Bo Barrett (Chris Pine) seems the most conventional of California boys, circa 1976. Introduced amid a montage of surfers and pot-smokers at the start of Bottle Shock, he’s got long blond hair, faded jeans, and a jeep. As the credits end, he rolls in to work, where he’s offered just the sort of rebuke you imagine for him: “You’re late.”
Bo works for his Calistoga vintner dad Jim (Bill Pullman). Time is something of an issue for Jim, who’s not only got to get his grapes harvested, but also secure yet another bank loan. When the manager questions the investment, Jim gets all Frank Capra. It’s not the money that’s important he says, it’s that he wants to “make the best damn wine that we can.”
This yay-team goal is tied in with another during this U.S. bicentennial year. Based on a true story, by way of George M. Taber’s Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine, Bottle Shock sets Jim’s ambition alongside that of Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a Parisian wine merchant (his shop is named “The Academy of Wine,” per his hoity-toity inclinations). With business flagging, he’s in search of a marketing hook, when his buddy Maurice (Dennis Farina) suggests that California wines are coming into their own. Voila! The friends agree, Steven will go to Napa Valley, find great wines to enter into a competition, and pit the world-beating French vintages against the upstarts. As they see it, the contest is no-lose: if a French wine wins, no surprise and all is right with the world. If an American takes the prize, they’ll have scored a PR coup.
The international competition serves as backdrop for a cloying tale of underdogs inspired by rather sudden patriotic fervor. Bottle Shock becomes the tritest of sports movies, without the sports.
The U.S. team is essentially Jim and Bo, who fight over nothing, incessantly, though they’re plainly alike. Bo can’t devote himself 24/7 to Jim’s quest for the perfect chardonnay, Jim can’t get his business off the ground (“Woodstock was seven years ago!” the father asserts, by way of saying his son needs to grow up, though he has yet to do so himself). Both resent the ex-wife/mother, now married to Jim’s former boss, for abandoning them and the sunny Californian dream (“The world breaks everyone,” Jim likes to say, sort of quoting Hemingway, “but makes you stronger at the broken place”). And both loathe being considered “losers,” even as they flounder about, waiting for the film’s machinations to make them winners.
The film’s most effective device is surely Rickman, whose performance as the persnickety but also very game Spurrier is consistently delightful. The least effective is a leggy blond cheerleader, er, intern, named Sam (Rachael Taylor). Arriving in a Volkswagen bug she’s essentially destroyed in her eagerness to find the sprawling Chateau Montelena, she immediately announces her desire to learn from the illustrious Jim (i.e., now Bo has something else to resent). On her first night in town, Bo and his dad’s best worker and a winemaker himself, Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), take Sam to a bar, where they show off Gustavo’s wine-identifying brilliance in a trumped up blind-taste-test that, for some reason, still fools the local clientele.
The occasion for basic drinking-and-bonding, the scene sets up two subplots that go nowhere. One, Gustavo develops an affection for the stunningly tanned intern, who will, in fact, bed him instantly after she tastes his wine, but then go on to develop her own interest in the boy who matches her in blondness. And two, Eliza Dushku shows up as the bar owner, Joe. Appearing only intermittently, Joe is an embodiment of the “local color” that so stymies and, eventually, inspires Steven. She knows everything about wines, which apparently makes her like all the Napa denizens, she’s proud of her adventurous taste and devotion to the cause. She’s anomalous too, disconnected from the rest of the plot (until film’s end), as well as strangely compelling when she walks through a scene in her miniskirt, wine bottle and glass balanced on a tray.
The same cannot be said for Gustavo, who suffers briefly for his infatuation with Sam and longer for his devotion to his wine. Though the film grants this underdog a couple of fine moments with his father, Garcia (excellent Miguel Sandoval), Gustavo is quite obviously included in the proceedings because he existed in real life (his fate is noted in the final epigraphs), but his fictional incarnation is adrift amid the white folks’ elaborate maneuverings. At last, he’s granted the sort of role traditionally assigned to characters of color who work the earth: he expresses his “primordial,” deeply felt connection to wine-making, his destiny. “The smell of the vineyard,” he pronounces, is “like inhaling birth.” Neither strangely compelling nor quite clichéd, Gustavo’s heartfelt lyricism is, in its way, a showstopper.