In early July I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with Michael Bishop, aka “Big Blind Mike.” He was quite easy to spot outside the Underground station where we had arranged to meet. He is big (or perhaps I am small) and he is “legally” blind.
Mike is a friend of a friend of a friend. He worked for Oddbins in London and Vintage Cellars in Australia before deciding to sell his shares in Woolworths (the Australian supermarket chain, not connected in any way to the recently deceased British version) to fund a television show called The Wine Squad, which Mike describes as “the footy show but for wine… we’re basically comedians.” There’s certainly plenty of footy language that would probably cause Daily Mail readers to tut in disapproval.
The Wine Squad is broadcast on Channel 31 in Australia, more specifically in Victoria. Wine choices are therefore “pro-Victorian, pro-Australian,” explains Mike, who co-hosts with Tony Clark, who is completely blind, and Gage Rositer.
There are 13 episodes per series to make it fit into a quarterly schedule. The most recent series assessed bottles in the A$15–25 range. Before the credit crunch hit, the range went up to A$40.
There is at least one winemaker guest on each show, who presents a range of their wines. “The winemakers were very reserved in the early shows, in their shell,” Mike told me. There is also a non-wine “celebrity” guest. These have included the (female) Tai Chi world champion and a Melbourne comedian called Andrew McClelland (never ’eard of ’em).
Some faux pas that a stricter producer might have cut are left in. For example, Mike asked Kathleen Quealy of Quealy Wines if her estate was named after a suburb of Mornington Peninsula. “Actually, it’s my surname,” pointed out Kathleen.
Blind tasting is taken literally: the tasters wear a blindfold to assess three wines on a “how much would you drink” basis—one glass, a quarter, half, three-quarters or a full bottle. Remarkably, there were no spillages in the four episodes that I watched. As Mike quipped in one episode, these blind tastings are “where good intentions always go sour.” Seemingly fearful of litigation, Channel 31 puts a disclaimer at the start of each program: “The opinions of the wine reviewers are strictly their own.”
Of course, the reputations of tasters and wines can be made or broken in a blind tasting. Gage Rositer was consistently good in his guesses. Grange was deemed by all to be no better than a A$25 red. The Wine Squad doesn’t take itself seriously, but nor does it pull its punches. Penfolds (again!) Club Port was dismissed as “sweet, cheap and high in alcohol.”
The set is very sparse—a table, some chairs and some bottle-filled wine racks in the background. But it costs A$30,000 to make a 13-episode series. Chatting with Mike gave me an insight into how much is required to make even a no-frills show like this. There are 16 people on the credits at the end of each program. No wonder Mike was persuaded by a producer to stay in the studio rather than go on location—the numbers would probably have doubled.
The Wine Squad is unpretentious, sometimes highly amusing, often informative and well worth a look. More details at http://bigblindmike.com.au/