(Warning: This article contains spoilers)
Wine is frequently used throughout HBO’s Succession, not only to signal power in various social and business circumstances, but to aid in the characterization of key players.
This is seen when Connor Roy, eldest son of Waystar Royco patriarch Logan Roy, reveals his peculiar brand of delusion through hyper-decanting expensive Burgundy by whizzing it through a Vitamix. And when youngest son Roman Roy masks his insecurity by posturing that having to drink Merlot was the scariest part of an actual hostage situation. Even Greg Hirsch, the country cousin of the Roy family, demonstrates his transformation from California Pizza Kitchen-loving neophyte to card-carrying oenophile over the course of two seasons by dismissing a bottle of rosé Champagne as “not my favorite.”
But nobody uses wine as a token to signal high status quite like Tom Wambsgans, the only banner character who wasn’t born into wealth nor shares DNA with the Roy family. For Tom, wine is more than an occasional characterizing detail. His desperation to belong to the society into which he married is constantly played out through what he says and does with wine.
“Information is like a bottle of fine wine,” Tom instructs his protégé, cousin Greg, in season four’s eighth episode. “You store it, you hoard it, you save it for a special occasion and then you smash someone’s fucking face in with it.”
As the series draws to its conclusion, here’s a look back at Tom’s most memorable wine moments.
Wine as a Symbol of Wealth
In season one episode six, Tom takes cousin Greg out to show him “how to be rich,” where wine helps to introduce Tom’s ethos on what it means to be wealthy.
“How come the wine list doesn’t have any prices?” Greg asks.
“Because they’re obscene,” Tom responds. “Here’s the thing about being rich; it’s fucking great. It’s like being a superhero, only better.”
Never minding the fact that even Manhattan’s most expensive restaurants readily publish their bottle prices, Tom’s first memorable wine moment demonstrates his true relationship to money. While the Roys often wear their wealth inconspicuously, Tom prefers, metaphorically speaking, technicolor tights and a cape. At dinner with Greg, he cannot hide his glee that the wine list prices are of no concern.
Aleks Zecevic, Wine Enthusiast wine reviewer for Austria and Germany and writer at large, recognizes this kind of flex among label-conscious collectors who are more interested in cache than the actual wine. “Sommelier friends have also told me about wealthy people ordering expensive bottles at restaurants and placing them on the table with labels facing away so others can see what they’re drinking,” he says. Given Tom’s quote above, it’s a move one can easily imagine him pulling.
Wine as a Power Move
Tom arrived as an executive at Waystar Royco, at least initially, through his own intelligence and business acumen. But it was marrying the boss’s daughter, Shiv, that guaranteed his place within the 1%.
When Tom’s new security in society’s upper echelon is threatened by a romantic rival for Shiv’s affection, it also plays out via a wine flex. In episode 10 of season one, minutes after Shiv tells Tom, on their wedding night, that she’d like to consider the possibility of an open marriage, Tom ejects Shiv’s former lover from the festivities. He literally makes him pour his glass of wine back into the bottle.
“My mom and dad made a contribution towards the wine, so I’d rather you didn’t drink anymore,” Tom says. “Put it back, Nate. Put my wine back.” Is Nate able to gracefully reverse-pour his wine from glass to bottle? No, he is not. Tom is momentarily satisfied.
Wine as a Representation of Self Worth
Tom agrees to be the fall guy for false financial records Waystar Royco created to cover up a sex abuse scandal. But Tom’s reaction to being prison-bound reveals how his self-worth is inextricably tied up in his access to fine wine. His specific fear of jailtime is not the forced separation from Shiv or even the notoriety—but the wine, or lack thereof.
“I just keep thinking about… when we get home before dinner and we have the very first glass of cold white wine on an empty stomach. I just love that,” Tom tells Shiv in season three episode four. “I got deep into the prison blogs again about toilet wine, and it turns out you can make it from fruit and ketchup… But the truth is, I’m not going to get wine of any temperature in prison. There are no fine wines in prison.”
Wine as a Metaphor for Marriage
Then there’s the bottle. In season three episode six, Tom introduces the wine that effectively becomes a recurring character. “It’s the Spätburgunder! Our vineyard,” he joyfully exclaims, the product of his and Shiv’s first marital investments.
But his tone reveals his disappointment that his and Shiv’s wine doesn’t have an actual cork. “Oh… screw top. Oh,” he says.
This infamous Spätburgunder becomes more than just a metaphor for the pair’s relationship, it becomes another player in the drama; an avatar for Tom himself. Tom and Shiv unpack the aromas and flavors of the wine they invested in together. But, they ultimately come to the conclusion that their vineyard investment (like their marriage) resulted in something “not so nice.”
Shiv pejoratively notes its persistent funk and describes the wine as “Germanic,” perhaps a dig at the very origin of Tom’s clunky surname. Tom, in turn, declares it “agricultural.” Given that Tom grew up in Minnesota, one of America’s biggest agricultural states, the comment feels consequential.
But Tom and Shiv may, in fact, be projecting their own inadequacies onto the wine. Neither the screw top, the grape nor its origin would automatically be to blame for the wine’s weirdness.
“Many winemakers opted for screw caps in the early 2000s simply to avoid cork taint issues,” says Zecevic. “I wouldn’t say it indicates a wine of lesser quality… Spätburgunder is just the German name for Pinot Noir. I would say that Spätburgunder is still underrated, but is catching up, and the quality is definitely there.”
Wine and Tom’s Undoing
Tom and Shiv throw a party in season four episode seven, a pivotal setting where the bottle of funky Spätburgunder reappears, becoming almost a punchline for Tom’s self-loathing.
“Just say it’s a light fruity red. Don’t say it’s German and don’t say it’s biodynamic. It’s… sophisticated,” he instructs a server, unconvincingly. His fixation on the wine’s perceived flaws seems an effort to place blame on something he finds unpalatable (read: himself).
But biodynamic agriculture isn’t at fault. “The tasting notes of ‘funky’ or ‘agricultural’ can be the result of many winemaking and grape growing practices that don’t have to be correlated to biodynamics,” says Chelsea Carrier, advanced sommelier and food and beverage director of New York City’s Greywind and Spygold. For example, “Chateau Haut Smith Lafitte is a biodynamic Bordeaux property that produces sound and classically-tasting wines.”
During the party, when it becomes clear that Tom’s position in the company is threatened by a possible merger, Tom literally tries to sell himself by pouring his wine down people’s throats. Another metaphor: Nobody is drinking it. He delights in handing a glass to Nate, Shiv’s former lover, whom Tom hasn’t encountered since he threw him out of their wedding. He assures Nate it’s a wine for connoisseurs, when we know Tom himself finds the wine disgusting.
The wine is also referenced at the end of the episode in his and Shiv’s potentially marriage-ending fight. Tom accuses Shiv of having “fucked me off with that fucking undrinkable wine,” referring to the moment in the previous season when they first tasted it together. Despite the wine’s unsavory taste, Shiv used the moment to seduce Tom rather than have a conversation about his real prison fears and desire to start a family.
At the end of this marital fight, one of Succession’s most emotionally-wrenching dialogues, the camera shifts away from Tom and Shiv and toward a scene of comic relief. In a conversation between other Waystar Royco executives, we overhear, “the red wine smells like wet dog.”
As we approach the final episodes of the series, Tom works toward completing his narrative arc as a walking wine metaphor. We’ll see what wine-soaked wisdom he brings to the screen before we bid our farewell for good.
Last Updated: June 6, 2023