Judgment of Paris:
California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)

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Cinema Signal:
. "Bottle Shock"

It took a lot longer for wine experts to recognize the quality of California wines than it took the vintners of California to produce wine that competes as a leader. France, of course, held centuries-long supremacy with its cabernets, chardonnays and the whole symphony of varietals. Nothing could beat the majesty of a Premiere Cru (top of the charts), right? The experts on Burgundy or Bordeaux can rest assured about that.

One of the things wine growers and buffs the world over love to do is to have tastings. When you're really serious about it, tastings are "blind," so that you rate the glass without knowing which estate it hails from. Many a surprise comes from this procedure, which is the basis of this film, deriving more or less from an historical event when California went against France in a tasting in the summer of 1976 by the high priests and priestesses of viticulture... and won. The world of wine would never be the same.

This is the story of one of the California wineries that beat out the assumed French supremacy and the family and workers of Chateau Montelena in Calistoga with their superb Chardonnay, in particular. But, while they indeed woke the world up about just what was taking place in the Napa Valley circa 1973, the situations and characters created to turn this into a commercial, mainstream film is a little less masterful than the wine making.

The two chief characters in the plot are the man who made the wine and the man who discovered it and made the tasting happen. Perfect strangers when it all began...

Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) left his senior partner position at his law firm after 20 years to pursue his dream of making wine. He bought and restored the winery that was established in 1882 and which had grown musty from disuse. A perfectionist, he insisted on the most exacting methods and costliest equipment and practices to put his label back on the map, to the point of incurring financial debt. He can't depend on son Bo (Chris Pine) to help much since the boy is a disappontment--somewhat rowdy and disinterested. Bo's pal Gustavo Brambila (Freddy Rodriguez) is a serious worker but it doesn't help that he's making his own wine on his off hours.

Meanwhile, Brit Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) is running his Napa wine shop patterned on his hugely successful one in Paris. He's a transplanted Englishman who speaks French fluently. Though this might imply a taste for California wines, his mostly French wine stock implies that he's there to teach California what wines are supposed to taste like. His next-door businessman and best pal Maurice (Dennis Farina) points out that this product imbalance could have something to do with the shop's lack of clientele.

Realizing that he may have been guilty of stereotypical misjudgment, Spurrier sets out on a countywide tasting mission, insisting on paying the vintners for the privilege of sipping a glass or two, and making him an odd duck according to the customs of Sonoma County. The richness of the Sonoma County wines stun his pallette and open his eyes. And, he's just influential enough in the wine world to pull off organizing a Paris tasting* at a time when suggestions that wines from the Californian back water could be competitive was being cooly shrugged off by the Gaulist cognoscenti.

For me, that's the heart of the story, but this has to be jazzed up a bit for the wider, not-so-interested-in-wine-history market. So, enter Sam (Rachael Taylor, "Transformers") as a college-aged intern learning about grape growing. She's also such a long-limbed knockout that the boys on the vinyard can think of little else. After a while, she seems to be going for the attractive and virile Bo, but Gustavo isn't an easy shakeoff, himself. Sex, sex, sex--the tensions over it may well sell a picture about wine, or at least that's what director/co-writer Randall Miller and writer Jody Savin are banking on.

Life on the vinyard grows desperate as the grapes develop and the debts mount; Barrett shrugs off the oddball Englishman who seems so impressed with his wine; Barrett fires Gustavo, perhaps picking him to go first when he hears about his sub-rosa fermentation hobby; and the boys continue their friendly, under-the-surface competition for the girl.

The creators throw in a stormy relationship between father and slacker son that regularly explodes into some serious boxing in a ring under a tree as a means of uncorking pent-up frustrations.

The supposed relationships here are underfulfilling and mostly written at the level of adolescent TV tastes and ratings, with holes galore. If, for example, Farina's Maurice is a fellow businessman to Rickman's shop owner, why is he sponging drinks off him with such selfish gusto? And since Spurrier is aware of it, why doesn't he tell Maurice to pull out his wallet or take a hike? And, as far as the triangular relationship with the girl and the two boys of the homestead is concerned, just what is being said by the directions it takes (which can't be divulged here)? If the writers harbor the notion that this nonsense is based on some history, they had no idea how to simulate what passes for reality. Which is too bad, because the wine story is vintage stuff.

Rickman's always wonderful serio-comical presence works well in the context of an international wine pro and Pullman raises his game somewhat to give heart and muscle to the man he's portraying. Not award calibre stuff, mind, but substance enough for the assignment. Rodriguez, on the other hand, has the earmarks of a young actor making the most of his screentime and, as much as he may be trying to hide the effort behind slick emoting, it shows.

As all this is processed, however, you tend to reach a balance with the shakiness of the TVish subplot and more or less ignore the superficiality in order to follow the main thread. Which is what I came for--but I can't say I feel guilty about feasting on the eye candy that is Rachael Taylor, either-- even if her role has all the aftertaste of an over-sweet aperitif.

Ah, well, pour me a glass of Chateau Montelena and I'll drink to even an awkward film's telling of its story, and to the real Jim Barrett's standards and dedication most of all. He, after all, is one of the real heroes here.

* "The contest was as strictly controlled as the production of a Chateau Lafite. 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." (quoted from Montelena's home page:

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Bill Pullman as Jim Barrett
Dedicated entrepreneur at a crucial moment.

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