If movies were wine, "Bottle Shock" would be a pleasant varietal you'd find on the half-price shelf. Nothing fancy but tasty nonetheless: a fizzy vinho verde, maybe. Low budget, self-distributed, awkwardly charming, it's the kind of midrange Hollywood entertainment that's supposed to be extinct in this modern age. It makes you want to support your local vintner and your local moviemaker.
The subject is the celebrated "Judgment of Paris," the blind 1976 tasting in which French judges were shocked to have awarded top honors to wines made in California. The event turned the smug oenophile world upside down and inside out; overnight, France ceased to be the only place on Earth where good wine could be made and appreciated. And if grapes grown in California could bottle brilliantly, why not grapes from Chile or Australia or South Africa? Why not anywhere?
Directed by Randall Miller, "Bottle Shock" views this seismic occurrence from both sides of the Atlantic, lightly fictionalizing it into human comedy. In Paris is Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a transplanted Englishman and full-time wine snob whose little shop is dying on the vine. Concocting the idea of a competition to pit French wines against international upstarts, he bribes well-known critics to serve as judges. Almost as an afterthought, a gaudy American friend (Dennis Farina) urges Steven to travel to Napa and actually try the fruits of the local vineyards. Stiffening his upper lip, Mr. Spurrier goes abroad.
Cut to dusty Chateau Montelena, one of the many vineyards run by the self-styled "hicks" of Napa. Actually, owner Bill Barrett (Bill Pullman) used to be a well-paid San Francisco lawyer, but as far as the movie is concerned he's terse and earthbound, straight out of "American Gothic." The vineyard has two mortgages against it, though, and Bill's wastrel hippie son Bo (Chris Pine) is more interested in chasing booty than filling bottles. His best friend Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez) is a gifted vintner - in the movie's romanticized view, he's nothing short of a grape whisperer - but since he's Mexican no one takes him seriously.
The script tosses in a curvy blond wine intern (Rachael Taylor) to stir up jealousy between the friends; I have no idea if she's based on anyone real, but I guess the producers needed a babe. Taylor's fun but the least convincing scenes in "Bottle Shock" involve her sub-"Jules and Jim" romances with Bo and Gustavo, not to mention a sub-"It Happened One Night" hitchhiking sequence updated to the braless '70s.
(Actually, the movie's single least convincing aspect is Pine's hair: a flowing yellow wig that I found increasingly riveting the more I tried to ignore it. The thing nearly becomes a character in its own right.)
Thankfully, the film's backbone - that Paris contest and the anxieties and assumptions leading up to it - is just too strong to ruin, and Rickman is delightful as a prig slowly learning to bend in the California air. As Bo and Spurrier work hand in glove, the movie lifts off: When the Brit tries to get the Napa bottles to France, there's a wonderful airport scene that reveals how the democratic revolution in wine needed a democracy of people to make it happen.
More than anything else, the ambience of "Bottle Shock" seems just right: The golden sky, the black dirt, the easy hedonism of Bicentennial America as it stacks up against the Europeans' stiff complacency. The movie talks wine nicely, too, teasing the silly but useful adjectives ("complex . . . and a bit woolly," says someone after a swig) and at one point dropping a gorgeous Galileo quote: "Wine is sunlight held together by water."
"Sideways" it isn't - this movie's both shallower and cheerier by comparison - but "Bottle Shock" manages to be sunlight held together by cliches and an awful lot of affection. Bring a corkscrew and a nice runny Brie.