France has been making wine since about 600 B.C., when a few Bacchus-loving Greeks colonized what came to be known as Marseilles. The French claimed wine superiority ever since.
Napa Valley in California had wine grapes in 1858, thanks to its first Euro-American settler, North Carolina-born George C. Yount. Premium wine production began in the 1960s, but wine elitists never acknowledged what the upstart California winemakers had achieved. Only French wines mattered — until 1976 and the famous Judgement of Paris blind tasting competition, in which both a white Chardonnay and a red Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley won first prizes over the French wines. California winemakers hooted in triumph, the French wept in horror, and the wine world has never been the same.
The main character in Bottle Shock is the lovely Napa Valley itself. Helped by a Mediterranean-like climate and its diverse geology and geography, the valley has birthed more than 450 wineries, including many run by monks. Today almost 4.5 million tourists visit each year.
It’s 1976, and America is celebrating its bicentennial. All over the country, hard-working parents are befuddled by their pot-smoking, seemingly aimless kids. None more so than former attorney Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), who has sunk every last dime into his dream of making a go of the Chateau Montelena winery. He’s constantly fighting the banks and his long-haired son, Bo Barrett (Chris Pine). He’s also trying to ignore the painful signs that his trusted assistant, Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), is secretly making his own wine. Into the volatile mix gallops “Sam” (Rachael Taylor), a long-legged intern from UC-Davis’ Department of Viticulture and Enology.
Meanwhile in Paris, British sommelier Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) is scheming to enhance profits in his tiny shop by shaking up the wine world. Dressed in his signature exquisitely tailored suit (not unlike the one he wore as villain Hans Gruber in 1988’s Die Hard), he journeys to Napa Valley.
Distinguishing himself from other winery visitors, he actually pays the winemakers for tasting their wines, and word spreads that the weird visitor just might have some serious expertise. Alas, Chateau Montelena’s beleaguered Jim Barrett hates him on sight.
“Why do I dislike you so?” he asks Spurrier. “It’s not just because you’re an arsehole.”
“Well, I’m British,” Spurrier answers … then pauses for full effect. “And you’re not.”
No one can curl his upper lip like Alan Rickman, and I dare you to see him do it in this movie and not fall off your seat in hysterics. But by the end of the film, you will cheer when you see what the annoying snob accomplishes for Americans when he gets back to Paris.
One of cinema’s most beloved actors, Rickman died in January at age 69. He’ll live on with his wonderful portrayals in many, many films, including, most famously, his heartbreaking turn as the infinitely complicated Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise. Bottle Shock (2008) was the second Randall Miller film Rickman co-starred in with friend Bill Pullman, after Nobel Son in 2007. Both were low-budget indie films, and are hard to find, but well worth the search.
Marcianne Miller is a member of SEFCA (Southeast Film Critics Association) and NCFCA (North Carolina Film Critics Association) Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Quick Take: California wines compete with French wines — and win.
Special Appeal: From the movie promo: “Based on a true story of love, victory and fermentation.”
Players: Bill Pullman, Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Freddy Rodriquez, Rachael Taylor.
Director/Co-Writer: Randall Miller (Nobel Son).
Color, 2008, 110 minutes. Courtesy captioned.
Rating: PG for some moments that may be disquieting to small children.
Showing at the Hendersonville Film Society, Sunday, March 13, 2016, 2pm. 333 Thompson St. at Lake Pointe Landing. 828-697-7310.