This week’s series finale of The Good Wife gave the show’s protagonist, Alicia Florrick, a problem that is not the worst kind to have, all things considered: The high-powered lawyer had to choose, once and for all, among the three suitors who’d courted her through the show’s seven seasons. As Alicia struggled with the decision, she tried to imagine what life would be like—day-by-day, year-by-year—with each man. She played out the scenes in her mind, imagining coming home to each one. There was Jason, tall and typically shaggy, standing in her kitchen, holding two bulbous glasses of red wine. There was Peter, in the same place, with the same glasses. And, finally, there was Will, with … yep.
Alicia’s imagined homecomings offered a moment of romantic melodrama—potential futures to be chosen and rejected—but they also offered, for The Good Wife’s hardcore viewers, a winking nod to one of the show’s most oft-repeated bits of character development: Alicia Florrick is a woman who really, really likes wine. Something to celebrate? Wine. Long day at work? Same. Stressful day with the family? Same. Wine, wine, wine—red and generously poured and gulped as often as it’s sipped.
Alicia is not alone in her penchant for televised oenophilia (scroenophilia?). She shares her habit with Olivia Pope. And Tami Taylor. And Skyler White. And Carrie Mathison. And Claire Underwood. And Joyce Flynn. And many, many other TV characters—almost all of them women—who telegraph their internal turmoil via swigs of Syrah.
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.
Alicia drinks wine, she once explained, because it’s something she used to do every day when she was a housewife—a quotidian ceremony that carried over as her life became both more exciting and more turbulent. Tami turns to the (wine) bottle after a hard day at work, or while she and Eric are having financial worries, or when any other stressor emerges. (She does it enough to have earned some loving mockery from Amy Schumer.) For Lindsay in You’re the Worst, wine suggests the systemic rejection of adulthood and its responsibilities. For Joyce and Victoria Flynn in Mike & Molly, too, wine is much more than a beverage: It becomes a metaphor, in its blithely sitcomic way, for the anxieties of the American middle class. The women drink because their lives are hard: not violently hard, or tragically hard, but paycheck-to-paycheck and bill-to-bill hard.
From a production standpoint, it makes sense that TV writers and producers would turn so repeatedly to wine to do that telegraphic work. Stress is universal—and thus literarily compelling—but also notoriously hazy and hard to quantify, even for those who are experiencing it. And it tends to manifest, externally, not as itself, but as other things: quickness to anger. A penchant for tears. Or, perhaps, a tendency to swig Zinfandel from a bulbous, 23-ounce goblet, if not right from the bottle. Wine in that sense is extremely effective as a visual indication of inner turmoil. (“Everyone has a tell,” Quinn tells Olivia, in Scandal. “Yours is wine. Red wine. Rare, complex, fantastic red wine.”)
It’s notable, though, that the wine-drinking trope tends to be realized by female characters. Rowan Pope, Olivia’s father and the person who instilled in her her love of those red wines, indulges his own taste for them via sips and strategic food-pairings and an unapologetic use of the word “palate.” Wine, for him, suggests the things it traditionally did, when wine was the beverage of the elite: structure, refinement, and an appreciation for “the finer things” that is, above all, measured and moderate. Eric Taylor has wine with his dinner, sure—because Tami has served it to him—but he doesn’t gulp it with the vague air of desperation that his wife does. Same with Frank Underwood. You rarely see TV’s men gulping wine from goblets, alone in their kitchens—and, if you do, the sight of such hard-and-hermited drinking will likely suggest, in the manner of Don Draper, A Problem.
And that’s the problem with the women-and-wine trope: It refuses to acknowledge anything problematic about its characters’ reliance on wine. Instead, it presents their ritualized wine-gulping as, simply, a fact of female life. “In theory,” The New York Times’s Eric Asimov noted of the emergence of the trope, in 2014, “it’s a nod in the direction of Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca, downing shots to dull the pain of Ilsa Lund’s reappearance with another man. In practice, it’s different because it’s wine, not spirits, and those who love wine see it as far more than a numbing palliative for heartache and anxiety.”
It’s also different, though, because it’s Alicia, not Rick, who is using the alcohol in this way. It’s Claire. It’s Carrie. Wine—through which, according to its connoisseurs, one can taste the subtle flavors of the earth—is acting as a metaphor for anxieties that are internalized rather than converted into external action. And the fact that the trope is so commonly applied to female characters suggests—vaguely but also, in its repetition, insistently—that women are, uniquely, subject to that kind of helplessness. The problems faced by Olivia and Alicia and Skyler and their fellow ladies were created, largely, by men; the wine suggests, in its way, that they must be solved by those men. It suggests the extent to which these women—whom their respective shows have presented as strong and independent and even heroic—are also passive participants in their own lives. Kathie Lee Gifford, who with Hoda Kotb regularly drinks it’s-5-o’clock-somewhere glasses of wine during the Today show, explained that the wine is there “to keep the mood festive and to keep it light and happy and uplifting.” If only it served the same purpose for those women’s fictional counterparts.