Ah, The New York Times. You just can’t seem to stop publishing tone-deaf articles about Shonda Rhimes. Allesandra Stanley’s insulting piece about angry black women has a follow up, in the Dining and Wine section, no less. Yesterday saw the publication of “Red Wine Is the Drink of Choice on ‘Scandal’ and ‘The Good Wife’” by Eric Asimov, the Times’ wine critic. In it, Asimov makes the astoundingly tautological statement that “As much as a small group of wine lovers would like to believe wine has gone mainstream, in fact its portrayal on television as a character prop suggests that many Americans still view it as somehow effete, foreign or, at least, no different than any other alcoholic beverage.” Wouldn’t its similarity to every other beverage suggest that wine has, in fact, gone mainstream? How something can be both foreign and no different than any other alcoholic beverage eludes me, and yet this is not even the worst of his argument.
He criticizes Olivia Pope’s failure to embody the signifiers of connoisseurship, despite the fact that the show clearly posits her as one. “But if she is an expert,” Asimov twirls his figurative mustache, “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.”
“Alicia [Florrick] does the same,” Asimov allows, “but then she makes no claim to care about the nuances as a connoisseur would.” In other words, Asimov is calling out the pretension of “Scandal” — Olivia is not a real connoisseur! If she were, she would be swirling her wine! She would know where to hold the glass! In Asimov’s world, it is impossible for a person well-versed in wine to also enjoy the effects of a little buzz. A wine connoisseur must only swirl, sniff, and sip, and never continue on to finish an entire glass. Indeed, in Asimov’s world, a TV show must never show a wine connoisseur who may be halfway through a glass of wine, for then the New York Times will feel free to call them a poseur.
He goes on to argue that this is not something that could have eluded the show runners, and thus must be an aesthetic choice. His thesis, which he doesn’t back up with much, seems to be that white wine is weak, “prissy,” indecisive, while red wine is “assertive and action-oriented.” However, “While red wine helps to make women seem forceful,” he goes on, without a shred of evidence, “it would do the opposite for men, conveying too contemplative a concern with pretty things. They might as well recite poetry.” Rather, “In “Scandal,” with one exception, men don’t drink wine.” That exception is Olivia’s father, for whose love of red wine (and presumably poetry) Asimov finds an excuse: “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.”
Like the much denigrated article by Alessandra Stanley, Asimov’s piece misses the point entirely of what Shonda Rhimes is doing with Olivia’s and Rowan’s love of wine. It seems to be lost on Asimov that they are also the only two black characters left on the show. The point of having this African American family be wine connoisseurs, and to have this be part of the family culture, a place where father and daughter bond, is not to show Olivia’s strength or Rowan’s sinister effeteness, but rather, like Olivia’s career and affair with the president, to say, “This is for us, too.” And that is an incredible and powerful statement, however you hold your glass.
Furthermore, the show brings with it a predictable epiphenomenon: Twitter. And when people watch this show, they tweet about it, but they also tweet about drinking wine. “Scandal” is making wine — good wine — accessible to these people. It’s saying, “This is for your, too.” The industry should be sending Shonda Rhimes 94 du Bellays by the bucketful. Or at least, a nice red.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is a freelance writer. She lives in Brooklyn.