'Bottle Shock': A Giddy Ode to Vino

Vintner Gustavo Bramila (Freddy Rodriguez) and intern Sam Clayton (Rachel Taylor) share a fondness for the grape in "Bottle Shock."
Vintner Gustavo Bramila (Freddy Rodriguez) and intern Sam Clayton (Rachel Taylor) share a fondness for the grape in "Bottle Shock." (Freestyle Releasing - Freestyle Releasing)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Perhaps "Bottle Shock" should have been called "The Grapes of Froth" because it tells such a happy story: How the vintners of Napa Valley won the blind tasting known as the "Judgment of Paris" in 1976 and put their little piece of California paradise on the world wine stage for all time. Whatta movie: booze, unhappy French people, Alan Rickman and really cool pickup trucks.

As for the trucks, they're all over the place, along with a one-eyed, limping, primer-smeared VW Beetle, as symbols of the surfer/hippie-like culture that prevailed in Napa in those years, before it acquired swank, class and really expensive motels, the emblems of success.

Rickman plays Steven Spurrier, not our ball-coach of recent vintage, but a Brit wine merchant in Paris who is prevailed upon to sponsor, arrange and produce the judgment, which alas compels him to visit the Colonies, where his snobbery gets a comeuppance, Yank-style, and it's a nice thing to see.

The director, Randall Miller, uses the tasting as the spine of the story and at the same time gets at other dramatic issues. The film is also a study of the landscape of Napa (as photographed from a light plane that soared over the hills and valley clustered with arbors). And it chronicles a generational conflict between the Barrett boys, père et fils, as dad Jim (Bill Pullman) tries to get son Bo (Chris Pine) to knuckle down and take some responsibility while they attempt to turn out the perfect chardonnay in California's dustiest valley. And finally the movie evokes the hard work it takes to get something purple -- or for that matter green -- out of the earth and make a buck off it. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

The movie is constructed as a cavalcade, cutting back and forth between venues, dipping in and out of wineries and wine retail, bedrooms, boardrooms and bars. It spends some time in Paris, where the snobby if amusing Rickman is put upon by a patriotic American wine rep (Dennis Farina in some of the loudest '70s plaid suits you've ever seen!) to engineer the show. Then it goes to Napa, where various domestic complexities are preventing the battlin' Barretts from putting out the world's best potable. Pullman has put on weight and looks every inch the beleaguered patriarch, fighting off banks on the one hand and the vicissitudes of nature with the other and occasionally putting on the boxing gloves with his son, who'd rather party hearty (beer seems to be the kids' beverage of choice) late into the night.

Whenever he's not sure of what to cut to, Miller takes us on a plane ride, and there are times when you think the picture-show should have been called "I Strafed Napa Valley in a Piper Cub and Lived to Tell About It," assuming the pilot lived to tell about it.

Other issues are evoked less successfully. A triangular love affair involving Jim, an intern (Rachel Taylor) and another would-be vintner Gustavo (Freddy Rodríguez) gobbles a few minutes without much payoff; as does the parallel generations tale involving Gustavo and his father, played by the distinguished Miguel Sandoval. But the central narrative stays with the distinguished English aristo wandering hopelessly about the rustic valley and getting an education in a lot of astonishing areas but most importantly, the excellence of American wine craft. Pullman and Rickman have a few great scenes together as they scuffle and paw at each other, trying to outdo each other in wine info.

What makes "Bottle Shock" so rewarding, however, is something subtler. Everyone in it simply loves wine, as drink, as science, as art, as culture, as civilized delight. I'm guessing that includes the director and the producers and probably the investors and the key grips and the guy who put out the doughnuts each morning. It's just so much fun to be in the presence of so many people obsessed with a gift from God such as the eternal tingle of pleasure that comes in those little green bottles!

The movie builds steadily toward its invocation of the tasting, where a gaggle of Frenchies who look like they've just condemned a couple of thousand of the rabble to Madame Guillotine sit at a table in a sunny courtyard and prepare to crush the rustic upstarts and their primitive grape juices. They all look like the guy in the Paris restaurant who asked me if I wanted an aperitif, and when I said "vin rouge" reacted as though I'd said, "Le Yoo-hoo chocolat, s'il vous plaît," so maybe I take this all a little personally. Anyway, it's a great scene (so great that another movie is forthcoming on the "Judgment of Paris" in the near future) and the movie, though not itself great, offers a lot of fun for those of us who like our wine cold, our Rickman tart, our pickups rusted out and our French people deeply unhappy.

Bottle Shock (103 minutes, at Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row theaters) is rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexual content and a scene of drug use.

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