In "Bottle Shock," director and co-scripter Randall Miller -- of such disparate (and dismal) output as the Sinbad-starring "Houseguest" and painfully twee indie "Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing and Charm School" -- seemingly extrapolates Virginia Madsen's centerpiece soliloquy on wine from "Sideways" and stretches it out to feature length, but with none of Alexander Payne's eloquence or wit.
In this ode to viticulture, which opens with soaring overhead shots of vineyards, every other line is spoken in hushed tones rife with reverence and/or metaphorical meaning, as when Jim (Bill Pullman), patriarch of the struggling Chateau Montelena Winery, explains to new intern Sam (Rachael Taylor), "You wanna limit the irrigation because it makes the vine struggle, intensifies the flavor; a comfortable grape -- well-watered, well-fertilized grape -- grows into the lazy ingredient of a lousy wine." You get the sense when he speaks thusly that he's thinking of his son, Bo (Chris Pine), whom he and others in the small Napa Valley community of the Seventies regard as a past-his-prime hippie loser who's wasted his privilege.
Although difficult to imagine now, French varietals were once considered the only game in town. "Bottle Shock," which takes its title from a condition that besets wine when transported (the bottles need about a month to recover from jet lag), seeks to illuminate the moment the global wine market was born, but does so in tedious fashion. Like many "based-on-a-true" stories, it has a worthwhile tale to tell which, while diverting enough, gets fitted into the usual boring narrative conventions and genre-predetermined character arcs.
Dynamics of the core father-son relationship are played out -- fulfilling the requisite quirk quotient of the Sundance-anointed middlebrow indie -- in boxing matches held in a ring overlooking the vineyards. And Jim soon finds a second, figurative sparring partner when Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a British wine merchant based in Paris, enters the picture. Attempting to drum up publicity for his flailing business, Steven goes seeking Chardonnays and Cab-Sauvs in the fledgling California wine country in the hopes of finding a few to pit against French wines in a blind tasting. But, adding dramatic tension, Jim (not entirely without cause) remains skeptical of the condescending foreigner's motives, and it falls to his son to make sure the family wine makes it into the competition.
It's not difficult to figure out what follows. In a prelude to its underdog's victory (both Bo's and, of course, America's), the film sets up a cliche-ridden dichotomy between the old guard and the upstart, comparing Jim's solid, steady work ethic with Bo's free-wheeling, enterprising chutzpah, and European snobbishness with salt-of-the-earth Yankee spirit, in both cases coming out on the side of the latter. Adding to the rah-rah unraveling, Randall drenches "Bottle Shock" with more misty-eyed romanticism than the by-the-book "crowd-pleaser" can absorb, on full display in a scene where Sam, tears welling up, falls into bed with ex-coworker Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez) after contemplating a single sip of his home-brewed wine; their lovemaking is, of course, set against the glowing hues of a setting sun. Sadly, this rule-breaking scenario -- which has the hot girl getting it on with the ambitious Mexican help rather than with her obvious intended, the similarly blonde and long-haired Bo -- isn't sustained, clearing the way after all for the expected bland pairing.
Unlike "Sideways" -- which cops to and examines the faint air of ridiculousness and classist affectation involved in all this swooning over and swishing of wine -- "Bottle Shock" takes itself so seriously that it comes off as cultish. And it's entirely oblivious of the fact that Napa Valley wineries as they exist today, charging exorbitant tasting fees and attaching themselves to snooty restaurants, have become as elitist as the establishment the movie proclaims they once prevailed over in symbolic heralding of a more egalitarian era.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot