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Uncorking American Wine



In the early 1970s, Cesar Chavez wanted tipplers to boycott Gallo, and everybody laughed that such an act was hardly a sacrifice. That's a way of confessing that I am old enough to remember when people thought that the only decent wine was bottled in France and that American wine was a cut-rate joke. The French had that attitude, but so did we. Then a startling thing happened at a blind-tasting competition in France in 1976. American wines from California's Napa Valley took first place in both the white and red categories even though all the judges were French. Director Randall Miller's sweet-spirited Bottle Shock is the story of that competition and the lives that competition changed.

Written by Miller with Jody Savin, Bottle Shock tells its largely true tale on two fronts. In Napa, former lawyer Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) struggles for success with his fledgling Chateau Montelena. He's hungry to succeed as a vintner so that he doesn't look like a fool in front of his ex-wife and her new husband, the managing partner at his old law firm. Unfortunately, he's mortgaged to the hilt, and if his Chardonnay doesn't sell, he's going to lose his vineyard. Jim's pot-smoking, long-haired hippie son Bo (Chris Pine) has dropped out of college to work with him, but in Jim's view, Bo is just a slacker. Practically every day, it seems, father and son put on gloves and step into a dusty, makeshift boxing ring to pound on each other for a while. Bo's best friend, Gustavo Brambilla (Freddy Rodriguez), works at Chateau Montelena, too. Gustavo's father was an immigrant field hand, and Gustavo yearns to become a winemaker himself as a vindication for his father's long years of hard toil. To add a little subplot, Jim agrees to accept a summer intern named Sam Fulton. But Sam turns out to be a blonde beauty played by the radiant Rachel Taylor. And with a single toss of her golden tresses, we've got a love triangle going as both Bo and Gustavo maneuver for her affections.

Meanwhile, on a side street in Paris, an irascible Englishman named Steve Spurrier (Alan Rickman), the oenophile, not the quarterback cum football coach, wonders how he might attract more business to his wine shop. His only customer, it seems, is Maurice Cantavale (Dennis Farina), the garishly attired American travel agent from next door. Maurice may be more of a patriot than a wine expert, but he promotes the idea of Steve's adding some American labels to his inventory. What happens next seems unlikely, and since this piece is identified as 'based on a true story," it is perhaps a fictionalization. But the next thing we know, Steve is driving through Napa Valley in a yellow and green AMC Gremlin that's as ugly as something Maurice would wear. Why Steve thinks he needs to visit the wineries directly is never explained. He could presumably have found what he wanted in a San Francisco wine store. But then we would miss the comedy of the stuffy Englishman in that ridiculous car. After a series of tastings, Steve decides that the Napa wines are terrific. To build a market for them, he stages the blind-tasting competition that changed the way everyone thinks about wine. As he lifts a glass near the end and ruminates about wines from South America, Australia and elsewhere, he toasts Maurice with the words, 'Welcome to the future."

Bottle Shock has interesting things to teach. The title term, for instance, refers not only to the shock wine lovers experienced when the French wines were knocked off their pedestal but also to the bruising wine experiences when bottles are jostled in transport. Remarkably, a shocked bottle will heal itself in a day or so. I also learned that grape vines need to be kept very dry because the desired flavors emerge when the vine struggles. This too is one of the film's metaphors. There's also a nice lesson about human beings. Steve realizes that Jim takes an instant dislike to him and explains, 'You think I am an asshole, but actually, I'm just English and well . . . you're not."

Bottle Shock benefits from fine performances. Pullman, Rodriguez and Rickman are memorably good. The story, though, lacks much in the way of surprise or even adequate conflict. The relationship between Jim and Bo resolves itself far too easily. And the romantic triangle seems to forget its own developments as the picture goes along.

Englishman Steve Spurrier (Alan Rickman) inspects an American wine in Bottle Shock. - 2008 FREESTYLE RELEASING
  • 2008 Freestyle Releasing
  • Englishman Steve Spurrier (Alan Rickman) inspects an American wine in Bottle Shock.

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