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Monday, August 25, 2008

A ‘Bottle Shock-umentary’

The recent buzz on this film has been a bit disparaging as it has been compared to Sideways, which is as apples to oranges as assessment as any that I’ve heard of in cinema circles. I believe one’s enjoyment in the film will highly correlate to their initial expectations as they walk into the theater (or pop it in their NetFlix cue).

Loosely based on factual occurrences during the pivotal tasting of 1976, where French judges unknowingly hailed a Californian Chardonnay and Napa Cabernet as champions over the more prestigious, French comparators. While the characters of the story are in fact legitimate, their personalities act more as cultural vehicles than actual depictions of the people themselves.

Jim Barrett, the owner of Chateau Montelena, takes center stage as a Napa Valley stalwart producer, complete w/ the formidable, yet pigheaded sense of stubbornness that director Randall Miller uses as a frame for the competitive natures of the American Spirit. His son, Bo, is trapped in the 60’s & struggles to shake his loser mentality, yet manages to mature a bit as the film evolves, eventually taking over his father’s winery and becoming a key representative of the Valley’s newfound success.

On the other side of the pond, Alan Rickman portrays a caricature of Steven Spurrier, personifying the stereotypical snob, caught between pseudo British royalty and trademark French arrogance. While prejudicial, he does open his eyes to the quality of Californian wine along his journey and serves as a diplomat of sorts between the old guard of French wines and the new regime of California. While the French wines themselves are not a focus of the story, they don’t appear to be necessary elements, as Spurrier’s blatant overconfidence acts as not only a spokesman for the French opinion of Californian wine, but for the hubris of their products.

Chateau Montelena was the focal point of the film. To paraphrase a poignant statement made by Barrett, ‘if one of us succeeds, the whole valley benefits,’ allowing the microcosm of Monetelena’s story to represent Napa as a whole. I found that the film stumbled a bit in its efforts to inject a romantic subplot through the intern, Sam (played by Rachael Taylor), who wound upcoming off as a bit of a one night floozy as opposed to highlighting the intimate charms that the grape has over its victims. The deliberate nature of Jim Barrett’s literal ‘fights’ w/ his son and his abrupt nature towards his staff were a bit hokey at times and the score seemed to over-emphasize a dramatic element that just wasn’t there, leaving the panoramic vistas of the valley a bit out of place. While there was a bit of a hurried climax to the film, haphazardly tying in the bottle shock of Montelena’s Chardonnay to the actual tasting itself, the film managed to endear more often than not w/ its quirky charms and aptly placed humor. Critics of the film may find the portrayal of George Taber (the author of the Judgement of Paris) as insignificant and almost oafish, but that motif seems to be in line w/ the film’s M.O.A. and I, personally, didn’t find it offensive.

Viewers that are in search of a substantial piece that mirrors the book will have to wait for the Judgment of Paris to hit the box office, as Bottle Shock didn’t own the rights to the book and the screenplay takes innumerous liberties w/ the story (though the integrity of the event is essentially intact). Viewers looking for the drama and depth of Sideways will have to look elsewhere, as Bottle Shock doesn’t pretend to provide the intensity of character development, nor the seriousness for wine connoisseurship that Sideways provides, even poking fun of Steven Spurrier’s ‘hints of bacon fat’ descriptors as opposed to elucidating the mystique of wine’s complexities. The cultural clash is poked fun at several times, perhaps most amusingly when Jim Barrett asks Steven ‘Why don’t I like you?’ To Spurrier’s response ‘Because you think I’m an ass. And I’m not really. It’s just that I’m British and you’re not.’ The movie is a fun-loving, feel-good story that ignites a bit of patriotism, splices in a touch of humor and packs an enjoyable punch that left this viewer smiling, if not totally satiated.

There was indeed some food for thought that I chewed on after my movie theater popcorn was finished. While there is a whimsical mention of the magnitude of the event, the significance of debunking the French myth that only fine wine can be made in France and in fact, can be made anywhere, is as profound a fact as any. Spurrier trails off a number of unlikely countries (New Zealand, South America, Australia) that we’re certain to be drinking wine from in the future, ending in a biting irony that, while funny, actually hits a profound chord that any wine novice can certainly appreciate. In addition, a bottle of Cos d’Estournel makes an early appearance in the film, alluding to yet another changing of the guard (Chateau Montelena was recently purchased by the famed Bordeaux estate) which cements the fact that even the French agree that fine wine can be made outside their country, to the tune of them putting their money where their mouths are.


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