A few days ago the world was shocked to hear that beloved British character actor Alan Rickman had passed away from cancer at the age of 69. Whether your favorite role of his was Snape from Harry Potter, Hans Gruber in Die Hard, the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or even Love Actually, everyone seems to have had a soft spot in their heart for this wonderful man. Partially on the occasion of Rickman’s death, my husband and I this weekend re-watched one of our favorite films in which he appears, the 2008 comedy Bottle Shock, directed by Randall Miller. Although it’s several years old, it’s one of the few films out there about wine, and it showcases Rickman’s talents so perfectly, so I thought it was worth a review on my blog. For those of you who might not have seen it–it’s a rather obscure movie–if you like wine, or Alan Rickman, or both, it’s definitely worth a look.
Bottle Shock is the story of a famous upset in the wine world, when some California wines beat traditional French wines at a wine judging contest called the Judgment of Paris in 1976. I’ll get back to the real events–from which the film deviates widely–in a little while, but first, the movie. In the 1970s, Paris wine shop owner Steven Spurrier (Rickman) is hanging around with his friend, American expat Maurice (Dennis Farina), trying to come up with ideas to shake up the Paris wine scene and bring business into the shop. Spurrier decides to go to California to see how their wines, as yet unknown on the world scene, stack up to French ones. Cut to the Napa Valley where Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), owner of Chateau Montelena, is struggling to make it while having a rocky relationship with his son, the free-spirited neo-hippie Bo (Chris Pine). Together with the expertise of local winemaker Gustavo Brambila (Freddy Rodriguez), they eventually engineer a “perfect” chardonnay, which impresses Spurrier when he samples it. Spurrier and Bo manage to get the wine entered into a prestigious contest in Paris where all the judges, experienced French sommeliers, expect the French wines to win. Of course (sorry, spoiler alert) Chateau Montelena’s chardonnay surprises them in a blind test, and the resulting publicity saves the winery and puts California on the map.
As a film, Bottle Shock is good, not great. It’s a light, engaging comedy with some dramatic elements and the characters are believable and interesting. Bill Pullman’s performance as the winery owner is excellent–he’s curmudgeonly yet endearing, and the film plays with the audience’s sympathies as it looks like he’s going to have to close Chateau Montelena and go back to the rat race. A bit less successful is the conflict between him and Bo. Though played well by Chris Pine, just a year before he took command of the Enterprise as the new Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek, the film seems to want to show us a conflict rooted in generational terms–Bo has long hair (a really terrible wig) and speaks of Woodstock–but then never really delivers on this. Bo flirts with the female leads, wine intern Sam (Rachel Fulton) and savvy barkeep Jo (Eliza Dushku), but it’s Freddy Rodriguez’s Gustavo character who finally gets some romantic heat going. While the film itself is enjoyable, it seems to want to do a little too much with too many characters and never really has the time to develop the relationships between them to their fullest potential.
As you might expect, Alan Rickman is the standout performance. He’s so versatile and engaging, as he always was. Early in the film he does a comedy number right out of Charlie Chaplin: Spurrier has a table at a highbrow wine tasting, but as an outsider who paid the lowest ticket price they’ve seated him at a corner table right near the swinging door to the kitchen. The door keeps flipping open just as Spurrier is about to take a sip. You want to like the Spurrier character because he’s the conduit to the “big leagues” of European wine, yet open-minded enough to give the upstart Californians a chance. This is the sort of role at which Rickman excelled. His eminent talent will be keenly missed in the world of film and theater.
Alan Rickman’s performance in Bottle Shock is perfectly consistent with his wonderful, easy-going style, as this clip demonstrates. We’ve lost a wonderful actor.
Though a good movie, as actual wine history Bottle Shock is not very good. Its plot and situations bear only a passing resemblance to the actual events of the 1976 Judgment of Paris. While it’s true that Chateau Montelena’s 1973 Chardonnay won the white wine competition, another California winery, Stag’s Leap, won the red, and its story isn’t even mentioned in the film (except in the final text “crawl”). The film takes considerable liberties with how the Judgement of Paris was organized (and by whom); Gustavo Brambila in real life did not join Chateau Montelena until after the competition; and the creation of the Montelena wine was very much involved with a winemaker named Mike Grgich, who isn’t even shown in the movie. The real Steven Spurrier, who’s still alive and active, was outraged and appalled by the film, and even threatened to sue the producers for defamation. He objected to the portrayal of him as an “effete snob.”
Its problems aside, Bottle Shock is an enjoyable film for the wine lover, and is surely worth seeing for fans of Alan Rickman who may not be familiar with it. It’s not a Stag’s Leap, but it’s not Two Buck Chuck either. You should enjoy it with…you saw this coming…a glass of a good middling wine in hand.