Looking for a good happy hour? Try cable TV.

January 28, 2011

It could be argued that Zane Lamprey has the greatest job in America.

The comedian hosts "Drinking Made Easy," a half-hour, tour-bus romp through America's bars, breweries and backyard distillation projects each Wednesday night on HDNet. As near as can be determined, the man's job is to drink, hang out with buddies and be at work on time tomorrow. "Three Sheets," the 52-episode international version of the idea (filmed a few years ago and also starring Lamprey) starts a new airing on Spike TV on Feb. 8 at 10:30 p.m.

Of course, Lamprey has competition for the greatest-job title.

Actor Stanley Tucci's job description on "Vine Talk," a wine-tasting gabfest slated to debut on PBS in April, is to chat with famous friends on camera, sip vino in a blind tasting and pick a favorite. It's a hard day at the office for Darryl Robinson, host of "Drink Up" on the Cooking Channel, where the weekly cocktail-making vibe is all cosmopolitan sophistication.

Aspiring vineyard owners take on the oenological craft, and one another, in "The Winemakers," a reality-show competition now filming its second season for PBS. (The first season starts re-airing in 224 markets, including Washington, on Feb. 17.)

There has been the occasional cable or PBS series about the finer aspects of wine and spirits before, but the past two years have been a televised bender of precedent-breaking proportions. Shows with shots? Yes! Shows with swirling the glass to let the wine breathe? Yes! Shows with a swizzle stick? Sure! From the stunt drinking on Lamprey's travelogue (he "drinks a beer that can kill chickens" is one plot summary) to Tucci's and Robinson's urbane wit, couch potatoes can now sit, drink and talk, while watching other people sit, drink and talk.

"We were going to Hawaii and some guy [in the production meeting] says, 'We'll need a day to acclimate,' " Lamprey says by telephone from his home in Toluca Lake, Calif. "And I said, 'Dude, it's Hawaii! We're not filming a documentary on pineapple production. It's drinking!' "

Bruce Marcus, creator and executive producer of "Vine Talk," takes a more sober (sorry!) approach. He's been producing lifestyle programming on PBS for 16 years. He says the evolution toward shows focused on alcohol, particularly wine, has been a slow progression.

"No one ever developed a series that truly increased the comfort level of the viewer with wine. The shows always ended up with wine experts prancing through the fields of France." He laughs. "I've produced shows like that, but very few people watch, and there was no business model to keep it on the air."

But for Robinson, the 37-year-old host of "Drink Up" and a bartender by trade, the sudden popularity in bar and wine shows is a natural. People are fascinated with the craft of creating an excellent wine or, for that matter, a single-barrel bourbon, he points out. They want to be able to order well in restaurants, or mix a nifty cocktail for guests at home. And "have a drink" is synonymous with "relax and sit for a minute."

"It's a $65 billion industry, so the fact is that people drink," he says. "Almost everyone does, to some level or another, to the point where it's a real statement for someone not to drink. So, if there are 100 cooking shows because everybody eats, the market seems underserved with four or five drinking shows."

Bringing in the reality-show concept is "The Winemakers," which bills itself as the country's "#1 television series about wine," landing in 2 million households.

The idea is familiar: 12 contestants from varied backgrounds vie for the chance to become a winemaker, with their product shipped across the nation. They face elimination rounds each week: working the harvest at a vineyard, selling the stuff at a wine-tasting event in California wine country, creating a label and blending a new wine. Each step is judged by an expert panel.

Russ Outon, 36, a wine seller in Austin, won Season 1, which was filmed from 2006 to 2008. Winning the competition with a label called 45 RPM helped him land a job at Siduri in Sonoma County. When reached last week, he was back in Texas briefly to finish packing up.

"We sold six or seven thousand cases," he said. "It definitely was a springboard."

Popping a cork is familiar territory for the show's D.C.-based production company, Free Run Productions. Producer Kevin Whelan developed such shows as "Wine 101" (with host David Hyde Pierce), "Tales From the Vineyard" in 2002 and "Uncorked: Wine Made Simple" in 2007.

"We have all the reality-show gimmicks with 'The Winemakers'; the competition is certainly there, but there's a lot of education going on, too," Whelan says.

Then there's "Drinking Made Easy."

It's a nationwide pub crawl with each stop illuminating a city's famous (or notorious) bars and watering holes. Lamprey and co-hosts Steve McKenna and Marc Ryan hit 53 cities in 26 states in less than three months last summer, filming 24 episodes. They hit Arizona's oldest bar, Aunt Chilada's, and New Orleans's legendary Lafitte Blacksmith Shop, knocking back regional specials in each spot.

HDNet honcho Mark Cuban said in an e-mail exchange that he'd been after Lamprey to host a show after seeing "Three Sheets," which started out in 2006. Cuban says the market is 21-to-54-year-old guys. He'll use the upcoming season to anchor the network's "Drinks and a Movie" night on Wednesdays.

Lamprey says he learned early on that just sampling each beverage on the show was the key to surviving the tour.

"The first pilot I did [for 'Three Sheets'] I wondered if they wanted somebody funny, knowledgeable and who could drink like a fish. I did all three. I gave a performance that I can't give again."

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