RUNNING TIME 110 minutes
WRITTEN By Jody Savin, Ross Schwartz, and Randall Miller
DIRECTED BY Randall Miller
STARRING Bill Pullman, Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Freddy Rodriguez, Rachael Taylor
Two things I can count on every August: Movies get lousier than they were all year, and I go on vacation. This time, it’s different. I’m still taking a month off, but there are some big surprises at the movies. Most of them are unexpected and underpublicized, some of them boast low budgets and high rewards, a few of them need to be added to your must-see list, and you can start with Bottle Shock, a marvelous, beautifully made, feel-good movie that is guaranteed to revive everyone’s flagging faith in American pride at home and abroad—something in these sorry, perilous times we’re desperately short of.
Talk about novel and unhackneyed themes. Bottle Shock is not a documentary, but it does provide a true account of the actual events in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial, when a small California vineyard produced a perfect chardonnay that won the international “Judgment of Paris” competitions, changed the course of history and put American wines on the map forever. “Bottle shock” is the term used when a new white wine—properly aged, tested and ready to market for the first time—turns brown inside its bottle before it is uncorked. This used to be a disgrace, a tragedy, and a cause for bankruptcy. But all is not lost. Veteran vintners have learned through experience that if you leave it alone to sit, brown wine sometimes returns to its natural color and flavor in a few days. This is what happened in 1976. In the Napa Valley, a lawyer named Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) hocked everything to buy a Calistoga vineyard and follow his dream to develop the world’s greatest California chardonnay, named after his Chateau Montelena vineyard. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a snobbish British wine merchant (and secret admirer of California wines) living in Paris, drummed up a gimmick to save his struggling wine shop: stage a contest, judged by nine carefully chosen French oenophiles, pitting French wines against their Californian counterparts. Bottle Shock re-stages the swirling, sniffing, sipping and spitting of the actual competition, but more interestingly, it catalogs the internecine conflicts that almost prevented the winning chardonnay from crossing the ocean at all.
Up to his ears in mortgages and bank loans, Barrett worked day and night to make better wine while Spurrier dodged the barbs of French food critics, sommeliers and his own customers. Two men with nothing in common but their passion for the grape. In Napa, Barrett also had to battle the priorities of his slacker son Bo (Chris Pine); his most loyal worker and Bo’s best friend, Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez, from Six Feet Under), the Mexican kid who knew so much about wine he could tell the contents and vintage of a bottle just by tasting it; and his pretty new intern Sam (Rachael Taylor), whose affections were divided between both boys, causing friction throughout the vineyard. When Spurrier arrived in Napa, all kinds of hell broke loose. Then the finished product, though exceptional in taste, oxidized and turned brown, and the devastated elder Barrett ordered 500 cases to be destroyed. How the entire vintage of discolored wine was intercepted on its way to the dump, how Bo convinced a planeful of tourists to each carry one bottle of Chateau Montelena to Paris in their carry-on luggage (ah, those were the days!), and how the vineyard was saved from its creditors and Barrett was elevated to the status of global royalty are fertile elements in a story that leaves you cheering.
It’s a great story, and Bottle Shock polishes it off like a rare Mouton Rothschild. From the spectacular backdrops of Napa wine country to the uniformly spot-on performances by his entire cast, director Randall Miller has left no bridge uncrossed in the unfolding saga. Except for a few dramatic liberties (the gorgeous intern Sam, who adds romantic oomph, is fictional), the characters in the story are real, still alive, and acted as invaluable contributors to the meticulous research. Jim Barrett is in his 80s now; his son Bo is in his 50s; and their Chardonnay is still coveted by wine lovers, though it’s in short supply. Their obsession with the art of winemaking is thrillingly captured in a script (by Jody Savin, director Miller, and Ross Schwartz) that makes you feel the soil, smell the vines, taste the body and flavor of the finished product, and appreciate what Galileo meant when he said, “Wine is sunlight held together by water.” Bottle Shock goes a long way toward turning 2008 into a vintage year.