California’s Napa Valley is one of America’s great national treasures, home to a $45 billion per year industry and the state’s second most popular tourist attraction (after Disneyland). But a mere forty years ago, the world regarded Napa’s winemakers (insofar as they acknowledged them at all) as hick farmers peddling plonk. For great wine made from the noble grapes, the world looked to France.
Bottle Shock, a rough-hewn movie as scrappy and endearing as the characters it depicts, tells the story of the moment that changed it all. It traces the origins of the California wine empire to the famous blind tasting in 1976, later dubbed the “Judgment of Paris”, in which nine high priests of the French wine industry ranked then-anonymous Napa wines above the grand crus of the towering French Châteaux. As news of the cultural coup spread to the indignant French and the proud Americans, the spotlight shone on this vinous Eden, where a small group of self-taught, renegade winemakers had, in seeking to emulate the French, created something altogether new, bold and wholly their own.
The film follows the uneasy alliance between two outsiders seeking entry into the French wine establishment: Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a British wine merchant with a small, under-frequented shop in Paris, and Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a burnt-out real estate lawyer turned novice winemaker who dreams of making world-class wine at his deeply-in-debt Chateau Montelena. Barrett’s stress is compounded by his disappointing son Bo, a womanizing hippie and “cellar rat” at the winery, and by his ambitious employee Gustavo Brambila, the son of a Mexican farm worker whose keen palate and green thumb make him a perfect foil for Bo. Spurrier hits upon the idea of the tasting not because he wishes to champion Californian wine—indeed, he is a true snob and skeptic—but in hopes that the sensationalism of staged competition will bring his business some much-needed publicity. He travels to California in search of wines worthy of serving beside a Château Mouton-Rothschild or a Bâtard-Montrachet, and finds in Barret’s Chardonnay, among many others, a surprise worth the voyage.
Such was the importance of the historical tasting on which the film is based that even now people speak of “Before Paris” and after. Before Paris, France dominated the industry, with the elegant, imperious wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy at its pinnacle. They were incomparable in their gout de terroir, which derived from centuries of tradition, patrilineal stewardship of the land, and the reverence of local culture for the vine. The French enshrined the terroir of their great wines through an intricate classification system in which even the very vine row that produced a wine determined its level of prestige.
California, by contrast, was uncharted territory. The burgeoning wine industry of the late-1800s, helmed by pioneering German and Italian immigrants, crumbled when the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco wiped out its financial center and shipping port. The man-made disaster that followed, Prohibition, did even more damage. What little wine people managed to make in their own backyards came from thick-skinned, low-maintenance grapes. The result was either the coarse jug wine or fortified sweet wine that debased American preferences for decades. Most vineyards were either abandoned or converted to other crops, remaining so long after the repeal of Prohibition.
Life began to stir in California’s “ghost vineyards” in the 1960s, as increasingly affluent Americans began to imitate the European lifestyle and incorporate wine into daily life. The 1970s were what future star vintner Rodney Strong called “the adventurous, swashbuckling wine years in California,” when people of all stripes flocked to the wine country in search of a new start. George Taber, the only journalist present at the 1976 tasting, writes in his book Judgment of Paris (2005):
Some were millionaires, others were a pittance away from poverty. They came from all parts of the country and from all walks of life. There was a dermatologist, a securities analyst, engineers, bankers, and professors. Some were young people seeking adventure; others were going into retirement. Many were escaping the riot-filled and declining American cities of the 1960s and were seeking a simpler life close to nature.
The newcomers lacked the wealth of knowledge of the French winemaking aristocracy, but they cobbled together innovative techniques devised by trial and error: microfilters to trap yeast and bacteria; protections against frost and oxidation; double-walled stainless steel tanks to cool wines in imitation of lower Burgundian temperatures at harvest time; and most importantly, malolactic fermentation, which makes a rounder, mellower, even buttery wine.
Where the intense rivalry between the patrician Bordelais and the bohemian peasants of Burgundy led each tribe to hoard their wine traditions, the Americans collaborated, in the spirit that a breakthrough for one would aid all. The establishment of an enology institute at UC Davis encouraged the free exchange of ideas among experts and granted an education to any novice eager to learn. The young California wine industry combined the Arcadian romance of the old world with the zeal for capitalism and technology of the new.
This is the period Bottle Shock captures so well, though more by means of natural enthusiasm than by adroit filmmaking. The “triumph of the underdog” genre clichés can’t help but satisfy, but the characters suffer from poor definition and hackneyed dialogue—especially in the hastily drawn love triangle between Bo, Gustavo and Sam, Montelena’s winsome new intern.
Yet the film succeeds, largely thanks to the wonderful chemistry between the craggy Pullman and the droll Rickman, whose expressive face silently conveys the revelations in each sip of the new wines. Golden California sun drenches each frame in soaring wide-shots like something out of John Ford’s Giant. When Sam impetuously kisses Gustavo after a sip of the sublime Cabernet blend he crafted on the sly and aged in a friend’s barn, it doesn’t seem far-fetched; we’ve been seduced alongside her.
Bottle Shock is also made more poignant by the real-life epilogue to California’s vinous triumph. These days, $50 will probably fetch you a far more rewarding wine from Bordeaux than Napa. In the afterglow of its surprising victory Napa became flush with investment cash from Hollywood and Silicon Valley tycoons. Land prices soared. Production leaned toward “blockbuster” wines, with intense fruit extraction and alcohol nearing the levels of port, designed as showpieces rather than partners for food. As rare, “cult” wines like Screaming Eagle command prices in the thousands of dollars at auction, mid-level producers can comfortably charge $100–200 for a Napa cabernet. As the New York Times’s Eric Asimov put it, “Napa cabernets are like the Manhattan apartment market: You are going to pay, even at the lowest end, for the privilege of living there.”
The Napa landscape today bears little resemblance to Bottle Shock’s idyllic recollection of it. The rustic shacks and farmhouses have given way to McMansions and European-style villas. The clunky trucks and Volkswagen Beetles are gone. Now the weekend traffic on Route 29 is clogged with the Towncars of the wealthy connoisseurs and the buses that shuttle tourists from one gaudy tasting room to another. Visitors may sample down-market wines at the historic Napa vineyards, but their flagship wines remain out of reach to all but the lucky few who can afford a place on their waiting lists.
The industry has long since moved beyond the magisterial Napa wines in its restless search for vitality and authenticity. Oregon, Chile, New Zealand, and Portugal are the frontiers attracting today’s Jim Barretts. Though few beyond Spurrier himself recognized it at the time, the “Judgment of Paris” tasting was the landmark moment that had begun the democratization and globalization of wine.
Bottle Shock celebrates this development, but it also inadvertently exposes the loss of romance in the luxury brand Napa Valley has become. To be sure, even the most corporate wines can be masterfully made, but they lack a deep sense of place—that mysterious quality in a sip of wine that penetrates the pageantry and takes us as close as possible to the earth and the human hands that tended the vines and picked the grapes.
The irresistible charm of Bottle Shock is to take us back to that agrarian paradise and let us meet the dreamy misfits who first made a home in Napa, before the velvet rope was stretched across its gates.
-Noelle Daly is assistant editor of The American Interest.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Jacob Hayutin