Early in the pilot episode of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s Apple TV+ thriller Servant, wine-keen viewers will notice chef Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell) pouring himself a glass of wine from what appears to be a bottle of Bordeaux’s Château Le Puy. A high-end glass of red wine proves to be his near-constant accessory in this eerie psychological thriller about a wealthy Philadelphia couple who hires mysterious nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) to help care for a doll which Sean’s wife, Dorothy (Emmy and Tony nominee Lauren Ambrose), believes is her deceased infant son. Got that? It’s all very Shyamalanian.
But forget the scary cult attempting to reclaim the nanny, the baby doll that keeps coming to life and the plague of supernatural blessings and ills descending on the Turners. The real star of Servant is the family’s exquisitely appointed Society Hill townhouse, including its restaurant-quality kitchen (along with chef Sean’s extravagant composed dishes) and a creepy, cobwebbed basement wine cellar stocked with epic trophy wines.
In the third episode of season 1, brother-in-law Julian (Critics’ Choice nominee Rupert Grint) comes home to find Leanne drinking Zinfandel with sautéed eel. He pulls a 1994 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche from the cellar. After tasting it, Leanne says she prefers the Zin. “This ’94 isn’t what I thought it would be,” sighs Julian. “I guess nothing ever is, I suppose.” Guessing what is and is not what it seems is indeed much of the show’s fun.
Julian shows up with a bottle of Sine Qua Non Syrah in episode 4, and in episode 7 they pair an Australian Grenache with haggis and a “balloon of essence of heather.” A bottle of Weingut Geil Riesling Spätlese Rheinhessen accompanies a dinner of roast goose in season 2.
In the season 3 premiere, Leanne is having what could politely be described as a hard day when Sean tells her to open a bottle of wine and relax: “Third row down, six bottles in from the right, there's a '96 Pétrus. It's vivacious, but it's got a smooth floor that's gonna pair really nicely with a bowl of tomato soup. Try to relax and enjoy it. You deserve it."
Tonight’s season 3 finale will be another of Servant’s food-and-wine episodes, featuring a hunter-style quail recipe created by the show’s food advisor, Philadelphia chef Drew DiTomo. “We originally discussed a pasta dish as the centerpiece of the family meal for the four main characters,” DiTomo says in the show’s production notes. “However, once the writer introduced the wine—a 1978 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti—I knew it had to be something extravagant and French.”
“I made a sausage-like stuffing with pork fat, escargots and truffles [and] a mushroom duxelles covered with the richest demi-glace I’ve ever made in my life! I prepared 30 quails for the scene, for which I had to debone the breast cavity on each to allow for the stuffing.”
But what’s real and what’s not?
The Turners’ townhouse is real, sort of: It’s actually two real townhouses in Philadelphia's Society Hill neighborhood, one of which serves as the street-facing facade and the other the backyard, with interiors shot in a nearby studio. The set’s kitchen is fully functioning and liberally used.
“Before [shooting], we would turn the stove on and start cooking breakfast, or bake cookies in the afternoon,” Servant production designer Naaman Marshall told Wine Spectator. “And the house starts feeling real at that point, and that’s what’s been the driving force behind the house—making sure that it feels authentic—the floors are real, the plumbing is real, you can flush every toilet in the house, the sinks work—if you wanted to AirBnB the place you could!”
The basement wine cellar is a little less real. “It’s built on a platform about 3 feet off the ground,” says Marshall. “It has old, rough-sawn timber that’s been stained and aged. Then we come in with the set-dressing layers—the old knob-and-tube wiring. Over the top we use a cobweb gun to shoot cobwebs up in there, which is kind of a fun process [using] hot glue and air. And then we come back with a dust spreader and kick dust all around. We’ll even go down there and have a drink and make sure it’s comfortable!”
But what about those bottles? Is Apple TV+ shelling out $5,000 a pop for DRC and Pétrus? Certainly not. Once prop master Robbie Duncan saw the script, he scoured eBay for empty bottles, buying whichever he could (he even discovered a fake along the way).
“The problem was, you’re not finding these vintages,” says Duncan. “So I just started buying random [empty bottles of] Pétrus and Romanée-Conti, just to see what they looked like, so I could match the true labels, the foil, the glass—everything about it.” Duncan then “deskinned” the bottles, and a graphic designer created new labels with the correct vintages; they also bought a “very expensive” label maker to control the paper and its finish.
As for the wine itself, in most scenes it’s cranberry juice for reds and Welch’s white grape juice for whites. However, for the 1978 DRC pouring shot, Duncan used 2001 Bouchard Père & Fils Santenay. Sadly, perhaps in yet another curse on the Turner townhouse, the cast wasn’t allowed to drink it.
The season 3 finale of Servant is now streaming on Apple TV+.
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