Wine Tips: TVino

Chatting with wine producer Charles Bieler, the subject of a new wine reality program.

guys standingSince reality TV burst onto the airwaves about ten years ago, we've learned one simple, undeniable truth: Fist-pumping Italian Americans draw millions of excited viewers; wine, historically, has had a tougher time. But now on Cooking Channel, wine will get a seriously good shot at TV respect with the premiere of Three Thieves.

The first episode follows Charles Bieler, Joel Gott and Roger Scommegna as they travel through Chile looking for a new wine for their label The Show. Over the hour-long episode the trio visits high-end restaurants and dive bars alike, as well as prestigious wineries and undiscovered gems. While searching for a wine they experience all the joys of traveling in a beautiful, culturally rich destination, from the scenery to the food to the people.
Ahead of the debut episode, we chatted with Bieler to learn what it's like to be the subject of the latest great hope for a good TV show about wine. Bieler is cautiously optimistic about the show's chances at success, but we're holding out a little more hope — in part because the stars of Brew Masters on Discovery Channel wouldn't make a bet with Bieler about Three Thieves' debut ratings.

Read on for the full interview. And, of course, remember to pop open a good wine while you watch the show tonight — maybe a Chilean one. Oh heck, make it Champagne to toast the prospect of a great TV show about wine.

Bottlenotes: You've solved the age-old question of how do you get a fun, interesting show about wine on TV? How'd you do it?
Charles Bieler: Well, we haven't solved it. All we know is Thursday at 8pm one is rolling. It's to be determined just how people respond. [Cooking Channel hasn't] committed to a series, so it's just one, one-hour show at this time. If it's one showing and we're done, we failed.

To do what we do, we're often flying places and exploring and eating and laughing, and Roger was always saying, 'You have no idea how cool this is and how many people would love to be along for this trip.' But we always thought, 'Shut up, Roger, it's not that interesting.' But he kept pushing it, and ultimately pushed it into a meeting with Scripps Network [the owner of Cooking Channel].

Wine content on TV has been a colossal failure across the board. From what they were learning, the traditional wine-education stuff wasn't connecting, and they weren't sure why. The conversation developed, and the concept developed that it needed to be equal parts wine, food and travel. They know food and travel content work, but if you build in wine, maybe you can make this thing work. And there is something raw, real and engaging about it.

All along, I never believed it would work. [But] it's a pretty entertaining show. If you like wine, it's not a wine-geek-fest type of show. You'll learn about wine and the region, but it's not at all technical or intimidating to someone who likes wine and doesn't have much knowledge. And you can sink your teeth into the travel. The commonality is that all wine regions are pretty frickin' beautiful. Frankly, we're all amazed how cool it's turned out.

[But for now] all we've proven is that Cooking Channel can give us an hour.

How long were you in Chile, and how much filming was done to get just an hour of air time?
We were there for a week, and they shot just an embarrassing amount of footage. The last time I acted, I was in the fourth grade. I don't think Joel or Roger ever made it that far. We're talking greener than green. There were 25 people, three cameras--a full-on production. Trying to be normal when you have all these cameras on you is not easy. They shot the hell out of it, probably six hours a day for seven days.

Is there anything from the episode that you wish hadn't landed on the cutting-room floor?
There was tons of stuff I thought was hilarious that didn't make it. And fortunately, the embarrassing stuff that I was worried would make it in, didn't.
We really leaned on the production company to make the edits, and I watched the first cut terrified. And pretty early in, I was like, 'Wow, this isn't so bad.' I hate seeing and hearing myself, but I found myself laughing. I'm dying to see what the actual feedback is. I anticipate that some of the wine elite will say it's not hard core enough--but for this to work, it's got to be pretty 101.

What was the thing that you were most excited to learn or discover about Chile in general?
Our initiation to Chile was through the group that owns the vineyard we're making wine from in Argentina; the group is from Chile. Over the last 18 months of visiting Argentina regularly, we'd spent half days in Chile, poking around.

I think of Chile as a country with great winemaking history. They've been doing it much longer than we have in the U.S. I assumed it was a really developed wine industry, but a lot of what's exciting are these areas that are just a few years old, in these new and emerging appellations. I feel like it's chapter two of a ten-chapter book. I figured it would have been more developed on the California level--not a lot of surprises. But down there it's such early days. Just a couple years ago you were pretty hot on Argentina wines. For you, have they taken a back seat to Chile now?
The Argentine story is going to live and die by Malbec. Just this past year wines from Argentina surpassed Chile in sales in the U.S.; Chile was miles ahead for a long time. But Chile has more diversity in what it can grow and sell successfully. Here I am saying that, having invested heavily in Argentina, but there's more diversity of terroir and climate and, therefore, potential in Chile. But I'm betting on both of them. Argentina is so much in the focus right now, and a lot of the wines are very fairly priced. But just with a peek at Chile, there is so much more to come--and the world is going to be amazed.

Are you doing anything new in the world of sprits to follow up on the success of Sombra Mezcal?
I'm not a huge spirits guy. We got into it because we felt that Mezcal is an extension of wine, and I've yet to be moved by another spirit in that matter. Mezcal has had a bit of a renaissance, and while it's a particular taste profile that's not for everyone, it's cool how many people are breaking through and loving it. Just in the short time we've been messing around with it, there's been huge progress. It's certainly on the map with tastemakers.

What country are you most excited to head to next for the show, if it catches on beyond this first episode?
I am dying to go to China. It would be such an odd place for wine production. From what I understand, in the last year China has planted 500,000 hectares of vines--more than France has in total. I want to check this out and see what it's all about. But I'm not sure if anyone wants to make that trip and watch it with us on TV.