Saturday, August 16, 2008

Bottle Shock


A trio of unrelated events led me to this movie, which I feel was directly targeted to me. First, on a trip to Border's about a month ago I found this book, "Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine" in the bargain bin for $3.99, marking the first time I've found an acceptable book in such a bin. The second event was the wine trip Stella and I took to Sonoma last month. The final event was going to see the movie "The Singing Revolution" (about Estonia's bloodless revolution and independence from the Soviet Union) where I saw a preview for "Bottle Shock".

I knew with 15 seconds that the movie was adapted from the book and I felt like telling everyone in the theater that I was reading the book, as if they would care. I could also tell that they had dramatized the narrative to render it nearly unidentifiable from the book. In fact, after having seen the entire movie now I don't believe they even mentioned the book in the opening credits, but several people portrayed in the movie matched people in the book, including the author.

Anyway, the movie tells the story of a struggling English wine shop owner (Alan Rickman) that is obsessed with French wines. At the advice of an American friend who owns the business next door, Rickman decides to hold a wine tasting pitting French wines against their American counterparts from California. Rickman's character doesn't believe that Californian wines are anything more tasty than fancy grape juice, but has to go to California to find some suitable wines for the competition.

In California, Bill Pullman owns a struggling, unproven winery with his stoner son. Of course this movie takes place in 1976 before the Napa Valley became THE Napa Valley. The winemakers are presented as some sort of cowboys making a product no one believes is quite up to snuff. Pullman, of course, plays a bit of a gruff, passionate and broke winemaker.

Pullman's winery was the first winery Rickman visits in California because of coincidence. Rickman's Gremlin (seeing a Gremlin is funny enough, seeing a snooty Englishman driving a Gremlin got an out loud laugh from the audience) got a flat tire and he was helped by Pullman. During the tire change Rickman denigrates California wines not knowing that Pullman owns the vineyard he's about to visit which led Pullman to say to Rickman "You're a snob, it limits you" (I really liked that line, just wanted to point it out). This starts off an adversarial relationship with Pullman that makes up most of the conflict in the movie. One of the funniest scenes comes when their conflict comes to the climax and Rickman says to Pullman "You think I'm an a**hole, but I'm not. I'm just English and you're not." It reminded me of something I heard Tracy Ullman say about Simon Cowell, "he's not rude, he's just British", lovely people they have over there.

Much of the story, though, centers around a relationship between the stoner son, a Hispanic son of a vineyard farmhand that is Bill Pullman's assistant and a good looking female intern. I'm sure much of this story was written by the screenwriters and it was typical movie love triangle storytelling. Nothing was wrong with it, it just took up too much of the movie.

They did get in quite a bit of wine making theory from the book such as "the best fertilizer for a crop is the winemaker's footsteps" and distressing the vines makes the fruit work harder and compresses the flavor. Reading the book, I never thought a movie could be based on it. So they did a fine job or getting in some good info. But, they took a rather thin slice from the book to come up with the story told in "Bottle Shock". I think reading the book is probably preferable and watching the movie as a nice complement to the book.

Rickman does a great job in this movie. Three things really stand out; the Gremlin scene, Rickman eating a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Rickman eating guacamole. I absolutely love a British character acting British (I unashamedly admit that "Love Actually" is one of my favorite movies, let the gay jokes commence) and Rickman plays the part fantastically. It was just a joy seeing him in this movie. He makes it well worth the price of admission. Also, it's playing at the Rio in downtown Overland Park, so it's a fun moviegoing experience as well.

Without giving away the ending even though it is intuitive, it should be noted that the 1976 that Steven Spurrier (Rickman's character, not the same as the a**hole that used to coach the Florida Gators) set up is what made California wines into what they are today. Before the tasting, California wines were seen as a joke and not the equal of French wines. Now, of course, California wines are seen as equal, if not better than French wines. That fact can be traced back to the 1976 Paris tasting (a brief synopsis can be found here).

While this is primarily a beer blog and we love beer, it should be noted that I love wine as well. Stella and I did just get back from a wine vacation where I formed the opinion that a good beer will give me a boner, but a good wine will bring tears to my eyes. Depending on the mood and company, either can be preferable. So, each has its place in the Vard mansion.

Go see this movie if you are at all interested in wine or the history of wine. Or for the smaller subset of people who like to laugh at the British, "Bottle Shock" is a good movie choice. Now I want a bottle of wine.

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