August 14, 2008

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Bottle Shock (PG-13)
American winemakers throw down against the French in a blind tasting in 1976 in Bottle Shock, a movie based on the true story of how California vino earned international legitimacy.

Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) is an Englishman selling wine in a Paris wine shop. To get himself a little more notoriety (and, he hopes, with it a lot more business), Spurrier talks some of the French wine bigwigs into holding a blind tasting of wines, with French wines competing against California wines. The problem? Spurrier knows nothing about California wines and suspects there isn’t much to know. To try to find something respectable for the French to taste, he travels to Napa, where he meets farmers such as Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a neophyte wine-maker, and his son Bo (Chris Pine), a surf bum. Barrett, Spurrier finds out after a taste, makes fantastic wine but he also has a fantastic chip on his shoulder — about his own failures and about French snobbishness toward his wine. Bo, looking up from his marijuana and self-satisfaction haze, actually does think that the French contest is a good idea, for his dad and for winemakers like his friend Gustavo Brambila (Freddy Rodriguez). Bo’s newfound interest in wine is, as far as we can tell, due almost entirely to the appearance of Sam (Rachael Taylor), a sassy blonde wine intern.

Bottle Shock’s historical basis has all the makings of a great underdog story — the disrespected American wine industry, the snooty French, the hippies and overalls-wearing farmers who made up the Napa grape-growing community (sort of), the triumph of craftsmanship over expectation. It’s the fictional elements that sink this film. It’s the overacting Pullman’s Jim, who seems angry and constipated for the entire film, yelling painful dialogue at his son (this is the kind of movie where someone actually says “this is 1976”) and rejecting these attempts at wider renown for no good reason. The movie shows him as being widely respected by the other winemakers but we learn that he’s only a recently transplant to Napa who left San Francisco and a job as a lawyer and has yet to wow anyone with his wines. Gustavo in one scene gives a fiery and subsequently ignored speech about how he knows wine and he’s the one with the talent. Then later in the movie, the only recently sober Bo is picked to represent the wine makers at the competition. What? Even if this turn of events has some basis in reality, the movie needs to craft its story so that his sudden about-face from determined slacker to serious advocate of American wines isn’t so contrived. The Sam character seems like an afterthought and a poorly thought out one at that. Her character has no purpose in the story and some of her actions even seem to contradict themselves, as if the movie at first wanted her to be a wine genius in the making and then decided she just needed to be a girl who looked good in her Daisy Dukes.

The worst sin, however, is how little this movie is about wine or the actual “judgment of Paris” tasting. We get familial woes, we get romantic nonsense, we get a generation’s struggles to make it where forefathers couldn’t — we get very little about how California was in 1976 able to produce wines that got the world looking differently at American wine. Spurrier’s character (based on a real person, though who knows how accurately) is the closest thing the movie has to someone who actually cares about wine, not just as a measure of personal achievement (Jim’s approach to his chardonnay), but as a part of culinary, and even world, history.

Sideways, a far superior movie that this movie seems eager to compare itself to, had a story about people and personalities that used wine as a back drop. But we got a lot more about the wine there, what makes it something worth appreciating to the extravagant degrees that Paul Giamatti’s character does. Here, in a movie where the very subject and plot of the story is all about a key moment in wine history, wine seems like an afterthought. “Wine is good” the movie says, but goes no further on why this moment in history is so memorable. It would be like watching a football movie where we seldom saw the characters out on the field or even talking about the game. Fine, perhaps, maybe the movie doesn’t need the football stuff but then it isn’t a football movie. Bottle Shock uses the lazy shorthand of being “a wine lover’s movie” but then puts no effort into teaching us anything about wine.

Bottle Shock, which is named for the “bottle sickness” that can degrade the flavor of wines that are greatly agitated (by travel, for example, after which bottles need to settle for a month or so to really regain their full potential), itself feels like it’s been shaken up too much and had its flavor messed with. Like an undrinkable bottle of wine with a good label, this movie feels like it started with good ingredients and went horribly wrong during the creation. D

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and a scene of drug use. Directed by Randall Miller and written by Jody Savin, Randall Miller and Ross Schwartz (with an additional writing credit for Lannette Pabon), Bottle Shock is an hour and 52 minutes and is distributed in limited release by Freestyle.