Bottle Shock

September, 2008, Comedy

Directed by:Randall Miller

Starring:Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Bill Pullman, Rachael Taylor, Freddy Rodriguez, Dennis Farina, Bradley Whitford, Miguel Sandoval, and With Eliza Dushku

Light as gossamer, sweet as the scent of a wild flower and about that substantial, this meandering saga of a 1976 wine competition pitting France’s best against vineyards from upstart California proves you don’t need A-list actors and an enormous production budget to deliver that Hollywood staple, a genuine “feel good” movie. Veteran T.V. director Randall Miller, (working from a script he co-wrote with Jody Savin) spins a breezy yarn about the struggle of California’s vintners to earn respect (and greater market share) for their product in a world where the French then unquestionably dominated - - at least by reputation - - the global market. It took an expatriate British wine merchant based in Paris to orchestrate the first serious head-to-head blind taste test between these dueling growers and those results form the punch line of this 110-minute paean to fermented grapes. 

Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Sense & Sensibility, The Harry Potter Series) affably mugs his way through innumerable samplings as Steven Spurrier, the English instigator of a challenge pitting France’s best against  California vineyards in a first-of-its-kind competition.  Spurrier personally presented his all-French judges with wines made here in the U.S. that employed more innovative techniques than those used by Gallic traditionalists and challenged them to determine, sight-unseen, which ones were superior.

Bottle’s storyline introduces its audience to a host of then-unknown wine growers from the sun-drenched hills of California, concentrating particularly on Jim Barrett and his son Bo, who owned and operated the now famous Chateau Montalena. When Spurrier first proposed his contest, The Golden State’s winegrowers suspected him of setting them up for a rigged contest. But he finally persuaded them to supply him with samples of the very best of their collective production which he personally carried back to France to avoid “bottle shock” - - the risk of damage to the contents if an extraordinary wine is handled with less than loving care.

Since it’s impossible to make a taste test exciting for nearly two hours, (even when conducted in the bucolic ruins of an old French farm house) Miller pads his tale with a love affair for Bo, the promise of financial ruin/humiliation for his father and even examples of racial prejudice revolving around Hispanics and their role in the production of California’s best wines. These various subplots are interspersed with lavish aerial shots of vineyards throughout Napa and Sonoma counties, adding a travelogue touch to the movie’s energetic but rather threadbare storyline. 

Journeyman actor Bill Pullman, much seen on television and in supporting roles in films which call for the screen version of what the English would describe as a “decent chap”, (Independence Day, While You Were Sleeping) plays Jim Barrett with a nice touch of mean-spiritedness towards those getting in the way of his creative process. Alan Rickman has a field day pandering to American audiences with his version of a stuffy Brit whose introduction to the plain spoken, laid-back style of California winegrowers provides nearly as much social commentary as does his languid voiceovers describing the more arcane aspects of growing world-class grapes. Rickman’s range as an actor encompasses characters that range from the vile to the sublime and few of his peers can match his ability to imbue a role with such a deliciously odious air of superiority. His role here may be one dimensional, but he makes the most of it, as do Dennis Farina as Suppier’s gauche Yankee sidekick and The West Wing’s Brad Whitford as a professor who helps the Magdalena winery diagnose reason for the strange color of its best Chardonnay. 

With a booming soundtrack fueled by some of the most recognizable top 40 hits of the ‘70’s and cinematography that presents both California and France in all their stunning visual beauty, Bottle Shock makes for a pleasant diversion that’s light on the palate.

The verdict? This one should go down very nicely on your home entertainment center when released on DVD.

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