John Cleese's "Wine for the Confused" is an excellent DVD for the novice wine person like me. Wine-wise, I have the mixed blessing of living in Portland, Oregon, which is a short drive from dozens of excellent assorted Willamette Valley vineyards. Which means that I am able to try a lot of good wine, but also that I have to deal with a lot of wine snobs.
John Cleese's DVD will surely help me with the more enjoyable task of figuring out just what wine I like and how to explain it. Essentially, Cleese brings his considerable wit and star power to bear in de-mystifying the process. When John Cleese says, "Just use your own words to describe the wine, and tell me what you like and don't like," everyone has to listen. (It's a shame that Cleese doesn't have a companion DVD entitled, "John Cleese -- Taking Wine Snobs Down a Peg or Two.")
Cleese puts his advice into action by hosting a wine tasting at his house and also visiting a few wineries. At the wine party, he proves how challenging (and silly) (and fun) wine can be, he asks his guests to price several bottles (ranging from $5 to $200) based on taste alone. It's comforting to know that his guests (including a near-drunken Brendan Fraser) are as likely to properly identify the $200 bottle as they are to guess that it's worth $5.
But it's also interesting that while Cleese's guests are having a good time at his party, several of them get hesitant when he asks them to give their opinions about the wine they are drinking. This serves as confirmation that we need more wine education like this -- even in the comforting environment of a casual wine tasting, you can tell that Cleese's friends, like most of us, are afraid they might come across as "unsophisticated" or even worse, a "beer drinker."
Cleese's quick walk-through six different types of wine is also helpful, and one wishes that he could have explored a few more. He focuses on three whites (Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc) and three reds (Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon). Again, while I wish he had chosen an even wider range, this section is an excellent primer.
One thing Cleese is not able to do is to take the pretension out of the wine people that he's talking to. They don't come across as obnoxious French types, but it's still pretty clear that if these folks weren't talking to a star like John Cleese, they might not be so tolerant of his rudimentary questions. While pleasant folks, they are also the types of people who wax poetic because a certain vineyard's "terroir" (a word Cleese helpfully defines) includes nearby eucalyptus trees. One thing I've learned living in wine country, wine fans who profess to taste the influence of nearby foliage are generally the folks with whom you don't want to discuss wine.
Tips on buying wine are also helpful because Cleese points out some of the gimmicks in the trade, from the snobby waiter to the layout at your wine store, and how you can use them to spot some real values.
This DVD only gets four stars because it stops so soon. Chock full of helpful hints and basic elementary knowledge, this DVD leaves you wishing that this was the first in a long series. And that's not a bad thing. I'm just not sure this isn't a more suitable candidate for a rental than for a permanent slot in the film library.