A few days ago The New York Times' Dining and Wine section published an interesting piece titled, probably too innocuously, "Red Wine Is the Drink of Choice on 'Scandal' and 'The Good Wife,'" written by Eric Asimov.
I'm not sure how many of you will immediately recognize that name, but Asimov is a Big Deal in wine circles, one of the foremost American wine and food critics. He is not a writer I'd expect to write an article about women, red wine, and what all that is supposed to mean on our television screens, but that's what he did.
At the center of his essay is the posit: Why red wine all of a sudden? And why women? In the past TV writers didn't paint pictures of women with a glass of the finest Bordeaux [insert made up name here per Scandal] ... and now they do. Portrayals of women have changed, and writers are getting on board. Asimov, meanwhile, is a little concerned about the wine itself.
From the article:
Alicia [from The Good Wife] and Olivia [Scandal] both profess to love wine, but they also drink to self-medicate, to inure themselves to the jagged emotional leaps in plot that buffet their characters and leave their viewers breathless. In theory, it's a nod in the direction of Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in "Casablanca," downing shots to dull the pain of Ilsa Lund's reappearance with another man. In practice, it's different because it's wine, not spirits, and those who love wine see it as far more than a numbing palliative for heartache and anxiety.
For me, use of wine as a prop is not so much an issue of morals or health as it is of aesthetics. Many Americans regard wine as booze. They go to a bar for a topped-up glass of wine, or drink a glass on the deck at home before sitting down to dinner with a soda. Such a utilitarian view is anathema to classic wine culture, which puts wine at the center of the table, to be savored as a vital component of a meal rather than a stand-alone drink.
Is Eric being a snob here? I don't think so. He's calling out a model the writers of Scandal, The Good Wife, House of Cards, and other shows featuring strong, red-wine-drinking women characters have created.
Olivia, especially (as we all know) is defined by her love of wine. The audience is reminded of that fact literally every episode of Scandal. It is a concentrated point on the part of the show. And not just wine, but extremely fine wine, as other characters—and ipso facto the Scandal writing staff—have pointed out. Olivia isn't a wine lover, she's a connoisseur. Only, realistically, wine connoisseurs don't drink wine like Olivia does.
But if she is an expert, Olivia treats even the finest wine as if it were a can of beer. She habitually grabs goblets by the bulb rather than the stem, as a wine lover would. She never swirls and sniffs, the ritual that non-wine drinkers alternately find amusing, affected or annoying. She guzzles rather than sips.
This doesn't mean that if you are sitting there drinking wine and holding the glass by the bowl that you're some kind of prole doing wine wrong and Eric Asimov is judging you. I think any time anyone deep in wine culture starts talking about the Right Way to do things people seem to get defensive, because who wants to hear they're drinking something incorrectly? Goddamnit I've been drinking my whole life and I can do it how I want, you snob!
But the truth is wine culture is a culture like any other: with ins and outs and little secrets. There's a reason to hold a glass by the stem and it's the same reason that wine glasses with stems exist in the first place, so that you don't alter the temperature of the wine with the warmth of your hand.
Asimov has a theory about Olivia lack of connoisseurship, despite her announced love of wine:
For all her love of red wine, Olivia would appear off-putting if she adopted the mannerisms of the connoisseur. They would seem precious, more appropriate for fops like Frasier and Niles from the old sitcom "Frasier," whose connoisseurship was used to connote fastidious vanity. Gladiators, as Olivia and her associates style themselves, don't swirl. They gulp.
This is followed by something even more interesting...
While red wine helps to make women seem forceful, it would do the opposite for men, conveying too contemplative a concern with pretty things. They might as well recite poetry.
In "Scandal," with one exception, men don't drink wine. Jake wants only beer, the kind advertised on football games. The president, that would-be Duke of Windsor who wants Olivia to be his Wallis Simpson, mopes about with amber whiskey in his crystal glass, reveling in his romantic misery. If any character would seem to be a white wine drinker, it would be this self-indulgent, solipsistic president. Still, he's the leader of the free world, a former fighter pilot, who must occasionally rise to Kennedy-esque moments of decisiveness. No wine for him.
Does Fitz's drinking of brown liquor in a tumbler suddenly seem a bit sexist to anyone, considering how Olivia's love of fine wine is treated? If it's meant to be indicative of a time when he was a fighter pilot, like some latent—ridiculous?—manliness and bravado, what does that mean?
Or maybe it's not sexism; I'd normally be the last to decry any Shondaland show as sexist. Maybe it's just a misunderstanding of wine, and what wine is... what it symbolizes. Asimov ends with:
Among the men, only Olivia's father is a wine drinker, red, of course. She credits him with instilling in her a love of red wine, and their shared passion symbolizes their blood tie. Connoisseurship is also in keeping with his cover — Rowan's "command" of the clandestine B613 organization, but he poses as a curator of antiquities.
More to the point, Rowan is devious and depraved, yet deludes himself into thinking he serves a greater good. That the devil is a fussy aesthete, "a man of wealth and taste," should come as no surprise to anyone steeped in popular culture. That wine cannot simply be wine is no shock either.
I may be taking wine too seriously for some people out there, but it's my thing. I am a wine geek, my husband is a wine geek, our friends our wine geeks. Olivia Pope is supposed to be a wine nerd—my nerdhood is supposed to be portrayed by a beautiful, accomplished, smart, multi-faceted woman character!—but it isn't. The wine nerds are let down because... I don't know why. Maybe because we sometimes use the word 'connoisseur' as an alternate to 'nerd.' But I think Asimov makes some excellent points.