Monday, April 20, 2009

Bottle Shocked; or Who Was That Guy?

Bottle Shock is the latest in a series of wine-related movies, kick-started by Sideways, with a dubious oenological lineage. Yes, I had issues with that film as well. Since I’m a movie nut, and also write screenplays, I wanted to comment on this film, but movie times and my travel schedule didn’t gel, so I had to Netflix it. I just hope you aren’t expecting an Ebert-like review.

First off, I did enjoy the movie. Any movie that has Alan Rickman cast as a wine snob will get my attention. Can any other actor sneer as fulsomely as Rickman? I doubt it, and his role as the Englishman, Steven Spurrier, couldn’t have been better. Spurrier set up the blind tasting event between French Burgundy and Bordeaux wines and their California counterparts. Dennis Farina was also good as his amiable business associate. The setting of 1976 Paris was well mounted for the actual judgment at movie’s end. (Even though the actual tasting was shot in Napa.)

In many respects, this was a reasonable reenactment of the events surrounding the Paris tasting in 1976, which I learned from reading George Taber’s book, The Judgment of Paris. When the story moved to Napa and images of dusty vineyards rolled by, it triggered memories of my own explorations there, proof they did a good job of evoking Napa in the 70’s. Bill Pullman as the irascible owner of Chateau Montelena, Jim Barrett, hit all the right notes and played off Rickman well.

The following dialog between Pullman and Rickman pretty much sums up what I mean.

Jim Barrett: Why don’t I like you?
Steve Spurrier: Because you think I’m an ass. And I’m not really. It’s just that I’m British, and you aren’t.

At this point, recalling Taber’s book, I was expecting to meet the other major players in the Napa success story. And then . . . and then things got strange.

Who was this Gustavo Brambila character? And where were Mike Grgich and Warren Winiarski? Grgich crafted the award-winning Chardonnay for Chateau Montelena, and Winiarski founded Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and crafted the winning Cabernet Sauvignon at the judging. Their bios in the book were part of what made it fascinating as these two men struggled from the bottom to the top of the Napa wine ladder.

Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez) is a real character, although he wasn’t at Chateau Montelena when the Chardonnay was made. He even has his own winery, the well-regarded Gustavo Thrace Winery. (I’ve tasted his wine, which is quite good.) He was also the technical consultant to the film. Hmmm. Well, OK, add Gustavo, but why take out two of the four principal players in the Judgment of Paris?

For that we need to check out the behind-the-scenes story, which may be as entertaining as the film. The screenwriter, Ross Schwartz, began work on the script before the Taber book came out. He planned to show the rivalry between Barrett and Grgich, but when Grgich asked to be removed from the film, Schwartz switched it to Jim and his son Bo (Chris Pine). If you don’t think that was a rivalry, you should check out the boxing scenes.

Schwartz decided to focus on this story, and the only mention of Winiarski or Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars was in the closing remarks summarizing the winners and subsequent blind tastings, which were also won by the Californians. If Grgich had wished to be in the film, Danny Devito had been cast to play him. What a missed opportunity, Devito and Rickman discoursing on wine; that I’d have paid extra to see.

While the lyrical subplot of Bo’s and Gustavo’s infatuation with Sam, (played by the glowing Rachel Taylor), was entertaining, it would tend to lead some viewers to the conclusion that Gustavo’s red wine was a winner at the blind tasting. Particularly since Sam’s passion for Gustavo’s wine soon led to a different kind of passion in a shack. I can’t believe the film played on the “shacked-up” metaphor. And I can’t believe I just commented on it.

What they got right was the passion for wine making and the sense that Napa was poised to take on the wine world. Wine purists have derided the movie for its inaccuracies, but the oenological sense of life felt right to me. Although Spurrier sent his assistant to Napa to procure the wine, the filmmaker’s decision to have Rickman confront the Californians on their own turf was an excellent choice and provided some of the film’s best moments.

There is another picture about the very same event called Judgment of Paris, which is in development and slated for 2010. The screenplay is by Robert Mark Kamen, based on the book by George Taber. Kamen is also a wine maker, and will probably be more faithful to the book. The film is also approved by Steven Spurrier, who claimed Rickman was too old and portrayed him as an effete wine snob. Unfortunately, every comment I’ve read by him comes across to me in Rickman’s voice. About Bottle Shock, Spurrier said “No doubt I shall have to watch it on my flight to Singapore next week, but at least it will be from the comfort of First Class, with a glass of Dom Perignon to ease the pain.”

See what I mean? Rickman, right?

Once more multiple movies based on the same story are generating controversy, and talk of law suits. While a more accurate take on the events of the Paris tasting would be welcomed, keeping it as entertaining as Bottle Shock could prove challenging. Particularly since Keanu Reeves is being cast as the diminutive Mike Grgich. What happened to Devito in all this? Who knows, if this movie comes out we may get the Judgment of Wine Movies. Salut!

No comments: