Though it's hard to believe, over 30 years ago, wines from continents other than Europe (and countries other than France and Italy) were considered crap. Not less palatable or uncertain in quality: Boone's Farm meets Thunderbird. Uncivilized swill. Of course, this wasn't true. Napa Valley, as well as regions in Australia, were creating wonderful vintages. But since the French controlled everything about the culture of the grape, their disdain meant no one took outsider vineyards seriously.
In 1976, all that changed. During the year of America's Bicentennial, a British merchant working in Paris came to California looking for participants for his exclusive tasting competition. He hoped to raise awareness of his failing shop and solidify his place in the snobbish wine society. Instead, winemonger Stephen Spurrier made history, and his accidental discoveries sent international palettes into something akin to Bottle Shock. Now, decades since the U.S. became part of cultured world cuisine, director Randall Miller offers up a serio-comic take on the event, and for the most part, it's as tasty as a well-aged Burgundy.
When we first meet the Barrett family -- father Jim (Bill Pullman) and son Bo (Chris Pine) -- they are on the verge of bankruptcy. While their Chateau Montelena creates fantastic wines, no one outside the locals knows about them. The market is wholly owned by the Europeans. Hoping to learn something about life in a vineyard, college intern Sam (Rachel Taylor) arrives. She quickly befriends Bo and his buddy -- and secret winemaking savant -- Gustavo Brambila (Freddy Rodriguez). Meanwhile, Spurrier (Alan Rickman) is desperate to keep his snooty store afloat. On the advice of expatriate Maurice (Dennis Farina), he creates a competition to find the best wines in the world. But once he arrives in the U.S., the connoisseur is surprised at the quality of work -- especially coming out of the struggling Barrett business.
Since we know the outcome in advance (American labels are now famous all over the globe) Bottle Shock has to get by on character and charm. It wants to balance the last fleeting days of '60s hippy hedonism with the intricacies of successful vinification to champion an uber-USA nationalism. Director Miller relies on the breeziest kind of nostalgia, a wistfulness where all problems are punished by a healthy dose of positive mental attitude and an era appropriate song or two. He gives us both sides of the Barrett dilemma -- a dad too serious to see beyond his failures and a son too surfer-dude to take anything (except sex) seriously. Together they form the yin and yang of a narrative that avoids any major pitfalls on its way to American enological supremacy.
Rickman is required to be the slapstick stranger in a strange land here, to use his stiff upper Brit wit as ballast for what is otherwise the standard comic snob. Riding around in a beaten up junker may sound funny, but someone with this actor's undeniable talent deserves a tad better. Similarly, Pine is poised as part Jesus, part joke, a Merlot messiah unable to see his value to his parent or to their particular grape. He has to be pushed into action, and when he does, he has a novice's brand of luck. Many of the plot points here feel too pat, as if the screenplay is scooting over the more troublesome facts of the real-life events.
Still, thanks to its inherently interesting subject matter (who knew our efforts were so abhorred prior to '76?) and the genial demeanor of the cast, Bottle Shock becomes a satisfying, if slightly syrupy entertainment. It's not to be savored so much as sipped and sampled for what it is.
More Ripple, sir?