Monday, March 23, 2009

Me and the Six Degrees of Bottle Shock

I finally saw the movie Bottle Shock on DVD this weekend. Most likely, I was the last American wine writer to do so, even though I had more incentives to do so than most did.

It was early September in 2007 when I went to Sonoma to report on the Buena Vista winery's 150th anniversary party for a couple of publications. At the main press event, we listened to winemaker Jeff Stewart and sommelier Evan Goldberg give information and crack jokes while a fierce, cold wind whipped around the edges of a large tent set up on the highest knoll in the Carneros which overlooked San Pablo Bay. Like the elephant in the room that no one addressed, a couple of hundred yards or so away sat an old shack that seemed out of context to everything else around it. The best explanation I could get then was that it was a prop for some movie. And, as we were leaving the fete, I noticed a car from one of the '60s vintages abandoned beside the road, the driver's door hanging open. A few minutes later, a camera crew -- a very small camera crew -- was shooting a scene in the edges of a vineyard.

Tony Lombardi, a well-known wine PR guy, told me that evening that my observances were of the last day of filming of a movie called Bottle Shock, a low budget indy pic about the Judgment of Paris 1976, at which time the lowly regarded California wines whupped French ass big time. It was being produced, he said, by a Sonoma local, Brenda Lhormer, who also was also in charge of the local film festival. He gave me her contact information.

I later talked with Lhormer, who told me the film was being hurriedly wrapped up in anticipation of being shown at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2008. Sundance is, of course, a reality film event which plucks up talented and lucky independent films and makes stars of its directors and actors, much the same as Dancing with the Stars and American Idol.

A few months later, for a profile of her in La Vie Claire magazine, I enterviewed Heidi Peterson Barrett, the famous Napa winemaker who years ago married into the Barrett family who owned Chateau Montelena. Montelena, along with Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, was one of two Napa wineries suddenly thrust into fame at the Judgment of Paris. Montelena made the winning Chardonnay, and Stag's Leap the winning Cab. Heidi, who explained that she and Bo Barrett hadn't yet hooked up when the 1976 competition took place, said their family had just returned from being guests at Sundance. She liked the movie, she said, and thought it was great fun to see a young, sexy actor playing her husband up on the big screen. Oh yes, she had been an unofficial advisor to the film. A few months later, I interviewed Bo himself for an article for Drinks magazine on today's Napa Chardonnays versus the Chardonays of 30+ years earlier, but for some reason we didn't really talk about the film that much.

It was at the Primeurs tasting of 2007 barrel samples last April in Bordeaux that I ran across Steven Spurrier who, as an young English wine merchant and educator living in Paris, conceived of and staged the contest between the upstart Californians and the established Frenchmen. Over dinner with the folks from Lynch Bages at Chateau Cordeillan-Bages, Spurrier said he had not seen the film, and indicated friends who had seen it had warned him he might not like the rather greasy portrayal of himself by actor Alan Rickman.

As I talked with the somewhat elegant English writer, I remembered the first and only time I had visited Montelena. It was in 1978, I think, on my first trip to Napa, because Montelena and Mondavi were the two establishments singled out as being worthy by my California host.

So with all of these degrees of connection, I finally Netflixed the DVD for our pizza-cava-and-DVD Friday night ritual. As I was watching it, I was hoping that Spurrier would never see himself as portrayed by the very talented Rickman. I thought of how unlike the mountain-enclosed upper Napa Valley the soaring scenes filmed in the broad vistas of Sonoma vineyards looked. And I thought that probably the only elements that were remotely factual were that Spurrier staged a wine smackdown in 1976 in Paris and that Montelena won over the formidable white Burgundies.

And I realized that, by and large, I was enjoying watching this amusing tale --even though its fiction was stranger than real fact.

Until next time...

Roger Morris

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