Bottle shocked: Putting a cork in Bottle Shock

"You’re a snob. … it limits you." –Bill Pullman’s character Jim Barrett in Bottle Shock.

I really, really wanted to like it, but I just couldn’t. I’d love to have another shot of wine enthusiasm infused into the American bloodstream, but the stereotypes and the forced, reeking romanticism just felt too … too much like a Napa Valley tourism ad mingled with unfinished characters. I was woefully disappointed.

Bottle Shock ain’t Sideways.

If you’re a wine geek, you’ve heard of it and may have even entered the opening on your Blackberry; if you’re not, don’t expect much. It opened August 15 (August 6 in limited release and later in some areas), and my husband and I were two of the first people to see it in on the big screen. At 11:10 a.m. on a rainy Friday morning, the mostly empty theater wasn’t exactly brimming with eager expectation as we were surrounded by the bored, the retired and the giddy oenophiles. Who else would see this movie?

It opened well enough, with the rolling vineyard vistas floating from the screen like scenes from my dreams. But after that five-minute nirvana, the pleasure ended and settled into an incomplete dullness.

The movie, for those who haven’t indulged yet, is about a struggling lawyer-cum-winemaker who mortgages his life — including his marriage, apparently — to live the wine fantasy in budding Napa Valley. In pot-smokin’ 1976, straitlaced and Hemingway-quoting Jim Barrett of Chateau Montelena pursues his quixotic ambition to produce "the perfect wine." Along comes the big, bad Brit, Steve Spurrier, played brilliantly by a deliciously elitist Alan Rickman, who owns a tragically Francophile wine shop in Paris. In playful U.S.-vs.-France conversations with his amusingly pretentious American neighbor Maurice — performed by real-life oenophile Dennis Farina — Spurrier cooks up a way to settle the argument: Pit California versus French in a blind taste test. Spurrier heads to Napa Valley to choose the opponents but, to his dismay, becomes enamored of the wine, the food and, begrudgingly, the people. Once he’s back home in Paris, the Napa wines go cork to cork against pedigreed French adversaries (aka "The Judgment of Paris"). The rest is history, since Bottle Shock is based loosely on a true story. Emphasis on the loosely part.

Perhaps to make it more palatable for the masses, the producers crammed loads of formulaic Hollywood into two hours — the down-and-out dreamer, the obligatory hot and free-spirited chick and ensuing romance(s), the privileged loser son, the hardworking immigrant who "worships the sanctity of the vine," the subtle-yet-incessant French bashing and, of course, the "America triumphs" theme — and the wine is virtually overshadowed, leaving swaths of missed opportunities. The filmmakers brush over the idea of terroir and vineyard management, not explaining how important soil and climate are in quality grape-growing (which played an important role in Napa’s win). French oak barrels show up as well, but the characters don’t talk about why they are used. I didn’t get it: They got our attention with the romance of the vine — why not educate us? Perhaps they thought that might bore the average, non-geek viewer.

I disagree. Although some scenes, like the discolored-chardonnay explanation, have educational value, the rest of the movie is predictable. Maybe I’m being too critical, but it’s far from a wine geek’s ideal flick, either. And I’m not sure it will do more than sell a helluva lot of Chateau Montelena wines. Ironic, since this July, they were purchased by French Bordeaux producer Cos d’Estournel.


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