Well, I heard it through the grape vine...
Of course, the opening scenes of Bottle Shock, with its fist-fighting, dope smoking, jalopy-driving, debt-accruing vintners gives us a reason or two why this particular perception had some mileage. Appropriately, the real story of Bottle Shock takes place miles away from Napa Valley in the heart of Paris with British wine connoisseur Steven Spurrier (humorously played by Alan Rickman), founder of the Academie du Vin and seller of fine bottles of great French wines. That is, he'd like to be a seller of great French wines... His shop seems to be frequented primarily by a Leisure-Suited American named Maurice (Dennis Farina) who tends to abuse the privilege of a "Free Tasting". A bright future doesn't seem to be on Spurrier's label, until Maurice suggests an international wine competition, complete with a number of bottles of what Spurrier is certain will be easy wines to beat: American Vino.
Having set everything up with some grudging participants, Steven selects a number of great French wines, then travels to Northern California to pick out the swill. Enter the aforementioned fist-fighting, dope smoking, jalopy-driving, debt-accruing vintners of Chateau Montelena, namely Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), his "deadbeat" son Bo (Chris Pine), their skilled employee Gustavo Brambila (Freddy Rodríguez) and their sexy new intern Sam (Rachael Taylor). Steven Spurrier's pretentious appearance briefly gives the Barrett group someone else to dislike so that they're not constantly fighting among themselves. Again, note the word "Briefly".
Aside from the fact that the winery isn't making any money and the family is falling further and furhter into debt (to varied people), Jim is frustrated with Bo's lack of upward (or even lateral) mobility, Bo is frustrated by the fact that he finds Sam mind-blowingly attractive and isn't getting anywhere, Gustavo is frustrated by the same feelings for Sam (and what that might mean for Bo), but also because he's hiding his own wine making business from Jim and Sam is frustrated because of all this frustration around her... that and the fact that the local bartender (Eliza Dushku's Joe) is even hotter than she is.
The presence of a snobbish Brit expert on French Wine in a Spanish-speaking region of the United States (dude, he's like an alcoholic U.N.) only adds fuel to this roiling fire. As Rickman's character himself puts it, "...you think I'm an asshole. And I'm not, really. It's just that I'm British... and you're not!" Naturally (or we probably wouldn't have a movie here) Snobbish Steven Spurrier is astonished to find that the wine he's tasting is actually... quite good. In fact, he'd like to bring a few bottles of Chateau Montelena (and some others) back with him for The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, now known as the "Judgment of Paris"! That is, if Jim Barrett will allow it, which is one hell of a tough sell.
Of course, anyone who occasionally walks through the wine aisle of your local Stater Bros. can probably guess how that particular blind Wine Tasting turned out and be somewhere in the neighborhood of correct. It's a credit to writers Jody Savin, Ross Schwartz and Randall Miller (who also directed) that the film still works in spite of the fact that the outcome is somewhat expected. The success of Bottle Shock isn't in the competition itself but in the human relationships, both strained and endeared. It's hard not to get behind Jim, even when he's at his most pig-headed and it's hard to hate Steven, especially when we see his human side.
Among Bottle Shock's flaws is the fact that the film comes off as just a bit "too careful". True, though based on real events, this is a somewhat fictionalized account and the resulting story seems to walk a comedic tightrope between high-minded and silly. Bottle Shock works hard to tell the story with a suggested undertone of "sticking it to the French", while being very careful not to actually offend either the French or the Californians, all in a decidedly PG-13 format. The target audience appears to be just about anyone who likes historical fiction or wine, without turning off the elderly art-house patrons who are sure to contribute part of their pensions to the success of this film. A case in point is Sam's use of her exposed breasts as an emergency hitchhiking flag. Though this becomes a central point and her shirt stays around her neck for a good amount of screen time (to the point that this is discussed in detail during later parts of the film), the camera stays safely behind her, making absolutely sure that there is barely a hint of nudity. This also goes for Rachael Taylor's sex scene earlier in the film. It's not that nudity is some kind of necessity, it's the way that this was so carefully excised unnecessarily that makes this feel a little like a Network Television edit. Though a certain Wet Shirt scene during equipment washing was, shall we say, revealing, appreciated and, theoretically, missed by the editors and MPAA watchdogs.
Some wine enthusiasts may also take issue with some of this film's departure from actual history. Though this is admittedly minor, Bottle Shock is not a documentary. For those of you who want as close to a documentary approach as you can get, check out Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine by George M. Taber. As for the rest of you, give it a taste... if it doesn't have the bouquet or resonance you're looking for, get shocked by another bottle... doubtless there's a whole rack out there for you to choose from.
Four Stars out of Five for the interesting, endearing and funny (if a bit pusillanimous) Bottle Shock. If the wine doesn't get you, the beautiful cinematography of Mike Ozier just might as it drinks in the Napa Valley countryside. Of course, you could just stick to "Cameo Watching"... in addition to lovely Ms Dushku, Miguel Sandoval and Bradley Whitford each show up for a quick "How do you do?" before scrambling back for Pilot Season auditions. Yes, yes. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some brown Chardonnay to consume mass quantities of. And to think, some jackass was just going to... throw it away. Taste you in the next reel!
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