This much of the story is true: In 1976, an English wine merchant named Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), operating out of a small shop in Paris, is consistently snubbed by the insular and snooty French oenophile establishment. So he sets out to prove that offerings from other countries, which he unsuccessfully stocks, can equal those of the previously unchallenged French vintages. This leads him to California's Napa Valley, where he seeks wines that might fare well in a blind tasting he plans to stage in France. There he finds, among other good wines, a Chardonnay bottled by cranky Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) at his debt-ridden family winery. You probably don't need a spoiler alert to see where this tale is going us against them, the hick underdogs vs. the clueless snobs, with results that (how to put this gently?) will not displease any soft-hearted (or do I mean to say soft-headed?) populists who happen to wander into a showing of Bottle Shock.
This much about the film is not true: just about everything I haven't already mentioned. The director, Randall Miller, and his screenwriters exercise an apparently irresistible urge to turn a curious little historical footnote into a tangled vineyard of clichés. Does Barrett have a slacker son (Chris Pine), who needs to learn responsibility? Check. Is there a comely intern named Sam (Rachel Taylor) for him to fall in love with? Double check. Does he have a rival for his affections in Gustavo (Freddy Rodriquez), who also happens to be a promising (and very soulful) vintner himself? Triple check. You can bet that crisis comes to the Barretts, in the form of an apparent failure of their potentially prize-winning wine, which we're running out of check marks here brings out the best in everyone.
All of this is presented at an amiably ambling, if just barely competent, pace by Miller and his agreeable, if something less than exciting, cast, with lots of screen time devoted to beauty shots of the Napa Valley basking expectantly in the summer sun. That the Napa wines did well in the tasting is a matter of historical record, with a duly acknowledged TIME magazine story leading the reportorial charge.
That "Lafayette, we are here" spin was more than welcome in 1976, America's bicentennial year. It is also true that the internationalization and democratization of the wine business that almost immediately followed was probably a nice breath of fresh air in what had been a tightly sealed cellar. But still, the lack of authentic surprise and eccentricity in the story and its characters, the sense that everyone concerned with the picture (possibly excepting Rickman, who projects an unwelcoming sullenness that may not be funny but is at least weirdly human) is eagerly looking for the easy way out, is mildly dismaying. I'm sure that by this time some reviewer has applied the word "Capraesque" to Bottle Shock. If I were one of its makers I would not necessarily take that as a compliment.