Bottle Shock (review)

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Quaff It

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.

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Wed, Aug 13, 2008 2:52pm

I couldn’t agree more! I thought this movie was incredible. My wife dragged me and I thought it was going to be a total chick flick, but I actually really enjoyed it! You’re on the money about Rickman too. He’s always been a wonderful actor, but he really gets a chance to play here and it’s delightfuly entertaining. It’s also great to see Bill Pullman do something a little different. Chris Pine is going to be one to watch I think. Great soundtrack, some beautiful shots of napa. You nailed it, great film!

Wed, Aug 13, 2008 4:28pm

I agree with “Tom” , saw the movie last night and it is very well done. I am not even a wine fan but I was surprised by the whole story, this really should be seen by everyone…

Great flick…

Wed, Aug 13, 2008 4:50pm

Has MaryAnn Johanson ever been to France? I’ve lived in Paris for ten years, and like it or not, I can vouch that California wines are STILL disparaged here. It’s trendy for the French to criticize themselves, but they wouldn’t go so far as to do it at the expense of making America–which they’ll chagrinly admit California is part of–look good….

Haven’t seen the movie, as it hasn’t been released here yet, doubt it will in the near future as I haven’t read anything in the French press about it.

Thu, Aug 14, 2008 11:17am

I have been to France. And while the French may still disparage California wines, the rest of the world has moved on and is able to acknowledge that other regions are capable of producing fine wines.

Fri, Aug 15, 2008 3:35pm

yes! Bottle Shock is wonderful and uplifting. I read it’s expanding this movie into more markets and major cities this weekend, which is great news. This movie is receiving some great reviews as well, which is I think what is pushing the expansion. Great film! For more reviews check out:

Even my teenaged son liked this. That’s saying something!

Fri, Aug 15, 2008 5:10pm

Geez, Richard, troll much?

Laurie Mann
Sat, Aug 16, 2008 2:34pm

I just bought a ticket for the Pittsburgh premiere which will be this Thursday. The producers are from Pittsburgh, and they’re coming to town to do a premiere benefit for a local film organization. Sounds like it’ll be great fun.

When I the trailer online, I realized I’d seen the trailer at least once in a theater a few months ago.

Thanks for your review!

Laurie Mann
Fri, Aug 22, 2008 2:18pm

Well, I wanted to like this movie, and I didn’t. I loved Rickman, who was great as usual. But I hated the way the movie was a mash of a potentially very good indy film and a bad retelling of the 1970s. I hated the way the potentially interesting subplot around Freddy Rodriguez was unceremoniously dropped on its head. I hated Chris Pine (though I loved his scene with Rickman at the airport). It felt too much like a movie by committee. While the costumes were spot on, to many of the props were out of 1985 (UPC codes, recycle state list and “modern” wine bottle labels). I would have given this a “wait for DVD” if I’d been MaryAnn. It’s not a complete waste (the photography is very nice), but it was a disappointment.

Sat, Aug 23, 2008 2:39pm

I’ll agree that I don’t see what the appeal of Chris Pine is supposed to be. To my eyes, he’s pretty bland and not paricularly interesting as an actor. Fortunately, the movie does not hinge on him or his character.

Sun, Aug 24, 2008 3:50pm

That doesn’t bode well for Star Trek. :)

Mon, Aug 25, 2008 1:26pm

I wouldn’t necessarily say that. Pine’s not actually *bad* in this film, just a bit bland. Maybe he was miscast, or not well directed. Maybe Kirk is the role he was born to play. I’m not ready to give up on *Trek* just because of him.

Den Myntz
Den Myntz
Mon, Mar 02, 2009 1:40pm

Better to be called “Bottle Schlock.” What a disappointment.

Amazing how Hollywood can mess up a great story through poor screenwriting, bad direction, really bad set design, detectable wigs, unskilled makeup, and cinematography that looks like a TV commercial from a Learning Tree class. Somebody should have kept the camera boom, the helicopter, and the yellow filter away from that cameraman.

This film was so bad, we made lemonade, so to speak, and actually had fun making fun of the film, catching all the errors, continuity problems, moving reflectors, and atrocious editing.

Wow! I need a glass of good wine!