I live near Napa Valley and I enjoy wine a great deal, so when I first heard about a new little movie called Bottle Shock all about the historical legitimization of California wine, I was intrigued. I may have taken for granted the fact that Napa hasn't always been a world-renowned winemaking region, and that at one point it was viewed as nothing more than a bunch of back-water country hicks noodling around with grapes. Which is why I was disappointed to not love this sincere attempt to bring this story to life on the screen. I had such high hopes, but in the end the movie spends too much time on other stuff and not enough on the part that's the most interesting.
Invariably, this tale of Napa's beginnings will be compared to another indie film about California wine, Sideways, and though the subject matter may be similar, it's not an accurate pairing. Where Sideways uses wine country as a setting in which to explore the lives of four intriguing characters, Bottle Shock is a saccharine mix of slapstick comedy, melodrama, and sweeping shots of California's golden hills. This director practically fetishizes the beauty of the state's coast, and at times the movie feels more like a tourist ad than anything else. I wish the filmmakers had relied on the interesting true story for a dramatic arc rather than tossing in several tedious subplots, including an emotionally weightless father-son drama and a mind-numbing love triangle. To see why,
In 1976 a British wine shop owner named Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) and his American neighbor Maurine (played wonderfully by Dennis Farina) come up with the idea of a blind tasting that would pit France's best winemakers against the renegades in America, intending to prove that great wine could only be made in France. Surrier travels to California and makes his way from one roadside tasting to another, carefully noting which regions are best. At the same time, Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) and his free-spirited, slacker son Bo (Chris Pine) are attempting to create a perfect chardonnay at their winery, Chateau Montelena. Bo sees Surrier's arrival as a chance to prove to his dad that he can make something happen for the winery. Meanwhile one of the Barrett's employees, Gustavo Brambila (Freddy Rodríguez), is making his own wine on the side and frequently butts heads with Jim.
Oh, and then a blond bombshell "intern" shows up at the Chateau and proceeds to befriend and bed both young men amidst winery duties, which include wearing sexy outfits and hosing off a barrel while the water runs down her body, not unlike a Playboy fantasy, while the dirty old men of the winery gawk.
There's a lot of time spent on these characters but it all falls flat because tonally their stories don't jive with what's going on over in Alan Rickman's movie. While they run around an Anthropology catalogue, delivering dramatic monologues about feeling wine in your blood, Alan's tasting Kentucky Friend Chicken for the first time and it's hysterical. Eventually we get to the climax of the film — the industry-changing wine tasting in France — but by that time I was pretty much over it and couldn't care less about the fate of these people.
The sad thing about this movie is that it's well-intentioned and wants to do justice to the stories of these real-life people. The saving grace, predictably, is Alan Rickman and there isn't a single scene he's in that doesn't sparkle with wry humor and simple elegance. But alas, his scenes are too few, and when they end we're swept away via endless aerial shots of vineyards to the dopey plotlines of the other characters.