Monday, January 11, 2010

Movie Review: Bottle Shock

Directed by Randall Miller. 2008.

In the absence of flashiness and spectacle and without technical polish and narrative novelty Bottle Shock is left to rise or fall by its ideas. It is appropriate, though, that this film should be so modest in presentation since its characters too are so. Bottle Shock quite simply tells the story of Jim Barrett in 1976 Napa Valley, California struggling to perfect his Chardonnay and make his business fly. Struggle he does, with the Franco-centric wine world and prejudices against American wine, with the need to pay back the debt he has accumulated in his risky venture, with embarrassment in the face of those who thought his endeavor foolish, and with the sheer difficulty of his task.

Jim has one philosophy for growing grapes and it is a tough one:
Jim: The vineyard's best fertilizer is the owner's footsteps. . . its eluvial volcanic soil. . . you want to limit the irrigation because it makes the vines struggle, intensifies the flavor. A comfortable grape, well-watered, well-fertilized grape grows into a lazy ingredient of a lousy wine.

Sam: So from hardship comes enlightenment.

Jim: For a grape.
His philosophy, peppered with references to struggling and being stronger where one has been hurt, rather seems not to have been working in his personal life. His struggles have not brought success to his business. His hippie son, Bo, is neither employed nor educated and without prospects for either. Perhaps his son, Jim thinks, has simply had it too easy to want to reach out and struggle for something. In addition to his entrepreneurial spirit and stoic take on suffering, Jim is characterized by his insistence that he himself succeed and without charity. When Bo borrows money from his mother, who has left Jim and re-married his law partner from his old firm, for some needed casks, Jim is outraged and unwilling even to consider it a gift,  "a gift like that costs more than money. . . I don't want to owe anybody." It's his land, his grapes, his wine, his toil, and it has it be his success.

Jim is particularly suspicious of Steven Spurrier, a British sommelier on his own entrepreneurial quest selecting Napa wines for a competitive taste-testing against French ones. Jim suspects a plot to embarrass the Americans on the bicentennial with a rigged competition and refuses to give Spurrier the wines for testing. His son, though, once again in secret, gives Spurrier the wines and. . . well the rest is history.

The mix-up about the wine's color is successful in adding some dynamism and tension to the end of the movie, but that it feels slightly contrived is perhaps a triumph and not a failing. You see, there are really no villains in the movie. The French wine snobs are characterized as such, but they figure only slightly into the story. The movie is not about whether Jim defeats his rivals, indeed all the Napa viticulturists realize if any ones of them wins the new Napa reputation will benefit them all. Bottle Shock is likewise not about Jim overcoming the contrivances, crimes, or machinations of someone, but whether he has it within himself to succeed unaided. In fact Jim's success party comes not when he wins the competition, but when he opens his bottle of perfect, clear Chardonnay in his old office and stands there in the triumph of his challenge.

Perhaps it was this success that motivated Bo to follow in his father's footsteps. Perhaps at last he glimpsed the connections among a person, one's work and the intensely personal joy of achievement and was inspired to take on a struggle for himself.

Vergil. Georgics II.
O fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint, [458]
agricolas! quibus ipsa procul discordibus armis
fundit humo facilem victum iustissima tellus.
Si non ingentem foribus domus alta superbis
mane salutantum totis vomit aedibus undam,
nec varios inhiant pulchra testudine postis
inlusasque auro vestes Ephyreiaque aera,
alba neque Assyrio fucatur lana veneno
nec casia liquidi corrumpitur usus olivi:
at secura quies et nescia fallere vita,
dives opum variarum, at latis otia fundis—
speluncae vivique lacus et frigida Tempe
mugitusque boum mollesque sub arbore somni—
non absunt; illic saltus ac lustra ferarum
et patiens operum exiguoque adsueta iuventus,
sacra deum sanctique patres; extrema per illos
iustitia excedens terris vestigia fecit.

Translation I. | Translation II.

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