Clichés about French snootiness aside, it’s hard for me to imagine a time when California wines were disparaged and French wines were considered the beginning and the end of the story. Which is, I guess, a measure of how great an impact the events depicted in Bottle Shock had, and how long a reach through time.
This is all true: In 1976, an English wine merchant name of Steven Spurrier, who ran a shop in Paris, hit upon the idea of setting up a competition between the wines of France and those of Northern California, which he’d heard were starting to be drinkable. So he took a trip to Napa, rounded up some vino, hauled it back to the Continent, and set up a blind taste test pitting the Napa wines against the French with as many serious French judges as he could round up, wine writers and restaurateurs and so on, people who really knew their stuff. The Napa wines won, much to the horror of the French. This became known as the “Judgment of Paris,” and it was the beginning of the end for the French. It’s the reason we’re all happily drinking damn good vintages from Oregon and New Zealand and Chile today, and also why those wines are winning awards, too.
Doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of the “Judgment of Paris” — you’re probably aware that Napa wines are reputed to be excellent, even if you’ve never drunk any of them yourself. So it’s all foregone conclusion, going into Bottle Shock: you know how it’s gonna end, even if you don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. This is a charming triumph-of-the-underdog flick, and mostly for one reason: Alan Rickman. His Spurrier is a tight-wound bundle of Alan Rickman-ness: coiled rage, condescending superiority, and elegant arrogance. But more, too — and this is where the film ascends to realms of real cinematic joy: Rickman’s Spurrier is willing to be wrong, even happy to be so.
The script — by director Randall Miller and Jody Savin (who both wrote Nobel Son), and Ross Schwartz and Lannette Pabon — may be deviating from reality here for the sake of drama, but the Spurrier of the film is not motivated to create his competition out of any particularlar sympathy for Napa: he does it hoping to knock down the haughtiness of the French, which he seems to find a personal affront. (One scene early in the film, in which Spurrier is treated like a leper at a Paris wine event, is a little treasure box of Rickman’s talent on display.) But once he arrives in California, he is startled to discover just how incredibly good the wine he’s finding there is — and, in Rickman’s hands, we practically see Spurrier’s mind expanding to encompass the idea of California wines — California! — as actually, wonderfully good.
I don’t mean to belittle the rest of the film by focusing on Rickman (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), but, well, he does tend to steal a film, and he’s never stolen a movie like he does this one. Yet everything about Bottle Shock is a treat. Bill Pullman (You Kill Me, The Grudge) as Jim Barrett, the owner of the vineyard Chateau Montelena and the foil for Spurrier, is stretching into a role a little different for him. Barrett is like Spurrier, actually, in some ways, just California-casual in his trappings about it– he’s angry and afraid he’s about to lose the dream of his vineyard, a dream he left a high-powered San Francisco law firm to chase, and when it looks as if he’s gonna have to go back to the daily grind, well… Pullman makes it all the more heartbreaking because he’s been so hard to sympathize with all along. (And the cause of Barrett’s despair? I won’t spoil it, but yeah, that really happened, too. Who ever heard of such a thing?) And Chris Pine (Smokin’ Aces) as Jim’s son, Bo, is a hoot. I love the scene in which he and his pal, Gustavo (the always wonderful Freddy Rodriguez: Grindhouse: Planet Terror, Bobby), pull a stunt in a local bar that shows off their love of wine and their streetwise brand of, ahem, “business” acumen. Bo is supposed to be a bit of a fuckup, which causes him to lock horns with his dad more than once, but right here we see the kind of audacity that made Napa such fertile ground — metaphorically and culturally speaking, I mean — that allowed its wines to storm the world.
Smart and sassy, Bottle Shock is no delicate vintage to be sipped but a big hearty gulp of cinema. Enjoy.