Sideways, It’s Not

By Karl Klooster

On Feb. 3, 2009 a made-for-DVD movie, titled “Bottle Shock,” hits the market. Based on the true story of the so-called “Judgement at Paris,” wherein upstart Napa Valley wines bested some of France’s finest in 1976, it’s the first wine-centric film of note since “Sideways.”

The intent of director Randall Miller may have been to beguile viewers with the wonders of the California wine country. For that he earns high points. It may also have been his hope that they would closely connect with the characters. But for that he does not.

Some of the cast members are well-known names—Alan Rickman as the snooty but sincere British wine merchant Steven Spurrier, who put together the landmark blind tasting; Bill Pullman, as Chateau Montelena owner Jim Barrett, and Dennis Farina as Maurice, an American in Paris who is Spurrier’s pal.

Filling the other principal roles are Chris Pine as Bo, Barrett’s blond, straggly haired and unfocused son, Rachael Taylor as the attractive Sam, who signs on as an intern at Montelena, and Freddy Rodriguez as winemaker Gustavo Brambila.

But tension elements in the plot—the love triangle among the three, the financial struggles of Chateau Montelena, and the conflict between the Barretts—don’t make viewers care enough. The result is merely a quaffable rather than a savory sipper.

Not that the movie is without merit. It advances the basic and already known outcome—roughshod Yanks leave pompous Froggies in the dust—with all the appropriate touches that warm a wine buff’s heart.

This provides considerable satisfaction in itself. Whether you know or care about wine, we always love a winner.

Though said to be low budget, “Bottle Shock” is professionally produced and does a great job with period authenticity both on the American and European side of the pond. The cars and the clothing are spot on, as someone like the real Spurrier would say.

Some standout scenes and memorable lines elevate the overall presentation to a respectable middleweight level. Rickman lends just the right lilt to being British and Rodriguez puts a nice spin on his portrayal of Mexican wine maestro and good guy, Brambilla.

For those who know wine well, however, a couple of omissions may be bothersome.

There is no mention at all of enological icon Mike Grgich, who actually made the winning 1973 Montelena Chardonnay, and the other winning wine, Stag Leap’s 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon, receives only a passing credit at the end.

Regardless, this film’s obligation to carry a true story to its conclusion shackles plot flexibility, particularly when compared to the irreverence and outrageousness that made the film whose success it wanted to emulate such an unanticipated phenomenon.

The bottom line is that “Sideways” was about the people, with wine as counterpoint, whereas “Bottle Shock” is the opposite. And therein lies the difference.  

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