Starring Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Bill Pullman, Rachael Taylor
Directed by Randall Miller
In 1970s California, a revolution was underway. Not the usual proletariat uprising of the people. This revolution involved that most bourgeois of phenomena, wine, and how the Californians aimed to reorient the epicenter of vino from France to the Napa Valley.
In Bottle Shock‘s credit sequence, Napa is introduced in helicopter shots, bathed in golden light and touched by the gods, ready to take its place in wine history. Amidst the grapes, a scruffy family dynasty, hippies, a comely bartender, Mexican field hands, and a pretty blonde vineyard intern named Sam (Rachael Taylor), argue for the supremacy of the local wine in a pre-Sideways California.
An ocean away, the dominance of French wine is embodied in Bottle Shock by a snooty and largely unsuccessful British wine merchant named Steve Spurrier (played by Alan Rickman, not the USC football coach), proprietor of a Paris wine shop. His only customer appears to be a coarse, loudly dressed American who comes in daily to taste, but never buy his offerings.
Even in this Parisian wine community, Spurrier is an outcast, given the worst table at an exclusive wine tasting and rudely brushed aside by a fellow French grape snob. Sensing an opportunity to make his mark and enhance his prominence in the cutthroat vino culture, Spurrier travels to California to investigate the new upstart winemakers he’s been hearing about.
Spurrier arrives in town like a Hollywood talent agent on a scouting mission, setting local tongues wagging and vintners scrambling for their bottles. His nemesis in Napa is a struggling but passionate winemaker Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), who has left his soulless law career to pursue his vintner dream at Chateau Montelena.
Director Randall Miller (2005’s Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School) must have really put the thumbscrews to the already hammy Rickman, whose face is a rippling landscape of arched eyebrows, bald delight, and animated surprise as he tastes the local wines, and other regional delicacies like guacamole, for the first time.
Rickman is an enjoyable, if often cartoonish snob. Very little is left to the imagination in Bottle Shock, from the racist truck driver in the film’s opening passage who clues us in to Gustavo’s second-class status, for those in the audience who might be unacquainted with how poor Mexican laborers tend to be viewed in America.
Such moments typify Miller’s tendency to advertise intent with a flashing neon arrow, but run counter to the film’s otherwise easygoing, shaggy pace. The anecdotally interesting, but artistically underwhelming Bottle Shock is based on a true story, the so-called 1976 “Judgment of Paris” in which wine experts blind-tasted French and California wines to determine which was supreme.
The story is perfect timing for our foodie-obsessed age, showing the backstory behind something we take for granted — global wine culture — while also delving into the finer points of winemaking, like the potential disaster of too much oxygen in producing a winning chardonnay.
But like Pineapple Express, a film that would undoubtedly be more tolerable in a fog of pot, Bottle Shock may be best appreciated whilst drinking, though few real-life bottles could live up to the ecstatic swooning of the film’s winos. Wine in Bottle Shock has the transformative power of Alice in Wonderland‘s magic elixirs. As Big Night was to pasta, or Tampopo to noodles, Bottle Shock savors endless scenes of characters rhapsodically sniffing, tasting, and spitting the stuff. Many viewers will be unable to resist the urge to uncork their own bottle upon leaving the theater.