Bottle Shock (2008): Randall Miller’s Fact-inspired Tale of Winery

The overhyped marketing for Randall Miller’s fact-inspired but sentimental “Bottle Shock” is doing injustice to the multi-generational feature, which applies the schmaltzy narrative of “Rocky” (and other films about underdogs winning contests against all odds) to the context of American wine and country.

According to the film, novice vintner Jim Barrett risked everything to realize his dream of creating the perfect handcrafted California Chardonnay. Meanwhile in Paris, struggling wine seller Steven Spurrier came up with an idea for a publicity stunt to help his floundering shop.

The moviemakers would like to equate the central event of 1976, when a small American winery bested the exalted French wines in a blind tasting, thus putting California wines on the map, with other momentous celebrations, such as Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon, or the U.S. Mens Hockey team beating the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics. But the depicted event is really not of the same caliber–on any level.

“Bottle Shock,” which premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and is now released by Roadside Attractions, is not a bad moviejust a mediocre one. This serio comedy is directed by Randall Miller, who had previously helmed Nobel Son and “Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School,” from a screenplay by frequent collaborator Jody Savin, Miller and Ross Schwartz, who had penned “The Smartest Person Who Ever Lived.”

The best thing about this rather corny feature is its likable cast: Bill Pullman, Chris Pine, Alan Rickman, Rachael Taylor, Freddy Rodriguez, Eliza Dushku, and Dennis Farina.

Shot on location in the Northern California wine country, “Bottle Shock” focuses on the contentious relationship between headstrong perfectionist Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a former attorney, and his free-spirited son Bo (Chris Pine). Despite major differences in personality and outlook, the two men share a dream of producing a great Chardonnay at the Chateau Montelena vineyard that Jim had founded in Calistoga in the 1970s.

Enter Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a British expatriate in Napa for an upcoming wine tasting event he has arranged in France. As Steven’s goal is to promote the diverse offerings in his failing Paris wine shop, he is surprised by the quality of the wines he tastes among which is Barretts Chardonnay. However, put off by Spurriers snobbish attitude, Steven refuses to participate in the contest.

Meanwhile, Bo is engaged in soul-searching after the beautiful intern Sam (Taylor) spurns his advances in favor of his best friend, budding vintner Gustavo (Rodriguez). Stung into action, he rallies to turn around his reputation as an ambitionless loser. Against his fathers wishes, Bo delivers two bottles of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay to Spurrier for the contest, just as the wine salesman is about to go back to Paris.

Predictably, the move angers the elder Barrett, but he is even more devastated when he discovers that his entire vintage has mysteriously turned brown. In what’s a desperate last straw, Barrett decides to have the discolored wine hauled away, quit the business and get his old job back.
But when Sam looks up a viniculturist who explains that the discoloration is a rare but temporary conditiona result of the Montelena winemakers perfectionismthe race is on for Bo and Sam to tell Barrett the good news before the wine gets dumped and Chateau Montelena falls into the creditors.

“Bottle Shock” is the third movie in the past three years from husband-and-wife team Randall Miller and Jody Savin. The couple was still at work on Nobel Son, which also stars Bill Pullman, Alan Rickman and Eliza Dushku, when they were approached about the project by vet indie producer, J. Todd Harris and Sonoma Valley Film Festival directors Marc and Brenda Lhormer.

The Lhormers gave them a copy of the “Bottle Shock” script, written seven years earlier by attorney and screenwriter Ross Schwartz, son of TV producer Sherwood Schwartz (Gilligans Island, The Brady Bunch). A wine enthusiast since being a student at Berkley, Schwartz got the idea to write a script about the Paris Tastings from his wife Lynette. Although Miller and Savin typically focus their energies on movies based on their own original material, they immediately saw the dramatic potential in the story.

Freestyle Releasing will release Bottle Shock on August 6.

Tunning Time: 106 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13.