Each episode of the “Wine & Crime” podcast kicks off with a flirty little “pop!” as Amanda Jacobson opens a bottle she’s paired with the show’s theme.
Admittedly, wine wasn’t made to go with peeping Toms, Killer Couples or Murderous Missionaries, all subjects discussed on “Wine & Crime” since the show debuted in 2017.
But there it was — “pop!” — and some poor, unsuspecting Nebbiolo was forever linked to Necrophilia.
“You think you know this wine, and then before you know it, it’s not just floral, it’s tart and juicy, and then it’s dry and acidic … and then it’s murdering you and defiling your dead body,” Amanda cackled on episode No. 1.
Co-host Lucy Fitzgerald followed with a few tidbits about necrophilia, including the fact that it’s not considered a crime in some states (it’s a mere misdemeanor in Minnesota). She then shared allegations that King Herod had preserved the corpse of a woman he’d desired in honey for seven years and, well …
“That is foul,” Amanda interjected.
“You’ve ruined honey for me,” screeched the show’s third co-host, Kenyon Laing.
“We are just getting started,” Lucy warned.
The three Minnetonka High School alumnae don’t shy away from discussing truly disturbing acts, including those perpetrated by Jeffrey Dahmer and the Russian guy who stole young girls’ corpses, dressed them as dolls, and kept them in his apartment. But the hosts also banter about more lighthearted crimes involving everything from art theft to nuns eating poop.
The gals take a comedic approach to relaying the facts of a case, and toss in plenty of shared memories and wild digressions (e.g., how Amanda once vomited glitter; wine terms that describe Kenyon’s boobs). In case it wasn’t already apparent: Don’t expect the P.C. patois of public radio. The hosts speak an often-crass, among-friends vernacular that’s largely unfit for newsprint.
Though the “Wine & Crime” hosts talk like they’re having a private conversation (they say they often forget they’re recording), more than 130,000 people listen to each episode, on average. That puts the show among the top tier of the world’s roughly 800,000 podcasts, and certainly among the most popular of those Minnesota-grown.
The 32-year-old hosts are becoming more widely known nationally and in their hometown. They recently achieved pop culture celebrity status when BuzzFeed featured them in one of its quizzes, “Which ‘Wine & Crime’ Gal Are You?” And you may have seen their faces overlooking Minneapolis from billboards promoting their March 21 live show at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater, which had nearly sold out before it was postponed due to COVID-19.
A sister-like friendship
“Wine & Crime’s” premise — three childhood friends “chug wine, chat true crime, and unleash their worst Minnesota accents,” as their tagline explains — capitalizes on the popularity of two seemingly mismatched trends.
First is a swelling interest in the “true crime” genre (think: “Serial” and “Making a Murderer”). Second is the virtual girlfriend gabfest, which was popularized by talk radio and has become even more accessible through podcasts.
“Wine & Crime” fans come to the show to satisfy their morbid curiosity, but stick around for the hosts’ camaraderie.
The friendship began more than two decades ago, and the three were practically inseparable through high school. Back then, Amanda, the loud, boisterous thespian, was voted “funniest” by her classmates. Kenyon, the political academic, was voted “most argumentative.” Lucy was “spooky since Day One,” as Amanda puts it, practicing macabre hobbies such as collecting obituaries. (She was the one who went on to attempt mortuary school before being deterred by the science.)
The three started a young Democrats club and dominated the debate team. Their idea of teenage shenanigans was hanging out at a laundromat and poring over copies of True Story, a pulpy magazine known for titillating working-class wives with confessions of affairs and other transgressions.
They’ll be the first to admit: They were huge nerds.
They spent enough time at one another’s houses that both Kenyon and Amanda have seen Lucy’s mom naked, a fact they broadcast on a recent episode about Nudist Crimes. (The gals’ mothers became best friends through their daughters and now have a club they call “The Moms Who Drink.”)
After they graduated and left home, they continued to get together when they were all in Minnesota. A favorite activity was binge watching old “Forensic Files” episodes and making fun of the melodramatic crime re-enactments. On once such bender, Kenyon suggested they turn their humorous riffing into a podcast.
They quickly came up with the “Wine & Crime” concept and Kenyon secured the various WineandCrimePod social media handles, which amassed a few hundred followers — before they’d even recorded an episode.
(Talking) crime does pay
After selecting an episode’s theme, they create a basic script by going down the Google rabbit hole. Though they often use newspaper archives as sources, they’re not compelled to follow journalistic standards of fact-checking or look up the meanings or pronunciations of words (hence the butchering of “Episcopal”).
Free from any notions of neutrality, they readily laud the victims and slam the perps. Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro, for example, is a “[word the FCC would bleep] coward.” His former captives are “[bleeping] phoenixes.”
If the show sounds like a bunch of your friends talking about stuff they read about on the internet, that’s because, basically, it is. But “Wine & Crime” fans are not so much looking for a news report, as the story of a case and the riffs that surround it.
During a recent episode on Cartel Crimes, for example, Lucy shared the fun fact that you need at least a pound and a half of ashes to turn them into a diamond. Then Amanda told the story of sneezing into her dad’s cremains and advised her co-hosts of her unusual end-of-life wishes: “You each get a portion of my ashes and I request to remain in a plastic baggie in your liquor cabinet.”
True, there’s a fair amount of padding around the pithiest information and funniest jokes. But since when has a girlfriend gabfest been about the efficient transfer of information? (That said, Lucy’s mom won’t listen because she finds the nearly-two-hour episodes too long, and some fans admit to listening at 1.5 speed or fast-forwarding.)
The women sound like they have such a close relationship that listeners may not realize their interactions are mostly virtual. Amanda, Lucy and Kenyon record shows via Skype from their homes in Minneapolis, Des Moines and Johannesburg, respectively.
Kenyon, who moved to South Africa for her husband’s job and couldn’t secure a work visa, was especially motivated to turn their creative endeavor into a business.
Once “Wine & Crime” started getting mentioned in the same sentence as some of the genre’s leaders — including the biggie, “My Favorite Murder” — it provided a reliable income. A little over a year ago, after Lucy was laid off from her job as a copy editor, Amanda quit her gig as a restaurant manager and the two joined Kenyon full-time. “I just kind of overpowered them,” Kenyon joked.
As it turns out, making money off the podcast takes far more work than producing the actual show. (They sell advertising for everything from texting-based therapy to mail-order tampon subscriptions, solicit Patreon memberships, design merchandise and arrange tours.) But their ability to cultivate a paying audience shows there’s an appetite for funny, candid conversations about taboo topics.
The ‘Wine & Crime’ coven
Though most homicide victims are men, the true crime genre tends to focus on cases with female victims, because they’re far more likely to experience the most chilling crimes, such as those involving serial killers, sexual assault or kidnapping.
True crime also tends to have such a gendered following; the “Wine & Crime” hosts say about 85% of their listeners identify as women.
Hearing the stories can validate women’s anxiety about being victimized, the hosts say. The common misogynistic indignities that women experience (such as being masturbated to on the subway, to give an example from Amanda’s life) can make a woman feel as though she’s one jilted suitor or one walk to her car away from ending up in the morgue. Women can both identify with many true crime victims (thinking “that could have just as easily been me”) and feel relieved to have avoided their fate.
Prof. Amanda Vicary, a social psychologist at Illinois Wesleyan University who co-authored the most recognized study on women’s seemingly paradoxical interest in true crime a decade ago, concurs that part of women’s motivation to listen, at perhaps an unconscious level, is their desire to learn survival skills.
“We know that women are simply more afraid of being a victim of a crime than men,” she said. “My studies suggest that when women can learn something from the crime — What set the killer off? What made him kill? Or how could I escape if I’m held captive? — that it’s just more relevant to them.”
“Wine & Crime” fan Kathy Dickson, a 42-year-old mental health therapist in Tampa, says she finds true crime relevant personally as someone who has experienced trauma, and to her work helping trauma survivors. Her initial interest in the genre, she wrote via e-mail, was “trying to understand what happened to me — trying to make sense of something senseless.”
She counts herself among the many female fans who view true crime as “studying how to stay safe and alive.” But she also hopes that increased knowledge of criminals’ mind-sets can help prevent future criminal acts.
“If we understand the ‘why’ of people committing crimes, we can work to address those factors and decrease crime,” she wrote.
If the stories help people adopt healthy safety practices, that’s great, said Vicary. But if fans overindulge to the point “where you can no longer function in society because you’re so scared that everyone is a serial killer,” that’s a problem. Fortunately, the comedic approach of “Wine & Crime” offsets the scariness.
Their lighthearted-but-respectful approach, which one fan described as “horrifically enjoyable,” creates strong bonds with listeners. Perhaps it’s a simple sense of reassurance the gals effuse: Should any of the terrible things we’re talking about befall you, dear listener, we’ll be here to help you laugh your way through it.
Fans often tell the hosts how much they appreciate the open conversation about everything from their sex lives to their mental health issues. “This whole podcast is TMI,” Amanda observed.
Among the show’s numerous five-star reviews online, one fan cited the appeal of its tension between darkness and levity: “Let’s be honest, this is some grim subject matter. It’s also an exercise in acknowledging the endless void with humor, wine and Minnesotan accents so ... is there anything better?”
Dickson said it’s the hosts’ personalities that make their podcast stand out from the thousands of others in the genre.
“I could pick a random case the gals have covered and easily find other pods that cover the same case,” she wrote. “What keeps me coming back to ‘Wine & Crime’ week after week, for three years now, is the gals.”
The hosts also express gratitude to their listeners. They say they enjoy meeting fans after live shows and being recognized in public, which happens mostly to Amanda, as the one who lives in Minnesota and has blue hair.
“Being someone who loves attention, yeah, I want people to approach me,” she admitted. “I like hearing that the show means something to you because it’s so validating when we are working our asses off.”
The three appreciate being able to turn their antics into a career, which, Lucy said, feels especially visceral during the live shows.
“The second you walk out on stage and you see hundreds of people, it’s like: ‘They all paid; they all took time out of their lives to come here to watch us do this stupid [bleep], of me having fun with my friends.’ It blows the mind that this is my job.”