With 2008’s Bottle Shock and 2004’s indie darling Sideways, we have two films that put their respective audiences smack into the middle of the California wine growing scene. One is more about making wine, and the other is more about drinking wine. It’s not a small difference.
Obviously, making wine requires more commitment and a great deal more knowledge than actually pouring yourself a glass and kicking back. But to those who are serious about it, drinking wine forces its own commitments in time and knowledge.
Picking a winner here may be like forcing a decision on whether red or white wine is best. On the other hand, maybe we still can decide which one is a full-bodied experience with clarity and a spicy aroma and which one may be too hollow or flabby to spend time with. Let’s pop the cork and get to work…
Cultivating grapes and making wine involves the hard work and honest tilling of the
earth that makes farming such emotionally satisfying work. It has the added bonus of creating an end product that isn’t considered a staple but is, to many people, the epitome of sophistication. It exerts a real pull, or otherwise Francis Ford Coppola wouldn’t have decided he liked that job as much as directing movies.
Bottle Shock takes us back over three decades to the year of the American bicentennial of 1976, when California’s Napa Valley put the world on notice that it was a force to be recognized by beating the best French wines in a blind taste test conducted with French judges. The whole idea was the brainchild of a British wine seller living in Paris by the name of Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) who needs to do something to actually drive some business into his “Academie du Vin.”
I first became aware of this story a few years ago when Mark Burnett (Survivor) asked Jackie and me to develop a dramatic TV series for him that would be set in wine country. Although our proposed series would have been set in the present, this true story was the seminal event, the moment of shared consciousness that America, too, could compete and even excel. For years, everyone had assumed that great wine-making could only come from a history of experience, gained through generations. The American victory showed that maybe something else was at work, an intrinsic value, that came from the land, the grapes, the methods of cultivation, and certainly not the country of origin of the label.
So Bottle Shock is that story, juiced up for movie audiences from a script by Randall Miller, Jody Savin, and Ross Schwartz. In this telling, it’s not only the story of Spurrier’s Franco/American challenge, but also the story of the winning white wine, a 1973 Chardonnay from Napa Valley’s Chateua Montelena. In the film telling, that means the story of an organization man who gave it all up for his dream of winemaking, Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) and his long-haired son Bo (Chris Pine), and how they came together to do something extraordinary. Oh, and there’s a blonde girl, Sam (Rachael Taylor), who gets to flash her breasts to a cop and sleep with both Bo and his best friend Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez).
The Defending Champion
Most of us who are involved in film have at least a passing understanding of Sideways, because it became the darling of 2004 and was actually nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture and actually won one for the adapted screenplay written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. If you’ve seen it, though, what you remember is Paul Giamatti’s star turn as Miles, the middle-aged loser and wine snob who desperately needs to get laid and can’t, so he’s a wine alcoholic, along with his college roommate and friend, Jack, played to perfection by Thomas Hayden Church.
As directed by Payne, these two go on a week-long adventure into the heart of the wine country, where Miles intends to give Jack a lesson in wine culture before his wedding the next week. Jack intends to find Miles a woman, in a kind of bachelor-party-in-reverse spin. Of course, it’s not really about the wine, but their friendshi,p and that gets tested by Miles’s incredible emotional problems and Jack’s inability to keep his pants zipped.
What you remember about this film is that Miles is a failing author and Jack is a failing actor, and together, they really need a lifeline. Along come two women, Maya (Virginia Madsen) and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), and rather than being there simply to faciliate the guys, these two women actually seem to belong in the story themselves.
Wine is drunk to excess and lives are changed.
How can you tell if wine is good? To paraphrase Duke Ellington, it it tastes good, it is good. Well, maybe the same applies to wine films. If it works for you, it works.
On that score, there’s no question that Sideways works. Most people (not all) respond strongly to it. I suspect this has a lot more to do with its sense of humor and its strange and compelling characters than it does with the world of wine it lives in. But there’s no question that it transports viewers, if not to the specific location of Santa Barbara wine, at least to the state of mind that it’s supposed to be about. It probably didn’t deserve to be in the Final Five for Best Picture, but it was good enough not to be laughable in that crowd.
Bottle Shock is probably more of an acquired taste. One of my friends described it as a mid-range Chardonnay that’s okay if you’re taking a bottle to a friend’s house and don’t expect them to even know you brought it, but not special enough to drink yourself on a special occasion. I’ll say this, too: my wife and my 16-year-old both went to see this with me, and they were squirming and ready to leave before we hit the halfway point. I had to keep slapping both of them to stop turning their phones on and checking their email.
However, being slow to develop, doesn’t mean a movie is bad any more than it means a wine that takes time to open isn’t worth drinking. This film marches to its own drummer and has some strong performances, too. Bill Pullman has developed nicely into a middle-aged guy who just wants to do something great with his life before it’s over. Alan Rickman plays Spurrier as a British snob with a heart and pulls it off beautifully. Chris Pine kept reminding me of David Lee Roth with his long blond hair and stoner party-boy vibe.
It’s interesting that Bottle Shock intends to tell more of a story, but ends up telling less, while Sideways seems to be more open to taking us on an experiential journey, but at the end, it feels like a full story.
The direction of Alexander Payne seems to beat that of Randall Miller. It’s just more immediate.
I just thought of a great group drinking game, regardless of which film wins this Smackdown. Every time they open a new bottle of wine on screen, you and your group pour a new glass from a different bottle. You can have a wine-tasting and a movie. You may not remember the ending, but you can re-watch the next day when you’re too toasted to do much more than re-start the DVD machine.
Let’s pick a winner…
There is one inescapable difference that makes Sideways the more accessible film. Jack. Unlike his buddy, or the women they meet, he knows next to nothing about wine, and he is unabashed about his ignorance. Since we like him so much, we feel better about our own ignorance of the subject. In contrast, everybody in Bottle Shock is so into wine that we know we will never be that smart or that passionate about the subject (unless you already are in that group).
Bottle Shock is, for at least some people, a nice, serviceable film, not unlike the low-cost bottle of decent wine you get from Trader Joe’s. But if you want a champion, like that California wine that won in 1976, you can’t go with the film that tells its story. You have to go with another champion. Unless you’re drinking alone, my vote for the film you should polish off like a bottle of wine with friends clearly goes to Sideways.