Posted: 09/02/2011


Oz & James’ Big French Wine Adventure on DVD


by Joe Sanders

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Oz & James’ Big French Wine Adventure, or Oz & James’s Big Wine Adventure (as the show’s opening title sequence calls it), or James May’s Road Trip (as it was originally broadcast under) is a documentary series following James May (Top Gear) as he travels around the French countryside with wine expert Oz Clarke. Each of the six episodes follows May and Clarke to a different region of France, where they taste wine and explore the regional cultures surrounding different vintages. The hook is that James May has apparently no interest in learning about the process of making wine or the history of wine. His purpose going into the series is to simply give the viewers some idea of what the differences might be between the various bottles of wine an average consumer might consider purchasing at their local grocery store. So, the fact that Oz Clarke insists on exploring the processes and cultural significances behind every bottle is obviously frustrating for May, and creates some nice conflict between our hosts.

Fans of BBC’s Top Gear will likely find this title very interesting as well. James May is, at his core, an entertainer, and he never fails to bring his trademark charisma and whit to the screen. The primary difference between watching this and watching an episode of Top Gear is that here we see May outside of his comfort zone. While there is occasionally an old car for him to enjoy and impart some knowledge about, we mostly get to see him uncomfortable and cross, which is an interesting new light for May. On the other hand, we have Oz Clarke, who May refers to as a “wine ponce,” or someone who takes wine way too seriously to be taken seriously themselves. Clarke’s arrogance about wine does come across as really pretentious, and if the show were about Oz Clarke traveling the French countryside alone and sampling wine, this would be unbearable. But thankfully, the contrast between the two hosts’ characters creates a very entertaining half hour of television.

The show has a strong, oaky base with a Sideways like feel, along with the slightly bitter, slightly fruity smell of The Odd Couple and a hint of Man vs. Wild that will surprise the audience’s pallet on occasion. Now, this wine rhetoric may be a bit cutesy, but it gets at something which I find really interesting about this show: watching it is a bit like drinking a bottle of wine, or so I would imagine. At first, this is not going to be to everyone’s liking. I was rather annoyed by the first episode with its over-scripted voice-over narration, as well as Clarke’s professorial persona annoyingly quizzing May on his ability to identify smells in wines. However, as I continued to watch, these little criticisms did fade away. The narration got less annoying, and the challenges that Clarke invents for May to accomplish at the end of each episode continued to get more entertaining. So, with each episode serving as a metaphorical glass of wine, I quickly became intoxicated with the series, legitimately wanting to see where our dynamic duo would take me next.

If you’re hoping to learn a lot about wine, then Oz & James’ Big French Wine Adventure probably isn’t the right choice. I’m convinced that there must be more informative wine-related travel programs on DVD, but I imagine there are precious few available that are this entertaining. Which isn’t to say that this series has no educational merit; there is something to be learned about wine here, and James May takes great delight throughout the series in announcing “wine facts” anytime he manages to learn something.

The DVD itself is not at all impressive. There are absolutely no special features. Not even subtitles or alternate audio tracks (not even French, which is ironic). Also, viewers will have to play each episode individually as the DVD menu doesn’t bother to include a “Play All” button.

Joe Sanders is a playwright and college instructor in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has a Master’s degree in playwriting and a Bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches Thought and Writing.

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