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Dec 28, 2009

Bottle Shock: A Must-See for Wine Lovers

 Bottle Shock's  Jim and Bo

Over the Holidays I finally had a chance to watch Bottle Shock. This somewhat fictionalized 2008 movie recounts the stunning wine competition of 1976 that has come to be known as The Judgment of Paris. This blind tasting pitted then-upstart California wines (mostly from Napa Valley) against “unassailable” French wines such as Mouton Rothschild and Puligny Montrachet. To the shock of everyone involved, California's wines won easily in both white and red categories. At that moment, California wines stepped from obscurity and onto the world stage, where they have not only remained---but ruled.

Bottle Shock's judges

“The contest was as strictly controlled as the production of a Chateau Lafite,” wrote Time Magazine on June 7, 1976. “The nine French judges, drawn from an oenophile’s Who’s Who, included such high priests as Pierre Tari, secretary-general of the Association des Grands Crus Classes, and Raymond Oliver, owner of Le Grand Vefour restaurant and doyen of French culinary writers. The wines tasted were transatlantic cousins---four white Burgundies against six California Pinot Chardonnays and four Grands Crus Chateaux reds from Bordeaux against six California Cabernet Sauvignons.”

“The French judges,” stated the New York Times, “voted the 1973 chardonnay from Chateau Montelena and the 1973 cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars the two best bottles in the tasting. Both wineries are relatively new; both are in California’s Napa Valley.”

We don’t really hear about Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Bottle Shock, which focuses on Napa’s Chateau Montelena and its owner, as well as on the tasting’s organizer. Jim Barrett, played by Bill Pullman, owns the winery; he’s assisted, sort of, by his hippie son, Bo Barrett (Chris Pine). Alan Rickman plays Steven Spurrier, the British wine shop owner who lived in Paris and organized the event.

Chateau Montelena

There was plenty enough in the actual events to provide lots of interest and dramatic tension, but for some reason the movie makers threw in a couple of side plots. Bo Barrett’s romance with a beautiful winery intern really didn’t add much (I’ve no idea if it was fictional or true, and don’t care). The other side plot was better: a real-life winery worker at Chateau Montelena named Gustavo Brambilia (Freddy Rodriguez) added color and depth to the Napa Valley story. However, after doing a little research today, I learned that Brambilia didn’t join the winery until after all these events had occurred. So even though he himself is not fictional, his actions in the movie were. Today Brambilia is in partnership with Thrace Bromberger in the Napa Valley winery, Gustavo Thrace.

The real Bo and Jim today

But the above paragraph is a mere quibble. If you’re at all interested in California wine, you’ll enjoy Bottle Shock. It's not brilliant, but it's amiable and fun. The Judgment of Paris is big and important history in the wine world, so it’s worth knowing about. And the Napa scenery is gorgeous--almost as good as driving through it yourself.

Also, one of my favorite-ever wine movie moments is in this movie. Alan Rickman, as Spurrier, travels all over Napa Valley, sampling wine to come up with the best selections for the blind tasting. You see him in hotel rooms, sitting on farm porches or in restaurants, always sniffing and tasting. In my fave scene he’s sitting at a small table outside, on a hill, with vineyards all around him and fading into the distance. He’s gazing at a glass of red wine in his hand.

Alan Rickman at work

The humble-looking winemaker walks to the table and places a small bowl of Guacamole and another bowl of chips on the table. Rickman, the proper Brit with French appetites, gazes curiously at the bowls and then takes a chance, scooping the guacamole onto the chip and into his mouth. It tastes good…he thinks, though he’s not quite sure. Then he lifts his glass and takes a sip. Rickman’s face lights up. It is the perfect pairing of moment, food and wine. If you have ever had a moment like that, and I hope you’ve had many, you will know exactly how he feels.

À votre Santé!

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The Culinary Gadabout Recommends:

Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine -- a book by George M. Taber

From Publisher's Weekly: In 1976, a Paris wine shop arranged a tasting as a gimmick to introduce some California wines; the judges, of course, were all French and militantly chauvinistic. Only one journalist bothered to attend, a Time correspondent, looking for a possible American angle. The story he got turned out to be a sensation. In both red and white blind tastings, an American wine won handily: a 1973 Stag's Leap cabernet and a 1973 Chateau Montelena chardonnay. When the story was published the following week, it stunned both the complacent French and fledgling American wine industries—and things have never been the same since. Taber, the Time man, has fashioned an entertaining, informative book around this event. Following a brisk history of the French-dominated European wine trade with a more detailed look at the less familiar American effort, he focuses on the two winning wineries, both of which provide him with lively tales of colorful amateurs and immigrants making good, partly through willingness to experiment with new techniques. While the outrage of some of the judges is funny, this is a serious business book, too, sure to be required reading for American vintners and oenophiles. Photos.
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