There are few narrative formulas as crowd-pleasing and oft-used as the underdog story. Audiences have a timeless desire to see the snobby nobleman fall face-first in the mud while the salt-of-the-earth everyman soars to unlikely victory. The struggling everymen of Bottle Shock are American winemakers circa 1976—a time when the word “Napa” was little more than the punchline to a wine snob’s joke (a joke invariably told in French). But that year, a blind tasting of both French and American wines was held in France by French judges, and the results rocked the wine world to its core.
The heroes (i.e., Americans) of Bottle Shock represent every romanticized ideal of wine culture. They’re farmers turned artists, who toil in the vineyards, only breaking to give poetic speeches about how you have to know the land and have dirt under your fingernails to make good wine. However, the antagonists (i.e., Europeans) tend to embody the disdainfully pretentious aspects of wine culture. They’re stiff, well-dressed aristocrats who taste the wine only to spit it out moments later—an acceptable act in wine tasting that still inevitably seems uncouth, considering all the snobbery that surrounds wine. Americans taste wine in the film, but you won’t see them spit. Yeah!—real Americans swallow their wine!
At times, the film’s efforts to capitalize on our knee-jerk tendencies to root for the American underdogs and boo the foreign snobs seem cheap and obvious. But at the same time, I can’t deny that it works. Jim Barrett (Pullman) has taken out three loans and might lose his vineyard. The farmer in danger of losing his farm to the bank has got to be the oldest, cheapest sympathy-earning trick in the book, but I was sympathetic. Meanwhile, Steven Spurrier (Rickman), the stiff Brit who’s sampling wines, is the butt of snob jokes: Laugh at the stiff Brit awkwardly changing a tire! Laugh at the stiff Brit reduced to eating Kentucky Fried Chicken! And, well … I did.
Ultimately, I don’t object to anything except a forced love triangle involving the film’s three youngest, hottest, most superfluous stars. The underdog formula may be centuries old, but so is the formula for making wine, and that hasn’t made me enjoy the end result any less.