'Bottle Shock' a victory in the vineyard

  • Winemaker Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) and Sam (Rachael Taylor) walk among the grape vines in a scene from "Bottle Shock." (Freestyle Releasing)

In 1976, the year of the American bicentennial, the tall ships sailed from Europe to America and back again. But a smaller event was, in its way, no less impressive. In a blind taste-testing held in France, the wines of Californias Napa Valley defeated the best the French had to offer and all the judges were French! A bottle of the winning American vintage, it is said, now rests on exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution.

Bottle Shock is a charming fictionalized version of the victory, based, as they love to say, on a true story. Shot in California like Sideways, but much closer to the earth, the film tells the story of a struggling vineyard named Chateau Montelena, deeply in debt with three bank loans. Its run by the hard-driving Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), who despairs of his layabout, long-haired son, Bo (Chris Pine).

Meanwhile, in Paris, we meet a British wine lover named Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), whose tiny wine shop is grandly named The Academy of Wine. We never see a single customer in the shop, only the constant visits of a neighboring travel agent, Maurice (Dennis Farina, in full Chicago accent). Maurice encourages Steven by praising his wines, which he samples freely while passing out business advice.

Spurrier (yes, a real man) has been hearing about the wines of California, and has an inspiration: His grand-sounding academy will sponsor a blind taste-test between the wines of the two countries. That he is able to gather a panel of expert judges says much for the confidence of the French, who should have realized it was a dangerous proposition.

In Napa, we meet two other major players: a pretty summer intern named Sam (Rachael Taylor), and an employee of Jims named Gustavo Brambilia yes, another real character played by Freddy Rodriguez. Gustavo has wine in his bones, if such a thing is possible, and would go on to found a famous vineyard.

The two boys raise cash by Gustavos (partially true) ability to identify any wine and vintage by tasting it, and of course they both fall in love with Sam, who lives for the summer in a shack out of The Grapes of Wrath.

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