A film with an interesting subject rather than an interesting film, Bottle Shock dramatizes the event known in wine circles as the Judgment of Paris.
In 1976, a Paris-based British wine merchant named Steven Spurrier held a blind taste-testing of celebrated French wines alongside some vintages he had discovered in California’s Napa Valley. They all were evaluated by a panel of well-credentialed French restaurateurs and wine critics, and when the identities of the wines were revealed, the judges were none too pleased to learn that they had rated the American wines higher than the ones from their own country. The Judgment of Paris gave instant credibility to the U.S. wine industry and, more importantly, destroyed the myth that the French were the only people capable of making a good vintage.
Director/co-writer Randall Miller squeezes some tasty juice out of the clash of cultures here. Alan Rickman plays Spurrier as an English chap in a three-piece suit talking to farmers in overalls while driving around Napa’s dusty backroads, his initial skepticism turning to astonishment at the quality of California’s grapes. Rickman’s alert performance is the key here – it’s fun watching him register confusion at his first encounter with a bowl of guacamole or bite into a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken with the same mental focus that he might train on a glass of Bordeaux. That latter moment is funny, but it’s truthful, too: Being a connoisseur means being open to the possibility of learning something from even the least promising new experience.
Much less successful is the plotline following Jim Barret (Bill Pullman), the irascible lawyer-turned-owner of a winemaking operation called Château Montelena. With his business mortgaged to the hilt, Jim’s also tangling with his hippie son Bo (Chris Pine), who seems to lack direction but knows the wine business inside out and is willing to take bolder chances than his dad. This part of the movie has potential, but it bogs down in tedious philosophizing about wine and in a watery romance between Bo and a blonde intern (Rachael Taylor). There’s also trouble with the character of Gustavo Brambila (Freddy Rodriguez), a Mexican field hand’s son with as much talent for winemaking as any of the Anglos around him. Miller seems to recognize that this real-life personage has a fascinating story, but can’t figure out how to work him into the main plot.
Bottle Shock would have been better off as a TV movie, not because the story fits the small screen better, but because TV would have placed a premium on economical storytelling and getting to what happens next. The movie’s at its best when relating incidents that are specific to the wine industry, such as Spurrier’s solution when his airline won’t let him carry 26 bottles of wine onto the plane or the total panic that descends on Château Montelena when they realize that their buttery, smooth, complexly flavored Chardonnay has inexplicably turned brown in the bottle. Too bad there aren’t more bits like this, or else Bottle Shock might have turned out better than the pleasantly forgettable vintage that it is.