Among movies about fine wines, in terms of quality this one falls between “Sideways” and “The Good Year.” But happily it’s closer to the former than the latter. Based on a true story, as the saying goes, “Bottle Shock” spins a yarn set around the blind taste competition held in France in 1976, in which the Gallic bottles were bested by a California one to the astonishment of all. (The title refers not just to that, but to the fact that the U.S. wines might not travel well.)
The instigator of the contest is Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a Brit who owns an underperforming wine shop in Paris and is coaxed into the venture by his friend Maurice (Dennis Farina), an American expatriate with a taste for loud suits as well as wine. Spurrier travels to Napa to collect some New World competitors, which brings him into touch with Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), the struggling owner of Chateau Montelena, and his high-spirited son Bo (Chris Pine). Jim’s an obsessive who chucked his job as a lawyer back in San Francisco and gone deeply into debt in a drive to create a perfect Chardonnay. Bo assists at the vineyard, though he’s much less driven than his dad and his lack of seriousness infuriates the old man.
There’s really not much question about where the plot involving Spurrier and the Barretts will be going—this is unabashedly “Rocky” with corks instead of boxing gloves. But it’s still enjoyable to watch get there, simply because Rickman’s long-faced shtick is such a delight (and he’s given by far the best lines, as well as some fine duets with the voluble Farina). Pullman, on the other hand, doesn’t do an awful lot with the intense older Barrett, and while Pine is likable enough, he’s saddled with a really distracting hairdo and a not very interesting subplot—a triangle involving him, a pretty intern named Sam (Rachael Taylor) and the vineyard’s young aide de camp, Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), whom Jim fires after discovering he’s making his own wine with a neighboring grower (Miguel Sandoval), a guy who apparently listens to the same operatic aria on his phonograph every waking minute of the day and (star-filled) night. Taylor and Rodriguez are both engaging performers, but the whole romantic business seems frankly intrusive and half-hearted.
There are twists here, of course—the way Spurrier suddenly devises to transport the wines to Europe, the hair’s breadth escape of the Barrett Chardonnay from destruction after it seems to have turned color, thanks to a hard-bitten local bar owner named Joe (Eliza Dushku, good if unremarkable). And they strain credulity, especially since director Randall Miller (who also co-wrote the script) isn’t particularly subtle in his approach. Something vaguely akin to them may have happened—and there might have been a romantic thread to the story, too. Or not. But this is hardly intended as a documentary, and within the context of a feel-good David-and-Goliath tale, they serve the requisite crowd-pleasing purposes. And from the technical perspective the picture is attractive for an obviously low-budget production, with the California locations looking lush and inviting and cinematographer Michael J. Ozier using them nicely in his widescreen compositions. The scenes supposedly set in France, however, aren’t entirely convincing, and more could have been done musically than Mark Adler manages with his score.
There’s a parochial cast to “Bottle Shock,” a triumphal tone that, especially toward the close, turns it into the sort of film that might have been financed by California vintners to be shown in a museum celebrating their product. But while it may not represent the best vintage, it goes down easily enough.