How to appreciate "How To Appreciate Wine"
Roaming the American drinking landscape with HBO's John Wilson
Editor’s note: This edition of Fingers contains spoilers for How To with John Wilson. I don’t think it’s really a show where spoilers matter, but if you disagree, proceed accordingly!
By the fifth or sixth tip, it became obvious that I would need to sit down and watch HBO’s breakout series, How To with John Wilson. Since Season 1 of the show aired in Fall 2020, I’d heard plenty about it from friends and critics delighted by filmmaker John Wilson’s offbeat, nerdy, documentary-style meditations on life in New York City and life in general. But I never got around to watching it, and might not have, until How To Season 2 began, and Fingers readers started getting in touch to ask if I’d seen the season’s second episode, titled “How to Appreciate Wine.”
Over the weekend, I watched that 28-minute episode (plus a handful of others from both seasons, to get up to speed on the show’s whole “thing.”) I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I saw was a pretty accurate allegory for drinking—both wine, and everything—in America, punctuated by expired military rations, an infamous sex cult’s 2007 a capella summit, and, somehow, Bang Energy CEO Jack Owoc, a longtime editorial obsession of this here boozeletter. Let’s discuss!
You’ve been invited to a dinner party. Showing up empty-handed would be uncouth, so you stop by the liquor store to grab a bottle of wine. As you scan the shelves for something affordable and decent-looking, or try desperately to tease actionable advice out of an earnest salesperson regaling you with names of grapes and regions you’ve never heard of, you become paralyzed by overwhelming choice and your own ignorance.
Wilson, who is at once the show’s director, lead camera, and nasally, rarely seen narrator, plays out the inciting predicament of How To S2E2 from there (emphasis mine throughout):
[S]o you just grab something at random with a nice label, and bring it to your friends house, and put it with the rest of the other bottles. You try to have a good time like everybody else, but you can’t help but wonder why your bottle is always the last one picked. And you wish you knew what you did wrong. The world of wine may feel like an exclusive club, with a thousand passwords to enter. But maybe if you learned a thing or two, you’d never be stressed about wine ever again. So stick with me, and I’ll show you how to convince anyone that you know a thing or two about wine.
People have been trying to share those “thousand passwords” with the American drinking public—since at least the Sixties, when boomers came of age and wanted to trade up from beer (too common) and over from spirits (their parents’ drink, tinged with the specter of alcoholism.) Robert Parker, the famous American wine critic who co-invented and popularized the 100-point rating scale for wine dates his efforts to demystify wine to 1967; by the late ‘70s, his Wine Advocate newsletter was a must-read for both industry insiders and rank-and-file drinkers across the United States.1
But despite great strides by Parker and many other American wine educators, entrepreneurs, and media, and enthusiasts over the intervening decades, it’s still pretty tough for today’s casual drinkers to solve the “dinner party problem.” How tough? In February 2021, the wine recommendation app Vivino raised an additional $155 million (for a grand total of $221 million to date) precisely because no one has really, truly popped this cork yet. Not at mainstream scale and non-expert scope, anyway.
Enter Wilson. The filmmaker’s odd, stumbling, childishly inquisitve approach to storytelling is perfectly calibrated—or is it vice-versa?—to a seemingly straightforward, socially fraught, and utterly intractable challenge like “appreciating wine.” These sorts of clichés are his sweet-spot, as previous episode titles like “How to Make Small Talk” and “How to Split the Check” attest. The results are uncanny, and at times deeply alienating, like watching animals at the zoo only to realize you’re one of them… and another somehow got ahold of a camcorder. As Alexandra Schwartz wrote, reflecting on the show’s first season for The New Yorker last December. “Wilson takes a Martian’s-eye view of the habits and customs of Homo sapiens, though he doesn’t profess the expertise of a David Attenborough.” Curiosity, not command of subject, animates him.
I’ll pause here to note that Wilson’s nervous neophyte schtick can be pretty grating. His voice, which Schwartz charitably describes as “a slightly squashed, Kermit the Frog voice that sits in the back of his throat,” would be tolerable in doses but gets annoying in ever-present narration; his “halting, reading-aloud style of a novice public speaker” occasionally comes off as clammy affectation, rather than sincere apprehension.2 And because How To is build on layers of compounding rhetorical and vision metaphor, the storytelling can be, ah… disorienting. The show, wrote Allegra Frank for Vox last year, “often twists into awkward shapes to get from its basic points A to its more peculiar points B, and the journey is always funny in its strangeness.” Your mileage may vary.
But if you accept New York Times comedy columnist Jason Zinoman’s argument, as I mostly do, that How To “isn’t a show of heroes and villains, but quick portraits of real, complicated people, and its foundational faith is that they are funnier than anything performed by actors,” and look (and listen) past Wilson’s personal foibles and non-sequitur plots, you’ll find genuine tenderness and sublime humor in his own inquisitions, plus subjects and scenes that range from mundane to magnificent. Sometimes even both at once.
Which brings us back to “How to Appreciate Wine.” The episode’s trite problem statement would spell disaster for a conventional procedural. But what starts as a clever, if predictable meditation on wine’s overwhelming selection, inaccessible taxonomy, and subjective vocabulary soon ricochets off into domains that seem unrelated, even antithetical to oenology. And that’s where things get interesting.
For example: to put himself at ease with “consuming a piece of history,” Wilson links up with a guy who’s made a YouTube career out of eating and describing expired “meals ready to eat,” or MREs. After observing (and participating) in a taste test of some Vietnam War-era rations, the filmmaker surmises the lesson learned. “When you’re consuming a rare treat, make sure to take note of every flavor and sensation so everyone knows how much pleasure you’re getting out of it.” Is it a send-up of the wine world’s obsession with scarcity and posturing for status, or just a gambit to slot a fascinating character in an episode that wouldn’t otherwise have room for him?
Why not both? “The MRE guy, obviously it’s not the most practical way to teach how to appreciate wine,” Wilson told Frank in an interview with Slate in November. “But I always like to be a few degrees off, just because you could read any book, any wine book, and learn what you need to learn. But … if I’m looking at something, and I don’t understand why someone likes it, like wine or whatever, I go one door over, you know?”
In fairness, Wilson also spends time at conventional wine tastings, where he lets aficionado types wax poetic about flavors that may or may not exist. The raw footage is hard enough to watch, sort of an oenophilic “Emperor’s New Clothes,” but Wilson’s voiceover makes it downright brutal:
It seemed like the more you agreed with everyone, the more they treated you like one of their own. It felt kind of weird lying to these people, but maybe there's just some part of you that always just wants to fit in. No matter what.
Merciless stuff. But the skewering isn’t purely gratuitous. It sets up a lengthy “one door over” tangent that takes Wilson back to his alma mater, SUNY Binghamton. As a student, the filmmaker explains in his pinched deadpan, he joined an a capella group to find friends, and attended a singing invitational with the performers in Albany. The event turned out to be hosted by NXIVM, a notorious sex cult led by a charismatic leader named Keith Raniere, who has since been convicted for sex trafficking and sentenced to 120 years in prison.3 Catastrophe ensues. Reflecting on the (real) 2007 event, Wilson posits that the cult had hosted the summit in an effort to groom new members predisposed to crave conformity: “In their eyes, being in a capella had prequalified us a cult, because we were so eager to be accepted.”
This experience (which is objectively insane, all the more for Wilson’s understated retelling of it) leaves the filmmaker wary of phonies—and, when it comes to wine, of becoming one himself. “I really didn’t want to be a sheep like everybody else,” he says as the camera finds two gullible-looking white guys at a vineyard, before settling on a pasture full of… cows. (Cloven-hoof misdirection!)
How To S2E2 does a good job of analogizing the overwhelming sense of cliquishness, conspicuous consumption, and kayfabe that new drinkers often complain about as they enter the world of white and red. But the real triumph of “How to Appreciate Wine” comes when Wilson trains his lens on a different beverage entirely: energy drinks.