In the UK: Tuesdays, 8pm, BBC2
You couldn’t have predicted that the first series of Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure was going to be a success. James May is very much the superfluous member of the Top Gear team. Sure, it wouldn’t be the same without him, but sometimes it’s barely noticeable that he’s there, except when Clarkson and Hamster need someone to put down. Stick him by himself and it’s a disaster, since it exposes his worst and most boring tendencies.
Oz Clarke is, of course, a very famous wine taster. But he used to get overshadowed by the “mad as a box of frogs” Jilly Goolden on Food and Drink something chronic, since he was relatively normal, despite being a former actor who’d appeared in Superman of all things.
However, stick them together on a wine tour of France in an old Jaguar, and it turns out you have TV gold. Since cars are notably more masculine and rugged than wine-tasting, May suddenly became the alpha male – even after talking about classical music and harpsichord playing, his ability to cut through the pretension of Oz Clarke made him several hundred times more manly and interesting than he’d ever been previously.
And since it was a wine show, Oz Clarke’s expertise allowed him to maintain an equal footing with May; May’s occasional return to car bore mode also allowed Clarke to gain the upper hand on occasion and to look down on May’s unsophistication. By the end of it, a firm friendship and a new double act emerged.
Now comes a second series of the show. This time, Clarke and May are going on a tour of California in a majestic RV, with Clarke once again trying to instil in May a knowledge and love of wine that doesn’t come easily to the petrolhead. While it doesn’t quite have the charm of the first series, it’s still an entertaining show that anyone can appreciate.
The Clarke and May California Tour 2007 stopped first in Santa Barbara County, to take in the sights and wines popularised by Sideways. Without the language barrier that France presented to May, it’s a lot easier for him to interact with the locals. He also still remembers big chunks of the wine knowledge he gleaned in France, so he’s able to express opinions, compare the wines, ask questions and take part in wine-tastings without embarrassing either Clarke or himself.
Although you might have thought that May and Clarke wouldn’t have too much to learn about each still, May is able to surprise Clarke with a ridiculously luxurious RV, complete with master bedroom, and unexpected acts of kindness, such as offering to sleep on the sofa since he’d been hard to live with in the first series. Similarly, Clarke is able to surprise May with his international reputation and attractive Californian groupies.
I have to confess it’s not quite as good as the first series. Although surfing and the Pacific all have their charms, they lack the romance of the French countryside. The fact that May is no longer a complete beginner means we’ve moved on from learning about terroire in favour of the best way to spit out your wine after you’ve tasted it. And there’s a far higher degree of artifice – I have my suspicions about how staged certain events were, although it’s not yet approaching Top Gear levels.
All the same, there’s a great double act here. May’s initial confusion and then all-embracing delight at meeting childhood hero Fess Parker, who now runs a vineyard, is a delight for us as well. The self-shot footage of Clarke and May smashed out of their minds and taking the piss out of each other at night in their RV (“You’re so drunk, you don’t even realising you’re saying it like a stereotypical Frenchman!”) is equally fun. And the show is also mildly educational.
So if you’re into Californian wines and want to learn more in the company of some quite interesting people, Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure is half an hour a week worth tuning in for.