Bottle Shock

The movie opens with panoramic scenes, zooming over the endless rolling hills of Napa Valley, the neat rows of vines strict, clean, neat, and yet curving sensuously with the contour of the hills. But whereas this common scene in movies -- the fine geometry of agricultural production seen from a distance -- usually sets the stage for a farm tale of the rural drudgery of food production, this is different. Think of acre upon acre of carefully tended vines, tied, pruned, watered and fed with painstaking effort, all for the goal of producing a sublimely unnecessary thing: wine, the bottled essence of human enjoyment.

So perhaps it isn't unnecessary at all, but a testament to man's capacity for joy and need for celebration of it. The undulating rows of vines spilling over the hills of Napa are the precise, harsh, calculating product of a man's mind dedicated to the creation of joy in a bottle.

This is what went through my mind as I sat watching the opening of Bottle Shock this weekend, though I realized I was setting myself up for disappointment with such romanticized thoughts.

The story starts with two converging plotlines. Napa winemaker Jim Barrett, who left a life in business (banking?) to pursue his dream of making wine, makes a good product, but has seen little commercial success and has multiple mortgages on his venture. It's presented that this season is his "last shot."

Meanwhile, a Brit named Steven Spurrier is shown in a small wine store in Paris as his business stagnates. An American friend says to him, "Part of being a business is that you actually have to sell wine." It's 1976, and American wines are the joke of the French establishment. Spurrier, holding the same opinion, nevertheless has a spark of inspiration and decides to hold a blind taste test competition in Paris, letting the best Napa wines compete with French wines. He travels to California to pick wines for the competition.

What follows is a light, sometimes funny, and nevertheless inspiring story of American ingenuity and commercial success. As a means of reviewing the movie, I'll go the unconventional route of using another review as a foil. It was reviewed at CineScene last year, and though it was a middle of the road positive review, some comments were enlightening.
...the spirit of Bottle Shock, a film by Randall Miller, ...seeks to present a wholly upbeat feel-good narrative. Beware, this is a movie that operates principally in the land of myth, where details are shifted to make a jauntier, tidier story. Bottle Shock isn't by any stretch a great film.
The reviewer accurately portrays that this is not a faithful documentary. It "operates in the land of myth," which means in this case that it is a selective re-creation of reality. I disagree that it was done only to make a "jauntier" story, however. The film is relentlessly positive about the value of hard work, innovation, pride, and business success. Ayn Rand said about art:
By a selective re-creation, art isolates and integrates those aspects of reality which represent man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. Out of the countless number of concretes—of single, disorganized and (seemingly) contradictory attributes, actions and entities—an artist isolates the things which he regards as metaphysically essential and integrates them into a single new concrete that represents an embodied abstraction.
In our culture, however, it's no surprise to hear the view that idealized, romanticized stories cannot make "great film." Instead, "realism" or more appropriately, naturalism, is prized. Again, from the CineScape review:
Bottle Shock works best if you look on its overdrawn characters, who have nothing of the depth of Sideways, as mere window dressing for the "historical" narrative--an attitude which, luckily, the story-arc justifies.
If you recall, Sideways was a giant indie-film hit, one that was full of neurotic, morally disgusting characters, a rambling pointless "plot" and awful sense-of-life. This is what passes for "depth." However, let me again mention that the review I'm quoting seems oddly sympathetic to what it would probably view as a naive outlook on life.
The virtue of the film is that it's not about the people so much as about Limousin oak, tapping casks, wine color, the wine-maker's art--and the most educated palates of France revealing that when they couldn't see the label, they found wine from the Napa Valley second to none. To trample on the movie's celebration of that triumph--even if its tone is a bit jingoistic-- would be rather unkind, especially if you're writing an hour's drive from where most of the action happens. [bold added]
It seems as if the reviewer secretly resonated with the life-affirming values portrayed in the film, but had to get in a dig just for good measure. "Jingoistic" here must be a code word for "too American and therefore hokey," or just simplifies everything down to a rivalry with France. Nevertheless, a perhaps grudging respect for the film's message comes through the review.

This movie was of the kind that could only be told in America; the entrepreneur chases a dream and knocks off the Old World establishment in a shocking and unpredictable (to the Old World) way.

My sense of what the movie could and should be, from the opening scenes, ended up being pretty much spot on. Yes, it was light fare, and some of the characters and plot threads were tied up too quickly, but as a fun, inspiring tale of the American sense-of-life, Bottle Shock was well worth the price of admission. My only frustration was that I didn't have a bottle of wine on hand to open up and enjoy while watching.


Lynne said...

I had never even heard of this movie - it looks like something we would really enjoy. Thanks for writing about it.

C. August said...

I watched it again last night -- it's a rental, though I plan on buying it -- this time with a glass of wine (a must!). Knowing the story, I saw clues I had missed before that give backstory for what I initially thought were a bit too conveniently tied up plot threads.

Also, as it's PG-13, there is a bare minimum of swearing, and no nudity. T. and I both remarked about what a pleasant surprise that was.

Ardsgaine said...

We will definitely have to rent this one. Thanks for the recommendation!

C. August said...

Glad to hear it! I really need to buy the damn thing... I'm now wishing I had it to watch again.