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 obvious, 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.