A wine-film review:”Bottle Shock”

rsz_bottle_shock_moviewritten by Michael Oudyn

Bottle Shock”, the 2008 Indy film very loosely based on George Taber’s Judgment of Paris, retells the “stunning upset” of unknown California wines from Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap over some of France’s fabled icons such as Haut-Brion and Mouton Rothschild in a blind 1976 Paris tasting with the crème de la crème of the French wine establishment as judges.  Nice little scandal!

Well, this seems like pretty good raw material for a movie.  But the “Bottle Shock” brain trust apparently thought the story line needed a little spicing up.   How about a little sex and violence, a random sprinkling of  mystical wine philosophy, some pretty shots of Napa vineyards, and a few nationalistic stereotypes that make us proud to be Americans.  Now, we´ve got a winner! 

The sex is gratuitous and soft-core.  Sam, the new intern is serious eye-candy with long blond hair and long shapely legs descending from the very short shorts she wears while working the vines or scrubbing down wine barrels. (Just like all Napa workers, right?)  Bo and company winemaker Gustavo, friends since youth, immediately drool and up pops the inevitable love triangle.  She introduces herself as “the eager and willing intern” and the boys hope she is “eager and willing” for more than just learning all about wine. Gustavo scores first, at least for one night.  He is showing her the cabernet sauvignon he has been making behind the boss’s back. She respectfully toasts him as “a renegade who worships the sanctity of the wine’, but one sniff and sip of his ethereal cab and she has no choice but to crawl all over his bones.  Bo’s turn comes after he has cleverly saved his father’s winery from financial ruin and accepted the grand prize at the tasting in the name of all of Napa Valley.  Bo is no longer a good-hearted loser, so Sam has no choice but to jump him in front of the vines, rap her long legs around his hips, and plant a big juicy kiss right on his mouth.

The violence is gratuitous, soft-core, and a little bit odd.  Whenever Napa Valley winery owner Tim Barrett and his son Bo have a disagreement, professional or personal, they settle it like real men: in the ring with boxing gloves.  How many times to rack the wine?  Into the ring.  “Five times”, says dad.  Punch, punch.  “Nobody in the valley racks five times”, retorts son.  Punch, punch.  Father thinks son is a loser because his only one real ambition is to see the Grateful Dead at the Cow Palace and because he can’t remember the last name of last-night’s squeeze?  Back into the ring.

This film makes us proud to be Americans.  Well, that’s only fair.  We did after all revolutionize the wine world and light the way for the Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and all the others while delivering a much needed wake-up call to the complacent French.  And in Paris and on our 200th birthday, to boot!  Steve Spurrier, the Brit who travels Napa organizing the tasting, recognizes all this by the end of the film, but spends most of the film not quite measuring up to the real men and women he is finding on the rugged wine frontier of Napa Valley.  Effete and affected with an oh-so-proper upper-class accent, he has trouble with guacamole and Kentucky Fried chicken, and doesn’t even drive a truck!  “You think I’m an asshole, I’m British and you’re not”, he explains pathetically.  In any case there´s no way you’re going find Steve in the boxing ring, or in the sack with Sam.  The self-satisfied French jurors are fussy by nature, easily flummoxed during the blind tasting, and petulantly outraged by the results.

Most anything of wine interest gets lost in all this tripe.  The basic wine-tasting plot line gets simplified to a near comic-book level, and at times is changed outright for dramatic and/or nationalistic effect. Stag’s Leap who had the prize-winning cab is totally left out of the story; Mike Grgich, the Croatian immigrant who actually made the prize-winner chardonnay is replaced by Mexican-American Gustavo Brambila, who at least is a real person but who didn´t actually join Montelena until after the event; the mysterious and highly dramatic browning of the chardonnay is a semi-invention.  So, you can’t even assume a reliable distillation of the basic plot line.  “Bottle Shock” is a cheap rosè made from water-logged grapes with extra sugar thrown in for good measure, if you can imagine such an atrocity. I’ve been told to lighten up. This is just harmless fluff, after all; easy on the eyes,  easy on the brain.   Okay, as long as you’re not expecting any complexity, depth, or lingering on the palate.  If you are actually interested in this fascinating story you’ll just have to read Judgment of Paris.

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2 Responses to “A wine-film review:”Bottle Shock””

  1. Ken J Says:


    I’d say you’ve got a spot-on review of the film. It’s most definitely a poor-man’s “Sideways,” which outdid it on every level. It’s most redeeming quality was that it alerted me to the 1976 tasting that turned the wine world upside-down. It inspired me read Taber’s book, to which I’ll keep a soft spot for the film. It is light and fluffy and when viewed that way, it’s watchable entertainment. I found the most annoying to be the boxing digression every 20 minutes or so – just dumb! And the constant scowl on Bill Plummer (that was the star, right?) grew tiresome as well.

    How’s are your wine ventures in Europe right now. It’s harvest time, right? Plucking any ripes grapes…?

  2. Raymondo Says:

    You’ve confirmed my suspicions. Great review though.
    Question: apart from Sideways are there any good films featuring wine as a central theme?
    Poor Steven…

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