it was still intriguing to try Cabernet Sauvignon on its own, and then taste it combined with the other two grapes. I thought 1725 was pretty good.

Our presenter that afternoon was from Bordeaux, and as a treat for us during our lamb lunch, he brought with him six magnum bottles of Château Léoville-Barton 1964. Up to that moment, I'd never tried a mature wine. Everything I tasted had been made and bottled a year or two before the day I tried it, maximum. Now to try a wine 26 years old at that time was a major treat. He spoke briefly over lunch and then the wine was poured. We all got no more than maybe an ounce or two each. I brought the wine up to my nose, smelled it, sipped it and swallowed it. And, as with Saul on the road to Damascus, the scales fell off my eyes. To this day, I've never forgotten what I thought: “Oh my God. Now I know what all the fuss is about.” It was a revelation to taste something that, well, sublime, complex and just so, so delicious. At the time, I did not have the knowledge, or language, to fully articulate what I was experiencing. It was a turning point in my life leading me into a career I still work at to this day.

May & Clarke
This is a very long way to introduce the funny and very entertaining BBC TV series from 2007, just now released on DVD by BFS Entertainment, Oz & James Big Wine Adventure: California (they made a series early on the wines of France). Oz is Oz Clarke, a British wine critic of some renown, and James is James May, co-host of one of my favourite car shows, Top Gear. Since I love cars, represented by James May, and wine, represented by Oz Clarke (and no, never at the same time), I was eager to see this 8-part series, because I knew that I would be able to identify with both men. Clarke is the exasperated wine geek (or wine ponce, as James repeatedly calls him) trying to show the British “lad” May what it is like to try great wines. May goes on and on about having to hang out with “Oz's posh winemaking buddies as they go on and on about ... ugh ... terroir and how wonderful really expensive wines are.” At the start, to May, wine is just a beverage to get soused on. As he says at one point, rolling his eyes when Oz insist he smell a wine properly before sipping and then spitting it out (yes, there are reasons you do this, but no room to tell it here), “Nobody's ever rung me up and said, 'do you want to go down to the pub for a sniff'.”

Wine Ponce
In my life, I've been both the working class lad who thought wine geeks were pompous fools, and I've also been the wine ponce who can talk rhapsodically about this or that wine. However, I'm so happy that I've been able to maintain a bit of both. I love to ridicule the silly games wine ponces play (blind tasting is something I always refer to as a “parlour trick,” and don't get me started about rich wine collectors – okay, let me. I'm convinced they actually hate wine; for them the 'trophy' wines are just another thing to own), and yet I am so happy that I've managed to try some of the finest wines in the world, including (and this is me in full ponce mode) Château Pétrus 1982 that now sells for $4000 to $6000 a bottle.

The whole purpose of this series – as Clarke and May drive in a ridiculously oversized Winnebago from Santa Barbara County northward, with many stops along the way, to Napa Valley – is for Clarke to get May to drop his working-class yobbness and see that wine can be a divine liquid which is both sublime, complex and, yes, pleasurable. May, on the other hand, thinks the show is about May finding a great bottle of California wine that can be had in the UK for no more than a “tenner” (£10). They're both right. Ironically, of the two the only one to really change and “grow” in this show? James May. During the series, he let's his eyes be opened to the world of fine wine (and even drops $100 on one wine by the end). Oz Clarke, on the other hand, comes across from the beginning to the end as a bit of a fussy aunt who's trying to show his dumb-ass nephew the way of the sophisticated world. It is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. 

One of the best illustrations of how nannyish Clarke is occurs in episode three when they break away from their wine journey and indulge in May's world: driving cars fast. Or at least they are passengers in two drag-racing classic US muscle cars. The expressions on their faces sums them both up perfectly. Oz looks like he's about to have kittens as they tear-ass down the dirt track at high rates of speed. His view of May's “career” is encapsulated in his voice over comment, “Only a simpleton could get any pleasure out of this futile activity.” We then cut to a clearly deliriously happy May as he and his driver beats Clarke and his. And the goofy grin on May's face does make him look like a simpleton.

Clarke sipping and trying not to drown
To be fair to Clarke, he is perfectly willing to make himself look ridiculous, if for no other reason than to make May happy. Two examples. May challenges him to identify six wines while swimming in a deep pond. May lobs glasses into the water (the glasses float), Clarke smells and sips them and tries to both identify them and not drown (kids, don't do this at home). As he is clearly reaching the end of his strength he manages to figure out the last wine. The other is when May gets Clarke to drive around in a bumper car while trying to determine what two wines are. Needless to say, everybody tries to run into Clarke, splashing most of the glasses of wine on him.

These examples make the show sound silly, but within the framework of silliness, Clarke and May actually visit some of the finest wineries (and speak to the owners) in California, including Harlan, Saxon, Rosenblum, Ridge, Ravenswood, Frog's Leap, Hitching Post (where part of the great movie, Sideways was shot) and, just to keep May happy in his “tenner” quest, Charles Shaw, makers of the wine known as Two-Buck Chuck (Yes, they sell their wine for $2 a bottle, and Clarke even admits it is a solidly made, if “obvious” Chardonnay.) and have intelligent and informative discussions with most of them. Clarke and May also drop “wine tips” continuously throughout the series. Oz & James Big Wine Adventure will not appeal to the wine ponces out there (they are too self-serious to see the enjoyment to be had), but those who are just getting into the world of wine and trying to find a way to avoid the horrible pomposity that exists there, or those who know a fair amount about Bacchus' juice, and are just looking for a bit of fun, will find Oz & James Big Wine Adventure: California a perfectly wonderful diversion.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.


  1. "Santa Barbera County" ?? Really?? You've been drinking too much Italian wine, David... Maybe you should go back into your Fiat...

  2. David Churchill Responds: Dean, thanks for pointing out my typo. I did it to see if you were paying attention. Good catch. Gold star. Back to my Italian wine.

  3. OTOH, maybe you were alluding to the Barbary Coast section of San Francisco, with its attractions of fine wine, intercourse, and dining...

  4. Readers, particularly beer lovers of good beer like myself, might also enjoy the series "Oz and James drink to Britain."