It’s a little, um, on the nose: sour grapes suggesting sour grapes. But the trope has become fairly standardized across shows and characters and genres, shared by the women of noirish drama as readily as those of low-stakes sitcom. (Even Cersei Lannister, who exists in Game of Thrones’s fantasy-fied parallel universe, will not be deprived of her goblets of wine.) Per the tropic convention, the wine in question is often, but not always, red—which is both moody and vaguely ominous, in the manner of Homer’s “wine-dark sea,” and also more practical from a TV-production standpoint than white (which can, if served chilled, present pesky problems of camera-awkward condensation).
And: The wine is often very generously poured—into traditional glasses, as with Olivia Pope’s iconically extended-stemmed versions, or, as in the long-running gag of Cougar Town, into the larger vessels, flower vases included, that its characters repurposed as wine goblets. (One episode of the show found Jules holding a funeral after the shattering of the glass she’d named Big Joe—who was, she eulogized, “always here when I needed him.”)
What most distinguishes the televised wine, though, is that it is most commonly used as a symbol of the stress that the woman who is drinking it is experiencing. There’s a notable darkness to the Pinots, be they blanc or noir, that Olivia and Alicia and Skyler and their fellow women—Jules included—down so voraciously: Theirs is not, for the most part, social wine or with-dinner wine. It is coping wine. It is medicative wine. It is wine that is often consumed alone. And it is wine that is, as an element of TV production, used by its respective storytellers as a visual metaphor for its drinkers’ worry and fear.
In that sense, the wine suggests something different than the things suggested by, say, the beers of Cheers or the sherries of Frasier or the cosmos of Sex and the City. Instead of conviviality and/or snobbery, the wine in this case suggests the stormy silence of that most modern of afflictions: stress. While traditional wine-drinking might suggest social confidence-building (“lubrication,” etc.), this version emphasizes introversion rather than extroversion: anger that steams into a closed vessel, fear that has no outlet. Olivia gulps wine when, you know, she thinks she might be murdered. Alicia does it when she thinks her husband might go to jail. Skyler, Claire, Carrie, Tami—their wine, to varying degrees of acuteness, indicates the pressures that bear down on them, constantly. And the notion that those pressures must be borne, ultimately, alone.
So while wine, as a beverage and as a cultural phenomenon, has several built-in signifiers—“whenever a character is shown drinking wine,” the site TV Tropes reports, “it’s usually a good sign that person is high class or sophisticated, especially if the wine comes from their special private stock”—the wine consumed by so many of TV’s recent women whiffs of more than the effete or the elite. During a time that finds wine “becoming part and parcel of America’s culture,” TV characters’ repeated Grenache-gulping suggests something both more basic and more specific: personal chaos. And the ritualization of that chaos.