"Bottle Shock" is a maddening little movie. It purports to tell one of the great wine stories, about a day in the spring of 1976, in Paris, when a group of upstart California wines faced off in a blind taste test against an array of prestigious French vintages — and won top honors in both the red and the white categories. This event — an amusing humiliation for the mysteriously distinguished French wine pros doing the judging — was a turning point not just for American wine, which had theretofore been considered the merest of cheap plonk, but for the wine business worldwide. If American wine could trump the obviously overvalued French product, why not the wines of Chile, Australia, who knows where else? As we see today, that is exactly what has happened: the French are currently drowning in an ocean of unsold wine, while bottles of Australian Shiraz, for instance, are bought up by the boatload.
Unfortunately for "Bottle Shock" director Randall Miller, who cowrote the movie's script, the "Judgment of Paris," as that long-ago tasting has come to be known, took up all of an afternoon. And so in order to fill out a feature film, Miller has had to shovel in a lot of Other Stuff, some of it invented.
In real life, the great tasting was organized by two expatriate wine buffs, the British Steven Spurrier and the American Patricia Gallagher, partners in a Paris wine school called l'Académie du Vin. In Miller's movie, Gallagher has ceased to exist, and Spurrier, through no fault of his own, receives sole credit. In real life, the Chateau Montelena chardonnay that won the white-wine competition was the creation of winemaker Mike Grgich, who later went on to start the celebrated Grgich Hills winery elsewhere in the Napa Valley. In Miller's movie, the existence of Grgich is barely whispered, and all credit for the winning wine is heaped at the feet of Montelena owner Jim Barrett. In real life, the tasting was held at the Paris InterContinental Hotel. In Miller's movie, it takes place outdoors, in a sunny French country courtyard. (Wine lovers may be appalled at the idea of lugging such high-end vintages out into the heat and glare; the fact that the event is set in what are transparently the same California environs in which the rest of the movie was shot is an added minus.) Finally, a journalist named George Taber is depicted in the movie as a minor scrivener hanging around the fringes of the action. In real life, Taber was the Time magazine correspondent who broke the story internationally, and whose 2006 book, "Judgment of Paris," is the basis for another movie about the tasting that's currently being made.
Miller assembled a top-flight cast for his film: Alan Rickman plays Spurrier; Bill Pullman is Jim Barrett; and Dennis Farina portrays a flashy American wine buff named Maurice. These fine actors are shockingly misdirected. For example, Rickman — whose minimal screen time would seem inadequate to the demands of the real-life story — is reduced to the lovable superciliousness that is one of his trademarks, and little more. Pullman spends most of his time either huffing around heroically among the racks and casks or engaging in impromptu boxing matches with his ne'er-do-well son, Bo. This young slacker, played by Chris Pine in an awful wig, is actually, inexplicably, at the center of the movie — his piddling rivalry with an idealistic young Mexican winemaker (Freddy Rodríguez) for the affections of a hot blonde "wine intern" (Rachael Taylor) being an obvious come-on for the youth market. I don't know whether this (large) part of the story actually happened. I do know I don't care.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Pineapple Express," also new in theaters this week.
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