Bottle Shock

Aug 6, 2008 at 12:00 am

The nascent California viniculture tapped by Bottle Shock hadn't yet bubbled into the public consciousness in 1976. This was an era when the generically sweet Gallo sold by the gallon, and a corpulent Orson Welles intoned, "We will sell no wine before its time" in television commercials for Paul Masson, whose most popular vintage came in a decanter complete with flip top.

The idea that American wines could rival French vins was considered absurd until the blind taste test organized by British enthusiast Steven Spurrier, who ran a school to educate the palates of wine-deprived foreigners in Paris, where he also owned a wine shop. The "Judgment of Paris" initiated a seismic shift in the global wine market when two California vineyards (Stag's Leap Wine Cellars in Napa and Château Montelena in Calistoga) ended up taking top honors.

Director Randall Miller (Nobel Son) focuses on the owner of Château Montelena, lawyer turned vintner Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), whose rocky relationship with aimless son Bo (Chris Pine) is intertwined with his quest for the perfect California Chardonnay. When Spurrier (Alan Rickman) arrives, managing to ooze elitism while driving a banana-colored AMC Gremlin, word soon spreads in the Napa Valley, along with the hope that this is their moment to enter the world stage.

Miller treats this underdog story as if it were a sports film, with the scruffy American heroes upsetting the Old World snobs with their ingenuity and gritty determination. He captures the feel of northern California wine country when it was still primarily agricultural (not the upscale theme park of today), and portrays this tight-knit rural community as a haven for the upstarts who began revitalizing moribund vineyards in the early 1970s.

The script Miller wrote with his wife, screenwriter Jody Savin (Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing and Charm School), and Ross Schwartz takes a lot of liberties: Montelena winemaker Mike Grgrich, who made that award-winning Chardonnay, is nowhere to be seen. Despite some dramatic liberties, Bottle Shock expresses a genuine reverence for the cultivation of grapes and making of wine that's missing from the connoisseurship of 2004's Sideways.

As Gustavo Brambila (a Grgrich protégé who now runs Gustavo Thrace), Freddy Rodriguez delivers an impassioned sermon that equates wine with the blood of the people who toil the soil. What's in the bottle is alive, say oenophiles, and Bottle Shock makes the case for drinking wine as a quotidian sacrament.

Showing at the Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].