1956, 1961, 2001…What’s the Difference?

I was watching the latest episode of, Mad Men, the best new drama on Television, and I swear I saw something very interesting and very wine related.

Toward the end of the latest episode, Mr. and Mrs. Draper are having a quiet late dinner together at home. Mrs. Draper, the consummate housewife, admits to having "thrown the dinner together with what’s leftover." Mr. Draper assures her is a wonderful dinner.

On the kitchen table sits, I’m almost positive, a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild. If anyone watches this great series take a look at the last ten minutes and let me know if I’m right.

One of the most satisfying things about this series is the authenticity of the set design and it’s fidelity to the details of 1960. Did upper middle class couples drink Lafite with their dinner of leftovers in 1960?

I’m not complaining that the set designers got it wrong, and I might even be wrong about the identity of the wine. What it made me think about is the degree to which a wine can be used in dramatic productions to set the stage or the era.

We know that wine is often used in film and TV to tell us something about the characters. Most often a character’s relationship with wine is used to indicate their degree of snobbishness or their socio-economic position or, in some cases, to indicate they are a poser. That use of wine is what it is, and hard to complain about. But I wonder if wine can ever be used as a prop to simply indicate a time period?

We most often see this done in the form of wardrobe, the cars on the streets, surrounding historical events or the type of popular entertainment the characters indulge in. It seems to me that wine is a very poor item with which to try to indicate the time period of a story. The reason is that the packaging of wine has changed so very little over the years. Take a look, for example at the difference between the 1961 and 2001 Lafite labels.

Tough to tell the difference. And this is par for the course with wine packaging. Now, there are exceptions. Mouton, with it’s new art on each new vintage, would be a perfect example of defining the time, but only the most sophisticated wine drinker would notice the implications. Add to this the fact that you can’t assume the vintage of a wine indicates the year it is being drunk and you see the problem with using wine to help set the era in drama.

This is all rather o1956bvious, I know. But I can’t help but think the wine for this "Mad Men" was surely chosen carefully by the set designers since every other item in the frames are very carefully chosen to recreate 1960. So, here is my question. If you did want to be really anal and choose a very specific wine to portray an upper middle class married couple eating a late night supper in their suburban home in 1960 east coast America…what would you put on the table?

First, I think it’s clearly French. In 1960 California wine really hadn’t penetrated the American culture. Second, I think the wine is probably from around 1953-1956. Let’s face it, why would you have this couple opening a wine that is older, given the impression then and now that older wine is more special wine and this is not a "special" dinner. Third,  well, there is no third. There is not much else a set designer could do to use wine as a time indicator given the degree of interest in wine that existed in 1960 and given the degree of knowledge of wine that the average American currently possesses. They’d be wasting the nuance of using the 1956 Mouton with its Pavel Techelitchew label.

In other worlds, "Mad Men" set designers got it right again. Damn…those folks are good.

10 Responses

  1. RichardA - September 15, 2007

    I am a big fan of Mad Men as well. I watched the latest episode, with my DVR, and still could not verify exactly what wine it was. They seemed to keep the wine label blurred in the closer shots. Even putting the show on “still” could not get any details. Though what is visible would certainly fit with the Lafite labels you posted.

  2. dfredman - September 15, 2007

    Depending on what sort of message the set decorator wanted to send, a bottle of Bordeaux could well be the “school night” wine of choice for the star of an ad agency at that time. More likely though, they’d be drinking a bottle (screw cap, most likely) of Roma, Italian Swiss Colony or perhaps Paul Masson. French wine and bottles with corks would most likely be saved for the weekend.

  3. MonkuWino - September 15, 2007

    I am wondering – back in those days would the typical(and I’m not familiar with this show so I don’t know how “typical” the Drapers are) American family of any social class be drinking wine? Was wine that common on the American dinner table back then?

  4. Gene - Seattle Wine Blog - September 15, 2007

    Hi Tom, Don’t know the show, but wine was a rare commodity on American tables until the 1980s. Robert Parker and many of us cut our teeth on the 1970 vintage of Bordeaux. Only “francophiles” and a few upperclass in certain enclaves such as the Upper Eastside of New York might have had French wine on the table, let alone Lafite, although you could buy it for a song in those days. Gene – Seattle Wine Blog

  5. MonkuWino - September 15, 2007

    In response to Gene’s post, that brought to mind Kermit Lynch’s monthly wine brochures that he published in book form. Perusing the earliest years (late 70’s, early 80’s), it’s amazing how low the prices were for wine, including (especially) Burgundies. Prices for a whole case much less than what one bottle runs these days. And stuff like Cote Rotie – so little known, you could buy those for even less than a song back then!

  6. Jill - September 15, 2007

    Tom, I think you need to get on over to Facebook and join the MAD MEN on AMC group!
    My question would be regarding rights and clearances. Something with a recognizable label would probably need clearance through the legal department, and it would be a pain in the ass to clear something that wasn’t American. So it seems unlikely that the set decorators and Art Director would choose something that was as specific since it would cost time and money to clear it.
    However, the art department could certainly create an approximation in order to represent the bottle you’re referring to. Given the uniqueness of the label and the attention to detail that the show demonstrates episode after episode, this would be my guess: a hand-made label from the art department that is meant to represent the Mouton label without actually being an exact replica.
    Okay, so there’s really no difference then, is there?

  7. Alastair Bathgate - September 17, 2007

    When is this show coming to the UK?

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  10. emilie - April 15, 2011

    there was also a bottle of lafite on the table at the office party for the nixon/kennedy election night. that surely wasn’t authenticity. must be an inside joke

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