James Purefoy has played some incredible characters, from the bone-chilling Joe Carroll in The Following to the charmingly reckless Hap Collins in Hap and Leonard. But with The Wine Show season 3 premiering on Sundance Now this week, audiences will get to enjoy more of his best role: just being himself, having a sublime adventure and drinking a lot of wine.
It’s not something he ever expected to be doing; it’s a project that he somewhat fell into. “I was doing a remake of Roots for the USA Network with Matthew Goode,” James recalled, “and between takes or between days when we weren’t working he was looking at rushes for a show he’d just done, The Wine Show, with Matthew Rhys, who is another old friend of mine. And I loved it. I thought oh, this is a great show—it’s so warm, it’s so friendly, it’s so easy to watch. It’s just a nice way to spend an hour of your evening.”
Little did he know he’d end up being part of it. “The following year I was doing Altered Carbon in Vancouver and Matthew called to say, ‘Look, Matthew Rhys has pulled out because he’s got a job doing The Post with Steven Spielberg.’ A terrible excuse not to do it,” he joked. “He said ‘Would you like to come and do it with me?’ I went, “Yeah, absolutely, I’d like to come and do it with you.'”
Thus began James Purefoy’s excellent adventure. Season 3 of The Wine Show finds him, the two Matthews, and newcomer Dominic West (of The Wire and The Affair fame) headquartered in Portugal, on a quest to discover the wine landscape of the country. It’s picturesque, it’s entertaining, and it’s charming to see these talented folks we know and love just being themselves. Which is also what makes it a little bit intimidating, if you’re James.
“That’s slightly terrifying,” he laughed. “I have a theory about a lot of actors. I think quite a lot of actors aren’t too enamored with themselves and have problems with themselves, and that’s why they like hiding behind other people and pretending to be other people. Being asked to be myself, well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish, isn’t it? I mean, that could be unspeakably awful to watch. So that took a couple of days, for me to get my head around the fact that I was just being me.
“I remember when Dominic West arrived, because he was brought in very short notice and he’s an old friend of mine. He’d arrived at 3:00 AM in Portugal the night before, and he’d come down to breakfast about nine, and he and the producer and I sat down to talk about what we were going to do,” he told me. “After we’d finished talking to him about the whole thing, he said, ‘Okay, just one thing, one thing—who am I?’ ‘Well, you’re just you.’ “What? Good God, I’ve just got to be me?!’ Terrified. Absolutely terrified.
“Matthew Rhys was the same,” he added. “We’re trained, like highly trained athletes, not to look down the camera, never to look down the barrel of the lens. So actually looking down the camera was a whole new experience. I’ve been doing this job for 30-odd years now and I’ve never had to do that before. The little adjustments you have to make from being an actor to being a presenter were a lot more challenging than I thought they would be.”
Yet that’s what gives The Wine Show its charm. It takes a subject that could be terribly pretentious and serves it to us through the lens of these four actors who could not be any less full of themselves. And now, returning for his second season, James has settled into this part he never thought to inhabit.
“I think now, I feel very comfortable. I feel quite comfortable in my useful idiot role, which is that I ask the questions that you would ask if you were there,” he said. “The man or woman on the couch, they want to know the answers to questions, and often those questions might be really obvious questions like how do you make rose? Is that red and white wine mixed together? I didn’t know what the answer to that question was.
“When winemakers or wine enthusiasts talk about a long finish or a good nose or any of the jargon that wine enthusiasts use, I will quite unashamedly say what does that mean? What is a long nose? What is a long finish? How do you make rosé? What is that? I will ask the questions that I think the viewers would want the answer to. Or simply, how much is that wine? Be vulgar about it and ask how much does it cost per bottle.”
In that sense, James Purefoy is the human embodiment of what The Wine Show is about. You do not have to be a wine expert or a wine enthusiast to enjoy it. You don’t even have to drink to get something out of it. He’s the guy that, quite wonderfully, will take you by the hand and help you navigate this interesting world. And even if you don’t care about wine at all, you can get a real joy out of watching this grand tour. This series is the European vacation with best friends that we’ve all dreamed of but few of us will get to have. Watching it, we get to take that trip for an hour.
“My friends on the show, Matthew Goode and Matthew Rhys and Dominic and Joe [Fattorini] and Amelia [Singer], all of the other presenters, they’re so cool and so easy to be with, and we have a good rapport,” James explained. “We have a saying on The Wine Show which is, does it give you pleasure? All the marketing in the world, all the costs in the world, the label, all the ridiculous shit that is spoken about wine—at the end of the day, all that matters is does it give you pleasure?
“You can get as much pleasure out of an $8 bottle of wine as you would from a $200 bottle of wine. It’s all about context. It’s who you’re with, what time of day, where’s the sun, what’s the temperature outside? What are you eating? All the things that change the taste of a glass of wine. I’ve now become more attuned to those things perhaps, although I am by no means an expert. The more I realize there is to know, the less I realize I know.”
Of course, when your show is called The Wine Show and you have to spend a certain amount of time-consuming alcohol, there’s the inherent risk of getting a little tipsy. “In the [second] season, without a shadow of a doubt, there were times when we were just drunk,” James laughed. “Because we’d been drinking so much wine and it was just part of the territory, It was part of the job description to drink wine. I’m now a lot more attuned now to just having the very smallest sip.
“But certainly the second season, [there were] definitely times where the producers said ‘All right, boys, I think you need to go and have a little snooze,’ and would send us off to a bedroom somewhere to lie down for a bit and gather ourselves because we’d got a little bit giddy.”
Having fun with his friends, though, is only one of James’ highlights from The Wine Show season 3.
“One of the things about making a television show is it gives you access to places that you would never normally get access,” he said. “There’s an amazing place called the British Factory House. All the great port makers built this amazing house, a huge Palladian mansion in the middle of Porto, where they could all meet and gather and talk wine. And they have a vast—ten thousand bottles, I think—collection of port in their cellars.
“One of my favorite things there was they have two dining rooms. One to eat in, and then a completely identical dining room next door. When I say dining room, it’s a table with 26 seats, so it’s a big dining room. Then next door, they have another dining room that’s absolutely identical, where you go to drink the port because they don’t want the smell of the food to confuse them or infect their taste. It’s so eccentric, it’s just marvelous.”
“And then there were some wines that we drank, that again are incredibly rare and difficult to get hold of,” he added. “Some of them were all right…But then there were others that just blew you away. You just realize how little you know about wine, and how extraordinary it is that in this bottle there is something in there that is…There’s a line that I did in a play once where the character drinks some wine, and I think I use it in the show, where he says, ‘Good God. That’s like Jesus Christ almighty slipping down your throat in a pair of red velvet britches.'”
Between the one-of-a-kind experiences, the incredible locations, and the heartwarming camaraderie, The Wine Show is unlike anything James Purefoy has ever done before and something that he clearly has enjoyed doing as much as we’ve enjoyed watching him do it. So does he ever see himself becoming a television presenter again?
“I never say never because it depends what somebody comes to you with, don’t they,” he told me. “But right now this is the perfect show for me because I’m doing it in places that I love, with people I’m very fond of. Learning about wine is just a really deep and profound pleasure, and to be paid to do it is even better.”