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Alan Rickman (Photo: Freestyle Releasing)

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Edited & Directed by
Randall Miller
Produced by
Miller, Savin, J. Todd Harris, Brenda Lhormer, Marc Lhormer & Marc Toberoff
Written by
Miller, Jody Savin & Ross Schwartz
Released by
Freestyle Releasing
USA. 110 min. Rated PG-13
Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Bill Pullman, Rachael Taylor, Freddy Rodríguez, Eliza Dushku, Dennis Farina & Miguel Sandoval

The summer ripens when it brings a comic performance by Alan Rickman, taking a vacation from his definitive sneering British villains. In Bottle Shock, he sends up another full-bodied stereotype, the sneering British snob. The joke is that the French act even more superior to him in this telling of the true story of how their monopoly on premier winemaking was broken.

Rickman is Steven Spurrier, a wine merchant in Paris trying to attract customers and cachet in 1976. As a publicity gimmick, he announces he will mark the U.S. Bicentennial with a blind taste competition between French and California wines. But first he has to travel to Napa Valley and select worthy contenders in time for the samples to recover from the rigors of travel, or bottle shock.

With the same team that made his sweetly charming and heartwarming ensemble piece Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School, director Randall Miller ferments the epicure-out-of-Europe-in-California scenario, where swishing and spitting are actually a sign of refinement. Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman in his always convincing well-meaning regular guy mode) seems like just another broke farmer when he meets Spurrier by fixing his flat tire. (We only find out much later that he left a successful corporate law practice to perfect wine full-time). His long-haired, dropout son, Bo (Chris Pine), seems to have walked in from Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket as Doobie Brothers’ songs frequently accompany him (the band’s manager is also a vintner). Repeated boxing scenes aren’t needed to get across the father-and-son conflict.

While Mark Adler’s sprightly score helps to keep the pace bubbling as the travails of the Barrett family mount, there are opportunities that could have been plummier as Spurrier explores the valley and its people. One aged Napa vintner serves him salsa and chips with his wine, but more eccentric comic foils are needed in California comparable to his fictional dry-witted Parisian neighbor played by Dennis Farina. 

Other than their voice-overs about their love of wine that seem like quotes plucked out of Bartlett’s (and are less entertaining than Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher’s wine column in The Wall Street Journal), there is little insight into the background or motivations of the central characters. The most we get is a moving, aria-like monologue about the heritage of working the land delivered by Freddy Rodriguez, who had a small role in another Napa romance, Alfonso Arau’s A Walk in the Clouds, and here graduates to a romantic triangle with Bo and the strikingly sexy and gorgeous intern Sam Fulton (Rachael Taylor).

You can enjoy the mild bouquet of Bottle Shock as pleasantly sparkling if you avoid the trailer which gives away the whole plot and the best jokes, or didn’t read Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine by the sole journalist, George M. Taber, who attended the tasting and broke the results in Time magazine. Or you can treat it as an aperitif if you want more serious detail on the globalization of winemaking in Jonathan Nossiter’s ten-hour documentary series Mondovino. Nora Lee Mandel
August 6, 2008



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