Pros: feel-good movie with northern California vistas
Cons: old, formulaic cinematic wine in a new cellar
"Bottle shock" is the kind of jet lag suffered by bottles of wine: it's the shaking rather than the difference in time zone that affects them, and it takes longer for the wine to recover than it does for humans to adjust to a different time zone.
The 2008 movie "Bottle Shock" was the topic of the 799th and last epinion written by Barbara Fields (ifif1938), much-loved elder sister to so many of us epinionators, who died yesterday. I would have thought of her while watching the movie even had she still been alive to read what I thought about it, not least in that the first shot of Paris takes in the lower part of what I consider "Barbara's tower," known to others as "la tour Eiffel." (For years, a photo of Barbara with the Eiffel Tower in the background was her epinions profile picture, and "Eiffel" is in her associated content username.)
British-born, Paris-trained oenophile Steve Spurrier (Alan Rickman) owns a pompously named Academy of Wine in Paris that does not seem to do a lot of business. The owner of a travel agency next door, Maurice Cantavale (Dennis Farina) chides him for knowing and stocking nothing but French wine (and a stray bottle of Chianti) and for doing nothing to promote interest in his store/product.
Spurrier is goaded into a trip to northern California, visiting and sampling wines in Napa and Sonoma counties. (The helicopter shots are mostly of Sonoma County vineyards, though the winery that is the focus of the plot is in Napa County.) He is surprised by how good many of them are. My favorite character, the inheritor of a bar called "Joe's" (Eliza Dushku) smirks, "What were you expecting, Thunderbird?"
Spurrier takes back wine from thirteen northern California vineyards. The problem of minimizing bottle shock is solved by getting other passengers each to carry one bottle. The "ad majorem gloria California" motivation is ramped up by Bo Barrett (Chris Pine), the son (heretofore slacker son) of Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), the owner of the struggling Chateau Montelena winery, a hard-driving perfectionist who gave up being a partner in a San Francisco law firm to try to craft great wines in Napa.
Bo seems more interested in girls and another major California crop, marijuana, than in making world-class wine, but that is just a predictable movie set-up. Bo cares, he really cares, and his maturation is an underdog story within the underdog story. It parallels the son of a field hand who has become an expert, Gustavo Brambila, played by Freddy Rodríguez. As in Rodríguez's role in "Six Feet Under," his role here is of a Mexican-American working for an Anglo family business and being more skilled than they are, and, therefore, restive with his status as an employee. Gustatvo is moonlighting making his own wine with a compadre of his father. Also Gustavo is competing with Bo for the leggy, blonde UC-Davis intern Sam (Rachael Taylor).
At the 1976 blind wine tasting Spurrier arranged, that became known as "the judgment of Paris," the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and a red wine from Napa's Stag Cellar winery won, to the considerable discomfiture of the elite French wine taster/judges. This provided a great boost not only for California wine but for other non-French wines and forced French vintners actively to compete, not rest on their belief that only French soil could produce the grapes from which to make the best wine. (French consumption of wine has fallen about 50% since then, which more than international competition has hurt the French wine industry.)
The movie is lovely to look at: the rolling Sonoma hills as well as Dushku and Taylor. Based on a very real underdog triumph (similar to that of "Bagger Vance," "Chariots of Fire," etc., etc.), there is no real suspense. If Bo didn't succeed, if Chateau Montelena didn't succeed, the movie would not have been made. That said, what the near-derailment of fulfilling the impossible dream is was a surprise, and who saved the day a slight surprise. Experienced moviegoers know that sexual antagonism is a prelude to getting it on and that the irritable father will eventually be proud of his wastrel son.
I was slow to warm to the story. I think it was Gustavo's wine ID in "Joe's" that won me over. I never came around to believing that Bo regularly sparred with his father in an outdoor boxing ring. (That Bill would box with Bo, in contrast, was believable.)
Farina, aided by a checked suit at the wine-tasting, was hilarious, and the characters were generally well written and well acted. Rickman and Dushku got some particularly good lines and made the most of them. (Rodriguez has the most passionate speech and acquits himself well; he also has some good more throwaway lines that made me smile.) I found the movie far more enjoyable than the much-hyped "Sideways," but not a breakthrough as the results of the wine tasting were. Nor is the movie as outstanding as a movie as the 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay was.
The DVD includes an extended ad for Chateau Montelena, some wisely deleted scenes, and a charming "making of" featurette very squarely in everyone involved in the movie admired the work of everyone else involved in the movie and the original characters very much tradition, plus a trailer. There's also a commentary track with three performers and three film-makers. What I learned from the featurette is that the movie was shot on location in about a month and completed just in time for Sundance and that Rachael Taylor has a strong Australian accent that was successfully suppressed within the movie.
©2009, Stephen O. Murray
Aside from the direct connection to being the last product Barbara epined about and including footage of her tower, "Bottle Shock" is a "French find" in the sense of my title. R.I.P, Barbara. I've been missing you since an 800th epinion's nonappearance became noticeable in late February.