Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Bottle Shock and Awe

It’s the U.S.A. versus the French. What else do you need to know? Of course, the French are accustomed to defeat, but this one probably stung worse than their long history of military losses. This time the field of battle was a blind wine tasting, pitting the upstart wines of California against the best the French had to offer. The results stunned the world, as portrayed in director Randall Miller’s Bottle Shock (trailer here), opening in New York and other selected cities today.

Based on true events, Shock dramatizes the 1976 competition organized by British expat Steven Spurrier, played by Alan Rickman, to promote his struggling wine emporium. Ostensibly a friendly competition to celebrate the American bicentennial, Spurrier assumed a well publicized rout of the California wines would appeal to French chauvinism, creating good will for his store as a result. However, much to his dismay, those California wines were actually quite palatable.

On his Napa Valley scouting trip, Spurrier meets Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), the owner of the Chateau Montelena winery. After a reasonably successful corporate career, Barrett is pursuing his dream of making the finest chardonnay possible. In doing so, he has the dubious help of his dirty, unkempt hippy son Bo, played by Chris Pine. The younger Barrett only has one ambition, to sleep with their attractive intern, and even on this front, he is under-achieving badly. Can Bo get serious long enough to save the family winery? Have you seen a movie before?

Shock takes its name from the temporary damage sustained by wine when shipped as cargo. It is one of the many potential pitfalls avoided by the California wines on the road to Paris in a fairly clever screenplay. However, we get a little too much of knuckle-headed Bo and his pals, at the expense of the more appealing adult characters. Indeed, Shock boasts a cast of actor’s actors who always turn in interesting performances, including Pullman, Rickman, and Dennis Farina, as an American expat who patronizes Spurrier’s establishment.

In many ways, Shock is a refreshing story. In truth, the patriotic aspect of American underdogs taking on French snobs is actually played down, but it is in there. More pronounced is the spirit of camaraderie and friendly competition that prevails among the California wineries. At its core though, Shock is a story of the American Dream, as pursued by Barrett. Both French wine snobs like Spurrier and Gustavo, a young Montelena employee and vintner on the sly, consider wine making a product of destiny, wholly dependent on the blood in your veins and the soil you happened to be raised on. For Barrett, it is a matter of vision, commitment, and a little capital—the American way.

Shock is a bright and appealing film—literally. Michael J. Ozier cinematography makes the wine country sparkle. It moves along briskly and efficiently, even with Bo’s distracting subplots. Although you probably already have a pretty good idea where Shock is going (spoiler: the U.S. won), it is amiable ride getting there.