Hollywood and wine converged yet again on July 26 as Bottle Shock had its Napa Valley premiere at Chateau Montelena. The director and cast, including stars Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman, and hundreds of others gathered to view the film, which is loosely based on the 1976 Paris Tasting that helped put California on the world's wine map.
Anticipation has been running high for Bottle Shock since the crew began filming in Napa and Sonoma counties last summer. Comparisons to Sideways are inevitable, but Bottle Shock stands comfortably on its own: It's a crowd-pleaser, charming and surprisingly funny, though schmaltzy and calculatedly Hollywood at times.
The film, not surprisingly, was warmly received by Saturday's local crowd, who watched it alfresco in the shadow of Montelena's castle façade, which is featured prominently in the movie. Considering its limited budget, the movie is visually beautiful, relying largely on locations around the city of Sonoma. East Napa Street, just off the plaza, substitutes for Paris, for example.
Concerned about reaching a broader audience than just wine aficionados, director Randy Miller used the Paris Tasting as a backdrop to tell personal stories (albeit highly fictionalized stories) about real people.
Steven Spurrier (played by Rickman) is a British wine merchant who is staging a blind comparative tasting of French and California wine in Paris in the summer of 1976 to coincide with America's bicentennial. He comes to California to taste the region's wines for the first time, expecting them to all taste like Thunderbird. Certainly the American wine industry was in its infancy, but Spurrier is in for a surprise.
Pullman plays Jim Barrett, a man who has poured his heart and savings into Chateau Montelena, but is struggling to sell his wine. Barrett is a tough cookie, stubborn and demanding, who often clashes with his son, Bo, (played by Chris Pine) a longhaired party boy.
Montelena's 1973 Chardonnay, of course, went on to beat some of the best names in white Burgundy, and while that surprise is the climax of the movie, it's the interaction and conflict of those three main characters in anticipation of the tasting that serves as the movie's centerpiece.
For eye candy and love interest there's a young summer intern (Rachael Taylor) and the passionate and talented cellar rat Gustavo (Freddy Rodríguez), who likes to talk about wine with lines like, "You have to have it in your blood. You have to grow up with the soil underneath your nails and the smell of the grape in the air that you breathe."
Wine lovers may roll their eyes occasionally, especially those who are sticklers for the real details. Mike Grgich, Montelena's winemaker at the time, is never mentioned, though you can occasionally spot an anonymous gentleman in the cellar wearing Grgich's trademark beret. Also, the fact that the Stag's Leap Wine Cellars 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon was the winning red in the Paris Tasting is mentioned only in the credits.
But even if you know the true story of the Barretts and Spurrier, it's easy to get caught up in these semi-fictional characters. Pine is believable as a lost soul, although the long mane of blonde hair is a distraction. (Bo's wife and fellow winemaker Heidi Petersen-Barrett said her husband's hair was really more of an Afro back then, and Bo himself insists that he wasn't such a slacker.)
Veterans Pullman and Rickman come off the best, particularly Rickman, who plays Spurrier with a deliciously snide sense of humor. Before the premiere, Rickman spoke about the character. "I never met Steven but we spoke on the phone. I wasn't doing an impression. This isn't a documentary. It's a particular kind of Englishman I was trying to be," he said.
Pullman said he was more fascinated about the vineyards and grapegrowing than he was with the winemaking aspect. "I don't really trust my sense of smell with wines," he said. Pullman lost his sense of smell after a head injury.
None of the cast members had any real experience with wine except Rickman, who says he spends a lot of time in Italy. "Wine is a big topic. It's full of secrets," he said.
As to the authenticity of the movie, Bo Barrett addressed the issue with the crowd just before the lights went down. "This whole thing has been a surreal experience," he said. "I just want to say right now that there's a character in this movie named Bo Barrett and for those of you who know me, well, I never really did any of that shit."
That was one of the biggest laughs of the evening.
Whether Bottle Shock reaches a wide audience remains to be seen. It was well received earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival but has yet to find a distributor. Director Miller is financing a limited release with the help of wine-savvy investors.
Watching the film at Montelena was particularly ironic that night—just four days earlier, the Barretts announced that their winery had been purchased by the owner of Château Cos-d'Estournel, a top Bordeaux producer. Whether that's proof that the French have triumphed in the end or a sign that the wine world has grown a lot smaller in the years since 1976 is up for debate.