With its California wine country setting, gold-burnished traveling shots of rolling vineyards, and half-satiric, half-lyrical rendering of wine-geek lingo (“I detect bacon fat laced with ripe melon”), Bottle Shock (Freestyle Releasing) will be universally compared to Alexander Payne’s Sideways. But really, it’s more like an oenophilic remake of Breaking Away. The tale of a 1976 wine-tasting contest in which American wines went head-to-head with French ones for the first time (based on a true story), Bottle Shock is at heart a sports movie. Instead of bicycling, the sport is fermentation, and instead of suave Italian cyclists, the heroes’ archrivals are old-growth French Bordeaux grapes. But the movies share a genuine ardor for their subjects (bikes and bottles, respectively) and a nonjingoistic respect for the power of American pluck.
Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) is a lawyer turned amateur vintner whose small Napa property is mortgaged up to its eyeballs. He’s also a self-taught visionary on a quest for the perfect handcrafted Chardonnay. His son Bo (Chris Pine), a hippie and sometime-cellar rat, can’t commit to either getting an education or joining the trade. Instead, he kicks around the county with his buddy Gustavo Brambila (Freddy Rodriguez), hustling barflies with demonstrations of Gustavo’s supposedly infallible ability to identify any wine by its vintage. When a foxy intern, Sam (Rachael Taylor), comes to work at the Barretts’ vineyard, Bo and Gustavo enter into a competition for her attentions.
Meanwhile in Paris (every movie should have a “meanwhile in Paris”), British wine merchant Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) is also managing a failing business; he knows everything there is to know about French wine except how to sell it. His only customer is an American aficionado, Maurice (Dennis Farina), who tastes wines for free all afternoon while kibitzing with the owner. Maurice persuades Steven to goose his sales with a publicity stunt: a blind tasting competition between French wines and those of the New World (popularly assumed, at the time, to be undrinkable plonk).
So Steven flies to Napa Valley, where, in the movie’s best scenes, he drives from one bare-bones vineyard to the next in an incongruous business suit, sipping wines out of jelly jars and trying not to admit they’re among the best he’s ever tasted. Alan Rickman, marvelous as ever, balances his character’s priggishness with curiosity and a barely hidden streak of hedonism. In one dialogue-free scene, a Mexican farmer by the roadside serves Steven some of his wine with a delicious-looking bowl of guacamole. Rickman’s multistage encounter with this unfamiliar treat should be nominated for some kind of Oscar for best snack.
Caveat emptor: By comparing Bottle Shock to Breaking Away and Sideways above, I didn’t mean to imply that this movie is anywhere nearly as good as those. Its story arcs are far more predictable, its humor broader, and since the eventual victory of the California wines is a foregone conclusion, the lead-up to the climactic contest lacks tension. The director and co-writer, Randall Miller, is also not above pandering. The unconvincing love triangle among Gustavo, Bo, and Sam feels artificially wedged into the story to sex things up, and there’s a deeply gratuitous wet T-shirt scene as the comely Sam hoses down the grape thresher to the delight of the field hands. So why did I feel such affection for this scruffy, hokey little movie? Maybe it’s the same logic that applies to wine-drinking itself: Sure, a great claret would be ideal, but an OK rosé is better than washing down your dinner with water.
Bottle Shock ends with Rickman’s character dizzily imagining the possibilities of a globalized wine industry: “We’ll have wines from South America, Australia, India!” Thirty years later, that dream has come to pass with a vengeance. As shown in the 2004 documentary Mondovino, the wine trade is now a consultant-driven, brand-obsessed international megabusiness that’s endangering the artisanal methods of production this movie celebrates. Viewers who, like this movie’s heroes, see wine as an expression of regional pride may want to warn the main character to be careful what he wishes for.