Although wine has appeared in countless films, it’s never really had a great starring role. Trust me on this; I watched all the wine-themed movies I could find, when, more than a decade ago, I wrote a story on the topic for Wine Spectator magazine (Nov. 30, 1997).
There are few worth seeing, though The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969), a little-known gem about an Italian town that bands together to hide its wine stash from the Nazis, is a lot of fun. (It stars Anthony Quinn, so how bad could it be?)
But us grape lovers are in luck. This very day, a compelling, fairly accurate, and well-acted wine movie is opening in a theater near you — if you live in New York or L.A., that is; it goes into wider release later this month.
It’s called Bottle Shock, and the cast alone was enough to pique my interest: Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman, Freddy Rodriguez, Bradley Whitford, Chris Pine, Eliza Dushku. The movie, directed and co-written by Randall Miller, tackles a story that’s quite famous in wine circles but isn’t very well-known in the world at large: How the estranged father-and-son winemaking team at Napa’s Chateau Montelena entered one of their Chardonnays into a judged blind tasting, held in Paris in 1976, that was meant to pit established French wines against American upstarts.
Incredibly, the expert panel picked the Montelena Chardonnay over top white Burgundies, and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa’s Stag’s Leap Cellars bested the finest Bordeaux. The tasting sent shockwaves around the world, garnering big coverage in Time magazine from a reporter who witnessed the event. It was the first time that American wines were seen as worthy of the Old World, and it set the scene for Americans’ increasing appreciation of wine in the decades to follow. The tasting was dubbed “The Judgment of Paris.”
Of course something so abstract wouldn’t be much fun on film, so Bottle Shock has a great time focusing on the relationships of the people involved. Pine (who will play Captain Kirk in the coming J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek) plays the movie’s central character, the young Bo Barrett. We meet him in full Dazed and Confused mode — he’s a mid-'70s party boy who’s not taking the family wine business too seriously. The core of the movie is how he wins the respect of his dad, Jim (Pullman), by learning the transformative power of wine, and by taking a chance to enter their Chardonnay in the competition.
The most entertaining element is the presence of Rickman as Steven Spurrier, the British wine merchant who dreamt up the whole tasting in the first place. As we know from Rickman’s work in the Harry Potter movies and elsewhere, he has the ability to make snobbery both interesting and sympathetic — I decree that he should be cast in every wine movie from here on out.
There are some good romantic twists in Bottle Shock, and some surprising drama around race, too. But the reason I recommend it is that it does a very rare thing — it transmits the feel of what it’s like to be in wine country and to work on turning plain old grapes into something more poetic. It’s a strange business: unglamorous farming at its heart, but with gorgeous settings everywhere. Physical labor is key, but there’s a major intellectual component to tasting wine, too. Life in Napa looks laid-back and slow-paced, but it’s also a truly neurotic job to make wine, with a lot of waiting and worrying.
Any movie that can capture that is worth ten bucks — well, make it $50 for the evening, since you should probably pop for a bottle of Chateau Montelena Chardonnay after seeing the film.
Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.