In 1976, the year of the American bicentenary, Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a British entrepreneur in the French wine business in Paris, staged a blind wine-tasting in France where he squared off the best wines of the French industry with the relatively new produce of California’s Napa Valley. This based-on-a-true-story takes us on Spurrier’s journey, from a cynical marketing idea in his Paris wine shop to the dry hills of the Napa Valley where he meets vignerons to select wines for his great tasting event.
His first encounter is with the gruff Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) of the Chateau Montelena winery. Jim’s hippie son Bo (Chris Pine) introduces Spurrier around the neighbouring wineries who all share the spirit of camaraderie, and are intrigued by the crazy Brit. Jim Barrett, however, distrusts Spurrier’s intentions, believing he intends to humiliate the American growers, and refuses to enter his Chardonnay in the event.
Bottle Shock is one of those cockle-warming, feel-good underdog films in the tradition of Strictly Ballroom. Only in this case Scott and Fran are, respectively, a Chardonnay with tangerine undertones, and a Cabernet Merlot blend. However, the film succeeds in spite of itself. It has one of the more intrusive soundtracks in recent memory, and Randall Miller’s screenplay and direction vacillate between philosophical and slapstick.
Miller spends too much time constructing a love triangle sub-plot, assuming that as wine is an inanimate object, he needs to wring out the human drama to help us identify with it. He obviously doesn’t know his audience. I’ve had greater relationships with Orlando Trilogy and the Cloudy Bay Sav Blanc than he could ever get his head around. Centre stage in this drama is Chris Pine (soon to be seen as the young Capt. Kirk in the new Star Trek film) who does an amazing job filling out a pair of bell-bottom slacks, but he doesn’t emote so much as posture his way through the film. Adding to his lack of believability is the least convincing wig in cinema history perched on his head (Eva Gabor, where are you when we need you?). Faring a little better is Bill Pullman, back from career purgatory where he has obviously been spending time at the David Arquette school of squinting. Meanwhile Mike Ozier’s camerawork produces postcard perfect images of California’s sun-kissed beauty and add considerably to the experience.
But the way to a man’s heart is past his gustatory buds, and like Babette’s Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, Big Night and, of course, Sideways before it, the film succeeds by appealing to our emotions through our senses.