When it comes to movies about wine, you have high-end vintages like “Sideways,” and then you have the cheap stuff like “Bottle Shock.” Based on a true story but overwritten into a cutesy, contrived mess, “Bottle Shock” is the Two Buck Chuck of wine movies.
The facts are these: In 1976, a panel of Parisian wine snobs conducted a blind taste test and were chagrined to learn they’d given top prizes to wines from — gasp — California. “Bottle Shock” (the title refers to the negative effects that shipping can have on wine) tells us about the Napa Valley vineyard that produced the unprecedented results, and about how its products found their way to the French trial.
Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) is the owner of Chateau Montelena, a struggling, unprepossessing vineyard that Jim opened after leaving his white-collar job. He is not an expert vintner yet, nor does his business run smoothly. His son, Bo (Chris Pine), works at Montelena without really doing much work, and is distracted by the pretty summer intern Sam (Rachael Taylor) anyway. Jim’s top employee, Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), also fond of Sam, is secretly starting his own vineyard and making his own wine.
Along comes Steven Spurrier, who is played by the wonderful Alan Rickman and must therefore be a sniveling Brit who will make us adore him even though he’s a jerk. Spurrier operates a wine academy in Paris and wants to expand his stock by including some of the up-and-coming American vintages. The taste test is his idea, and what better time to invite the Yankees to contribute than in the year of their bicentennial? He doesn’t expect any of them to win, of course; it’s questionable whether he’ll even find any California wines good enough to bother entering.
The contest itself occurs at the very end of the film, and the fact that the film even exists is a pretty strong indication of how the judging is going to go. So the bulk of the story deals with Jim and Bo’s fractured relationship, with Jim’s second-guessing his decision to leave the corporate world, with the Bo/Gustavo/Sam triangle, and with all the other mini-dramas endemic to family-run businesses.
The film is what you might call a light drama, or a comedy with dramatic undertones; problematically, very little of the humor is funny. The director, Randall Miller (who co-wrote with his wife Jody Savin), has stuffed the story with wacky quirks that make everything feel staged and fake, not natural. Bo, Gustavo, and Sam like to go to the local bar (where the barmaid is played by Eliza Dushku) and hustle patrons by having Gustavo taste wines and identify their vintages. There’s an embarrassingly unfunny scene where Jim desperately searches for a corkscrew and resorts to using a sword. Sam flashes her breasts at a cop as a strategic maneuver. A rule about carrying wine bottles on airplanes leads Bo and Spurrier to enlist everyone waiting in the terminal to help them. Not one of these devices is believable — and I note that Miller’s last film, “Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School,” suffered from the same brand of forced whimsy and implausible characters.
The picturesque California scenery is handsomely photographed by cinematographer Mike Ozier, and the performances are pleasant enough, but that’s all there is to it. This is a plain and unremarkable movie — a film for oenophiles, not cinephiles.
C (1 hr., 51 min.; )