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Is White Lotus the New Sideways?
Winners and losers in HBO's sharp cultural commentary on wine.
It’s a lovely day for a Sicilian wine tasting in the latest episode of HBO’s comedy-thriller The White Lotus. Cam and Daphne—the wealthy, beautiful, sketchy, potentially psychopathic couple—are trying to convince their travel companions, Ethan and Harper, to visit some nearby Etna wineries. “Apparently the wine has, like, a bunch of volcanic minerals in it,” Daphne says.
“Yeah. Healthy wine,” Cam adds.
“So,” Daphne continues, “we can get drunk, and then tomorrow our skin, and our hair, and our nails will be glowing.”
Without giving away any spoilers, the tasting quickly turns tense for the two couples as dark secrets are revealed. All the same, Etna looks amazing. Any up-and-coming wine region would pay handsomely for that kind of exposure. Perhaps in The White Lotus, we’ve finally found a replacement for the so-called Sideways Effect? (I can’t offer even a fraction of that exposure, but I did humbly write about my favorite Sicilian whites earlier this year).
Of course, just like so many of the consumer tastings I’ve led, no one else can remember any of the wines. “I liked the one in, I think, that glass,” Daphne says. “Which one was that, Cam?”
“I don’t remember, babe,” Cam replies. “We’ll buy a case.”
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This isn’t the first time that wine culture has been dissected in one of HBO’s marquee series. In Succession, the writers poked fun at the trend of hyper decanting in a blender (“it softens the tannins, heightens the aromas. You can age your wine five years in ten seconds”) and showed Cousin Greg accidentally opening someone’s rare bottle of Pingus from Ribera del Duero.
The coup de grâce is Succession’s extended, A+ trolling of natural wine in a scene from its third season. Tom is excitedly unboxing and unwrapping bottles from his and his wife Shiv’s own vineyard. “It’s the spätburgunder! Our vineyard!” he exclaims to an uninterested Shiv. Almost immediately, disappointment sets in. “Ohh,” he says. “Screwtop. Huh.”
He pours two glasses. “So, it’s biodynamic,” he tells Shiv. At first sniff they both wince. “Has quite a funk to it,” Tom says, dismay growing. “You kind of have to meet it halfway, right?”
“You know, it’s…earthy…kinda mmm…Germanic?” Shiv replies.
“Yeah, there’s lots to unpack,” Tom says. “It’s not…it’s not floral. It’s not sugary or vegetal. It’s…it’s…it’s quite agricultural, you know?” He admits, defeatedly: “It’s not very nice, the wine, is it, Shiv?”
Unlike Sicily in The White Lotus, Tom’s experience in Succession with spätburgunder is not exactly a win for German wine (or natural wine for that matter). Which is why Wines of Germany should right now be on the phone with the producers of The White Lotus, pitching them on the location for season three: A grand hotel along the Rhine or the Mosel.
I’m not even kidding. For years, I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen that German wine just needs its “Under The Tuscan Sun” moment to gain more traction with American wine drinkers.
These things have profound effects. In the years after Sideways’ 2005 release, the production of pinot noir in California rose nearly 200 percent. In fact, total wine production in California rose almost ten percent in the decade after the film’s release (yes, of course, it also depressed the market for merlot. Boo hoo). But Sideways is now 17 years old—and if you haven’t seen it lately, the movie hasn’t exactly aged well. It’s time for a new Sideways Effect.
Will its replacement be something like The White Lotus? Will we see wine drinkers gravitating toward, say, Etna wines made from nerello mascalese, grillo, catarratto, and zibibbo? I have no idea. But I can tell you about a Sicilian natural wine that I poured earlier this fall at a private tasting, and the reception it got.
That bottle would be Di Giovanna Camurrìa Orange 2021. Camurrìa Orange ticks all the contemporary boxes: relatively obscure grape (grillo), spontaneous fermenation, skin contact, unfiltered, low alcohol. The label, with its child-like line drawing, clearly conveys the natty-wine vibe. It’s a good example of a drinkable orange wine, fragrant with wildflower and citrus peel, ripe stone fruit notes, and a soft, cool, clay texture. It’s low in acidity, but I like it as a change up. Camurrìa, the bottle tells us, is Sicilian for “trouble.”
It definitely was trouble when I poured this a couple of months ago, at a tasting for several couples in the Philadelphia suburbs. The hosts were Italian wine aficionados who wanted to try “something different.” But this Sicilian orange wine was a step too far. Everyone hated it. They hated everything from its label to its color to its taste. Hated it so much that it became the running joke of the party for the rest of the evening (“if you spill, you have to finish the oranage wine!”). On the one hand, I guess it was the most memorable bottle of the event. But I fear some in this group may have decided they hate orange wine altogether because of this wine.
I opened another bottle of Camurrìa Orange the other night as I watched The White Lotus. I couldn’t help but think that my friends from the tasting—who likely could afford a night at the fictional White Lotus hotel—might have tasted with a more open mind if they’d seen something like it depicted on television. As wine people, I think we too often kid ourselves about the impact of this sort of wine messaging.
All the “wine education” in the world pales in comparison to watching 30 seconds of, say, Aubrey Plaza and Meghann Fahy sipping a Sicilian natural wine in the beautiful Etna landscape, as they discuss infidelity and intrigue. For wine, it’s the kind of moment that truly, as they say in screenwriting parlance, raises the stakes.