The Master of the Cork returns

The Master of the Cork returns
The ultimate wine snob, Frasier Crane, is back – but how does the sherry-loving Seattle shrink’s wonderful pretension compare to the modern-day version, asks Henry Jeffreys
There’s a new series of Frasier coming on 12th October on Paramount+ but anyone watching the trailer is in for a shock. No, it’s not that Rodney (from the much-loved British sitcom Only Fools and Horses) is in it – it’s that Frasier himself is drinking beer. Fans of the original series will remember Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) and his brother Niles, played by David Hyde Pierce, who’s sadly not in the new series, as two of the greatest wine lovers to ever appear on the small screen. A pair of status-obsessed psychiatrists in Seattle, Frasier has a radio phone-in while Niles is in private practice. It’s a spin-off from Cheers, where Frasier was one of the regulars in the Boston bar. Unlike its great rival of the ’90s and early 2000s, Friends, which was almost completely dry, Frasier was soaked in alcohol (and so apparently at times was Grammer himself). Frasier’s everyday drink – sherry – marks him out as a bit unusual. The actual brand isn’t made clear because they pour it from a decanter. Sometimes it’s light like a fino, or darker like an amontillado. In one episode it’s described as an ‘Andalusian amontillado’ but in another a strangely familiar blue bottle appears. Could the ultimate wine snob really be a fan of Harvey’s Bristol Cream? While the sherry might be anonymous, the series is full of more specific references to splendid wines like Vieux Château Certan 1975 or Le Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche 1985. Some of the funniest moments involve misidentification of bottles at the brothers’ wine club. Niles: ‘I convinced some of my fellow psychiatrists to play a little prank on him. When he thought he was tasting the Château Pétrus, he was in fact sipping a Fourcas Dupré. You see, we'd switched the labels.’ In another Frasier says: ‘I had kind of a rough night at the wine club. During the blindfolded tasting, I gave four stars to a Mexican Zinfandel.’ The brothers’ competitive oenophilia reaches its apogee when they go head-to-head in a blind tasting to become ‘master of the cork’ - there’s even a song that the other members sing to the victor: ‘Hail cork master, the master of the cork, he knows which wine goes with fish or pork.’ Niles wins on a technicality. While the wine is important, so are the rules. As Frasier puts it, the club is ‘just about wine and clear constitutional procedures for enjoying it’. Watching the orginal Frasier now, what stands out is how formal they both are, Frasier in his sports jackets and Italian knits, and Niles always in boxy double-breasted suits. They could really be in the 1950s, not the 21st century. Their restaurant of choice - Le Cigare Volante - is all white tablecloths and snooty French waiters. The name of the restaurant means The Flying Cigar, the French term for a UFO, and also the name of a wine made by the veteran California Rhône pioneer Randall Grahm, who recently told me that a producer on Frasier was a fan. If you look at films from the 1980s and earlier, this rarified Frenchness is what passed for upmarket in America, and indeed in Britain too. Think of the restaurant scenes in The Blues Brothers or in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Both films were set in Chicago and feature Chez Paul (a real place) and Chez Quis (imaginary) respectively. Meanwhile top New York restaurants had names like Lutèce and Le Cirque. Frasier seems to me to be the last gasp of how the American liberal elite used to behave, taking their wines and food from France, their music and clothes from Italy, and literature and theatre from England (the Crane boys are both terrific Anglophiles and over the years there were cameo appearances by top thespians like Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart). Nowadays the elite dresses like Succession’s Kendall Roy: expensive hoodies, gilets and New Balance trainers. Even the Senate has dropped its dress code. There’s an episode of Frasier called ‘The Great Crane Robbery’ where a tech billionaire (he’d be called a ‘tech bro’ now) buys Frasier’s radio station. He dresses in jeans and a hoodie but wants to ape Frasier’s look and taste. Today it would be the other way round: if you dress formally it’s either because you have to, or because you’re hopelessly out of date. British journalist Robert Peston was recently outraged at not being allowed into a St James’s club in his ‘comfortable mid-top trainers’. I doubt the top restaurants in Seattle have a dress code anymore. The Bordeaux one-upmanship of the Crane brothers seems like a relic of another age. Anyone who thinks we’re now more relaxed about wine appreciation, however, should listen to wine enthusiasts today obsess over the right glasses – something that even Frasier didn’t do. And while nobody is going to snigger over your mispronunciation of Potensac when eating out, as happened to me once, you might well get a lecture on the ethics of organic wine from a sommelier with a pierced septum. In some ways we have just swapped one set of arcane rules and rituals for others that are even harder to follow – I wonder how the modern fetishization of biodynamics and natural wines will look in a few years. There is one area, however, where Frasier looks like quite the wine hipster: his love of sherry. Though he should know it should never be served at room temperature in a tiny glass.
Henry Jeffreys worked in the wine trade and publishing before becoming a writer. He is features editor for the Master of Malt blog, contributor to BBC Good Food, wine columnist for The Critic magazine, and has appeared on radio and TV. He won Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year in 2022 and is the author of three books including Empire of Booze and Vines in a Cold Climate.
If you want to learn more about Frasier's favourite drink, read Ben Howkins' Sherry – Maligned, Misunderstood, Magnificent! available in our bookstore.
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