Inspired by the epochal 1976 Paris wine competition, in which Napa Valley entries bested French Bordeaux and Burgundies, Bottle Shock follows the travails of California winemaker Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) and son Bo (Chris Pine), along with the efforts of Paris-based British wine merchant Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), who plans and carries off the tasting. But unlike more successful films that provide insights into an agricultural practice while telling a story, such as Ulee’s Gold, Bottle Shock is about everything but wine.
Conflict between father, a banker who bought the chateau to fulfill a dream, and son, a ne’er-do-well surfer who can’t commit to the family business, the fish-out-of-water plot that brings Spurrier to Napa to collect wines worthy of French vintages, the budding romance between Bo and intern Sam (Rachael Taylor), and the growing disaffection of Mexican wine makers who resent their exploited status drive the film.
Chateau Montelena’s Jim Barrett displays a near-monomania for creating the perfect chardonnay. If only the filmmakers had likewise settled on a single angle from which to tell their story. The metaphor from the title—wine needs time after shipping to recover from the shock of travel—works as an unintentional figure for the hodgepodge of generic conventions that muddies this film.
In depicting an industry that takes great pains to create a product characterized by subtle flavors, Bottle Shock nevertheless applies its themes with a trowel. Conveying Jim and Bo’s professional and familial friction through dialog and exposition isn’t enough: the two have to spar regularly in an outdoor boxing ring. When, having mortgaged the winery and fearing his 1973 vintage is spoiled, Jim goes into Calistoga to test the waters for a return to banking, a wine hand stares in cartoon disbelief at his employer, who has traded his rugged field duds for a banker’s suit. He’s (re)selling out!
When the film engages the specifics of winemaking it often does so by portraying it as an exercise in virility and swagger. Jim and Bo’s disagreement about how many times wine should be racked takes place during a turn in the ring. Bo and Montelena worker Gustavo (Freddy Rodríguez), grift bar patrons by staging contests in which Gustavo wins bets by correctly identifying wines (even though the game is rigged, he does possess the enological equivalent of perfect pitch). And the scene introducing Bo and his bong-hitting, noodle-dancing friends not only thumbnails the unpretentious atmosphere of 1970s Napa, when buzz was just as important as bouquet, but also gives wine the outlaw panache of marijuana.
With winemakers who blend vinicultural expertise and a counterculture worldview to the tune of a Doobie Brothers soundtrack, Bottle Shock tries to pitch wine culture to Americans by means of a weed sensibility. Yet at times the film takes an unabashedly romantic view of wine. Americans think of the French as pretentious about this subject, but scenes of makers testing vintages from the barrel play as near religious epiphanies, and the bombastic speeches about wine, grapes, and soil, like the set piece paean to pinot noir in Sideways, would make the most serious Parisian caviste blush like a provençal rosé.
To the film’s credit, the penultimate scene, set in Spurrier’s Paris wine shop, explains the significance of the 1976 competition, which opened the international wine market not only to America, but eventually to Australia, Chile, South Africa, and other nations. But any specifics of winemaking are left to the short documentary about Chateau Montelena, part of the DVD extras and evidently a promotional spot produced by the winery itself. (Commentary by the director, screenwriters, the producer, and several of the actors; a “making of” short; deleted scenes; and the theatrical trailer fill out the extras.)
If you’re looking for a film romp about wine, there are better ... vintages. Just as frothy as Bottle Shock, but much more fun, are Ridley Scott’s A Good Year (2006), with Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard in the story of an uptight London broker who inherits a French wine estate, or Peter Yates’s Year of the Comet (1992), with Tim Daly and Penelope Anne Miller chasing after a rare 1811 vintage. None of the dialog in Bottle Shock can match Daly’s observation in the thick of things that “I can’t believe we’re doing all this ... for a beverage”.