CALISTOGA, Calif. - Jim Barrett bought the Chateau Montelena Winery here 36 years ago to get away from the hectic grind of his life as a lawyer in Los Angeles. He wanted the quiet life of tending vines and making wine. What he and his son, Bo, a Fresno State graduate, found was a place in wine history. Their story is at the heart of the new feature film “Bottle Shock.” The movie is slowly opening across the country.
The winery owners are spending a hot July Sunday talking with the press that have traveled to the impressive looking chateau that sits on a small hill in the Napa Valley.
“Bottle Shock” is the story of a 1976 blind taste test between California and French wines. The event was more of a gimmick as the French knew their wine was the best. In the end, a white wine bottled at Chateau Montelena was named the winner. This was a big moment. It changed the world’s perspective on wines from outside France.
In the movie, Bill Pullman plays Jim. Chris Pine plays Bo.
Though the film doesn’t mention how and why the Barretts came to winemaking, there is a story of how they came to the winery. Jim, needed a career change in 1972. He says he had a case of “industrial strength burnout” from being a lawyer. He decided to look into the wine business, and his trek brought him to Chateau Montelena.
“I came here one Saturday. It was in a mess,” Jim, 81, says. “There was nothing here by ghosts and spiders. I am an incurable romantic so I decided this looked like the right place to commit financial suicide.”
The winery had not been used for several years. The grounds - and the 100 acres of vines - were in need of attention. Jim was realistic enough to know there were no guarantees. So he kept his day job as a lawyer for several years. Bo started working at the Chateau Montelena Winery as soon as he graduated from high school in 1972. He spent that summer pulling star thistle in the vineyard and picking up rocks in preparation for replanting. He didn’t like it and decided he would rather go to the University of Utah to study law. “I was full-fledge ski bum. I actually was just working in the winery and the vineyard so I could take winters off. I was just taking any courses they offered at night. That way I would ski during the day,” Bo, 54, says.
Eventually, Bo changed his mind and got interested in the winery. So in 1976, Bo transferred to Fresno State where he ended up as an honors student in viticulture and enology. He also had been accepted at UC Davis, the state’s other leading university for wine studies.
“I decided to go to Fresno State because they had a better program for me. They let me write my own program,” Bo says.
He recalls how while at Fresno State one of his professors, Sigmund Schanderl predicted that if Americans ever start to drink wine there would be a single, continuous vineyard from Guadalajara to Vancouver. And Bo says that is almost the case now.
And so a want-to-be former lawyer and his ski bum son became winemakers. Things changed quickly. Within four years of buying the winery, they hit it big with the 1976 taste test. That made them major players in the world of wine.
Fast forward about 25 years to get to how the movie was made.
Writer Ross Schwartz heard about the Barretts though his then girlfriend, now wife, Lannette Pabon. Schwartz has been interested in wine since the 1960s. Pabon decided to take a wine class at UCLA to be more knowledgeable, and that’s when she heard about the wine tasting competition.
“When she suggested it in 2001, I was not certain a bunch of snooty French people sipping and spitting would be that interesting. At one point I thought about trying to work a murder mystery into the story,” Schwartz says.
He went to Napa and met the Barretts. He was still not convinced the story would make an interesting movie. Then Jim told Schwartz about “how the wine turned brown.”
Oxidation causes the browning of wine. It’s like an apple that will turn brown once it has been cut or bitten. Eventually the brown disappears. But the Barretts did not know that and almost quit on the wine and lost an entire season. The browning helped create drama and emotion for the story.
“Now I think I have a story,” Schwartz recalls of his reaction after hearing the tale.
And the Barretts’ personal stories were interesting, so Schwartz opted to make a major course direction with his script. The Barretts’ winemaking troubles and the drama of the taste test helped Schwartz fashion a story.
Director Randall Miller was not initially sold on the idea when he heard about the script. His company only had produced movies written by in-house writers. Before he made his final decision, Miller traveled to the winery to meet the Barretts. He found that father and son don’t always see eye-to-eye.
“They have this very loving but contentious relationship,” Miller says. “We thought they were great characters in-the-making.”
Producer Jody Savin says that while the wine tasting is an interesting story, the movie would only work if it served as a backdrop for interesting characters. And nothing describes the Barretts better. They do disagree. They do love each other, too.
The Barretts were interested in seeing their story told in a movie, but they had some concerns. There was a fear about a loss of privacy. For a movie, they knew they would have to help promote it, and they would be interviewed by dozens of reporters. The winery would be used to promote the movie, maybe even host screenings and have hundreds more people than usual around. And all that has happened.
But they agreed to the movie because they realized that they already had lost some privacy years before. “In the little world of wine we are fairly well known,” Bo says. That’s because of winning the 1976 taste test.
The lawyer in Jim comes out when he adds his main concern was whether the film makers would slander or libel the winery. Their fears went away when they met Miller. “It was obvious they were going to tell a love story of the wine business,” Bo says.
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