A true story that only Hollywood could have made up gets the Hollywood treatment in “Bottle Shock,” a peppy and quite deliberate crowd-pleaser about how a little Napa winery’s 1973 Chardonnay won a major French tasting contest and sent the wine world into a tizzy. Certain to tap into many of the same sentiments that brought “Sideways” to prominence, but lacking some of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s refined screenwriting chops, pic will please palates across the fest world and should score sincere distrib tasters.
Working some similar easy-to-swallow storytelling angles as in his debut feature, “Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School,” director and co-writer Randall Miller constructs a fairly sprawling narrative that takes in the father-son pair of Jim and Bo Barrett (actual operator-owners of Chateau Montelena), an upstart Latino winemaker, a frisky love interest and a priggish yet open-minded British caviste in Paris who gets turned on to the California wines of the 1970s. Like a wine spread with more samples than any tongue can handle, “Bottle Shock” contains too much to manage it all well, including some painfully corny sections, but has a charming aftertaste.
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Jim (Bill Pullman) owns and runs his Napa winery, Chateau Montelena, both like a common American-style farmer and a perfectionist searching for the perfect vintage of Chardonnay. His struggle for further loans to obtain the best wine presses is just one sign that business is poor in 1976, and it’s no help that carefree son and would-be heir Bo (Chris Pine) lives life like he’s on permanent holiday.
On the other side of the Pond, Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) is also struggling in his Parisian wine shop, with his only customer apparently being Yank ex-pat Maurice (an amusing Dennis Farina). Maurice notes that he’s read that California wines are starting to turn heads, and Steven gets the notion to launch a French-American taste contest for the best wines in both lands, setting off to Napa-Sonoma to scout prospects.
Miller’s script (co-written with wife Jody Savin and the story’s original author, Ross Schwartz, who came up with the idea with Lannette Pabon) dresses up this saga of viti- and viniculture with a side plot involving Bo, cute intern Sam (Rachael Taylor) and Jim’s reliable but increasingly independent-minded Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez) in a jokey sort of love triangle. Gustavo also has his own winemaking ambitions tied with venerable Mr. Garcia (Miguel Sandoval), who has made a fabulous red.
Wine lovers won’t just sip but guzzle a lot of this down, and the same effect that sun-dappled days and sex in California had on “Sideways” operates here. The eventual chain of events that actually gets the Montelena Chardonnay into Steven’s competition is an underdog tale in extremis, and Miller’s tendency is to milk it, and milk some more.
A peculiar demand placed on the cast, from Farina in Paris to Pine, Rodriguez, Taylor and Pullman in Napa (and Rickman in both locales), is credibly reacting when tasting vintages, sending the visual clue that a great wine is at hand. Rickman plays the snob to human scale and never to exaggeration, while Miller lets Pine and Pullman go overboard with unevenly calibrated perfs. Taylor and Rodriguez, despite one ridiculous love scene, pull off big-screen charm.
Production is slick on a budget (though using Napa spots as a location substitute for France is an obvious flub), and plenty of visuals serve as little more than commercials for California wine country.