Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Esquire TV's "Uncorked:" Annoying minor-league sommelier students strike out

"Uncorked" is only watchable when the actual Master Sommeliers, seated, are on the screen.
Which do you prefer watching: minor-league baseball or Major League Baseball?

The analogy occurred to me while I slogged through the first episode of Esquire TV's new show "Uncorked," which premiers Nov. 10. (You might have Esquire TV and not even know it; I do.)

It's basically a 10-hour version of the movie "Somm" and is inferior to "Somm" (which I enjoyed) in most ways. By the 17th minute of "Uncorked," I doubted that I could make it through an entire 45-minute episode.

But in the second half of the premier, suddenly it got a lot more watchable, and the flaw in these sommelier-student shows -- there's a sequel to "Somm" coming out -- became obvious.

Actual Master Sommeliers are, in my experience, really fun people to be around. More than just knowledgeable about wine, they're enthusiastic. They can discuss wine minutiae or generalities without being condescending. And their service training prevents them from being self-centered. You know you're dining with master somms when your fellow diners keep quietly refilling your water glass.

They are the major leaguers. They're graceful; they're a pleasure to watch. In contrast, master sommelier students are self-absorbed and awkward.

No programming, not even infomercials, is more excruciating than watching annoying people blind-taste wines
"Uncorked" is annoying to watch -- my notes are littered with profanity -- until the point when four actual Master Sommeliers judge the students, who are the stars of the show, at a sommelier competition. (Look for Dustin Wilson, one of the students in "Somm," now holding his MS credential and working at the restaurant where the competition is held.)

Even as inquisitors, the Master Somms are graceful. Laura Maniec, owner of Corkbuzz Wine Studio in Manhattan, is particularly good: I'd love to hear her talk about the wines she's passionate about. I'd like a camera to follow the Master Somms around a restaurant for a night, capturing real conversations with guests. I can imagine the somms might laugh about them later, but they'd never laugh in the guest's face.

But the somm students that "Uncorked" found, well, I hate these people. Early in the show, they're drinking Auslese Riesling in a Brooklyn wine bar, and a civilian asks why they have ordered white wine with pork. Teaching moment, right?

Instead, a sommelier named Morgan is a complete dick to her. "Why does anyone drink anything? Why is Bud Light the most popular beer in America?"

His friend says that Morgan is "a cork dork, and it's a little too much for the average person." Morgan says, "It's all in the service of trying to get people to understand wine."

No, because he had that chance and couldn't be bothered to give an actual answer, or even to be polite. The "hipster sommelier" is an archetype that barely exists, but "Uncorked" managed to find one, and the only reason to watch him is to enjoy his eventual comeuppance. I'd be willing to invest an hour in that, especially if they showed a "next on Uncorked" that showed him tripping over an ice bucket and landing with his face in a plate of spaghetti. But even that wouldn't be worth sitting through 10 hours for it.

Part of the problem with "Uncorked" is its obvious low budget. It's not that its production values are terrible. But it's all shot in New York with people who know each other, so the somm students have the kind of New York smugness that the Master Sommelier program is supposed to teach them to lose. And with one exception -- a nervous young man from Texas with a skin condition that doesn't look attractive, even on my computer screen -- they're not people that anyone outside New York can really relate to. I didn't realize this was a strength of "Somm" until I saw what a weakness it is in "Uncorked."

The show really should use the Master Somms for the "bumps" (transition scenes from commercials), rather than the students. Example: One bump is, "Three things you should tell your sommelier." The students say that No. 1 is the type of wine you usually drink. I guess this is important for many people, though of course to a true oenophile, I don't know how I would answer that*. Plus the example he gives is "Chablis," which is such a Manhattan-centric, sommelier-centric answer: if you usually drink Chablis, you don't need an undertrained, overconfident sommelier's help. No. 2 is your price range: good advice, for sure. But No. 3 has one of the smug students saying, "Trust your sommelier. We are here to take care of you."

Hello, how about WHAT YOU'RE EATING?! "Yes, I really like bold red wines and I want to spend about $40." Wait 'til he opens the Malbec and discovers you ordered crab cakes. Of course, one of these jerks wouldn't be able to convince a customer to order something different, and would probably just lose their business by judging them.

I'd like to see Laura Maniec handle that customer. I've been to minor-league baseball. But I prefer to watch the Major Leaguers.

Read my decidedly more favorable review of "Somm." 
Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.
Sorry about the Mets. 

* I was asked this very question Monday while interviewing a wine importer. I said, "When I was at Rich Table (highly recommended) on Saturday, we ordered all white-wine food and I narrowed my choices to a skin-contact Sauvignon Blanc from Santa Barbara and a Viognier from Yves Cuilleron in the Rhone. I asked to see both bottles and we ordered the one with the lower alcohol percentage, the Cuilleron, even though I rarely order Viognier. It was terrific and we drank the whole bottle." Your move, sommelier students.


Jack Everitt said...

Excellent. I've not been excited to view Uncorked, so now even less excited.

An aside, the Viognier from Yves Cuilleron is my inexpensive go-to Viognier. I've had about 30 bottles of the 2012/2013 (but just one of the 2014 - which was either so not ready to drink or just not as good as 2012 and 2013). Finding a viognier for under $70 (retail) that you want to drink more than one glass of at a sitting is very tough. Cuilleron's Les Vignes d'à Côté is it for me.

Bob Henry said...

A quick (but by no means comprehensive) perusal of the wine list revealed that contemporary vintage California wines were priced at around twice Bay Area retail (three times wholesale).


2012 Shafer Merlot half size (375 ML) bottle on the wine list for $59.

Same wine found at Beltramo's Wines & Spirits in Menlo Park for $28:


2010 Cain Cellars "Cain Five" half size (375 ML) bottle on the wine list for $124.

Same wine found in a 750 ML at Prima Vini Wine Merchants in Walnut Creek for $125:


No half size (375 ML) bottles were replicated in 750ML formats.

If you are a single diner, ordering off the half bottle wine list will be limited by selection and expensive.

Bob Henry said...


A quick (but by no means comprehensive) perusal of the RICH TABLE wine list revealed that contemporary vintage California wines were priced at around twice Bay Area retail (three times wholesale).

Douglas Trapasso said...

It may be because I am friends with two of the Uncorked, but I enjoyed Episode One, and I am intrigued to see if Esquire can explore some areas not covered in the movie. Like getting to see them On The Job making Actual Work Decisions. I am hoping we get to know these folks a little more personally than the Somm dudes, whom to me, just came across as wine automatons.

Geek with Wings said...

Try Cold Heaven? They did a label with Yves a while ago, and are known for Viognier.

Louis Calli said...

Cold Heaven makes AMAZING viognier, and the owner is a super cool chick.

Anna D said...

Is there some sort of hipster somm app that mispronounces Auslese? Because neither the candidates nor the waiter at the hipster Brooklyn wine bar say it correctly on camera. Here's a hint, baby somms! http://www.dict.cc/?s=auslese

Here's hoping successful MS candidates don't butcher one of the most common German wine words...

coldbacon said...

I suppose I can understand your observations about some of the contestants. I felt exactly the same way when the guy was a douche to those people in the restaurant about the Auslese. Why you would even order a 90 Auslese in a Brooklyn restaurant I don't know. It's basically a dessert wine. And Merkelbach's not really even that good a producer. I just think that was a dumb thing to order in that situation. With that food.

Anyhooo - I think you may be missing the point. You're not supposed to like the people necessarily. Although I liked the way the couple was so supportive of each other. At least it seemed so. And the other guy with his charity he does, and so on. Those people were sympathetic enough IMHO. The issue of being nervous about service... that was done well enough I thought.

My major quibble with the show? Is the actual wine tasting. I feel like the filmmakers are playing a bit fast and loose with the reality there. I feel like all the wines were < 3 years old. Who does that? Who only drinks < 3 yrs old wines? I want to see these people taste 61 66 82 05 Bordeaux and arrange them in order of vintage. Would anyone seriously not be able to tell a $15 Chablis from a Raveneau? So my problem is just I want to see the reality. I want to see the names and years of the wines as they are guessing. Many of their wrong guesses are just wasted words if we don't know the actual answer while they're talking. That's what I want. I can't say it's a bad or unwatchable show. Because it isn't. I can say that I personally, would prefer to see the outtakes. The unfiltered footage. Of what really is being served. And what really happens. I suppose I should leave my apartment for that? :)