"The Soil, the Wine, the Grape": Wine as an Experience in Bottle Shock
by Christina Polge
Bottle Shock is a 2008 dramedy following the “Judgement of Paris,” a blind taste test in which Californian winemakers prove themselves to French wine connoisseurs. The film follows Stephen Spurrier, British wine vendor with a shop in Paris, travelling to Napa Valley to collect wine for his blind taste test. He begins with the notion that Californian wines could not possibly be as sophisticated as French ones, but his preconceptions are consistently proven wrong by his experiences in Napa Valley. Jim Barrett, the winemaker at Chateau Montelena, is initially concerned about the contest because he believes Europeans want to humiliate American winemakers. However, his son, Bo, enters the winery’s bottles in the contest anyway and they win, surprising everyone except Spurrier. Through its depiction of wine, Bottle Shock argues that wine should be not an isolated judgment but an experience of community, religion, and desire. Bottle Shock’s portrayal of the community in Napa Valley illustrates that an essential part of winemaking is the communal atmosphere that surrounds it, one that focuses less on profit and more on dedication. Everyone is equal when they experience wine, so they should be equal in its preparation as well. The emphasis on wine as a communal experience is clear in Napa Valley because of the prevalence of the winemaking industry. When discussing the contest, Jim Barrett says, “I don’t know about you, but one thing I’ve learned around here is that if one person succeeds, we all succeed.” They have a community-focused view of their business because they do not care about wine solely for its profits. It is not about a single winery’s success. It is about maintaining a sacred experience. The emphasis on wine as a communal experience is clear in Napa Valley because of its emphasis on the winemaking industry as a community, an integral part of the wine drinking experience.
The focus and care that winemakers give to their field of work shows the sanctity of it, demonstrating that both preparing and consuming wine should be treated like a religious practice. Gustavo Brambila, Chateau Montelena’s foreman who is secretly making his own wine, angrily reminds Jim Barrett how sacred wine is. He says, “You people, you think you can just buy your way into this… The cultivation of the vine… is a religion that requires pain and desire and sacrifice.” By calling Jim Barrett and the winemaking community “you people,” Brambila creates a divide between himself and those who take the ability to create wine for granted. He specifically critiques the influence that money has, saying “you think you can just buy your way into this,” speaking of privileged people’s ability to decide their own capability without actual qualification.
Much like any other feast, winemaking is more than the physical creation of the product. The process is sacred and should be worshipped in its own way. Spurrier’s language consistently reflects this reverence. In a voiceover reflecting on his experience in Napa Valley and what he learned, he says, “It all begins with the soil, the vine, the grape.” He lists these elements in order, echoing the simplistic language of creation stories. By narrowing down the product to the origins, the process becomes magical. Overall, the devotion to wine that winemakers in Bottle Shock hold shows that wine itself is its own religion, an experience that should be honored as sacred to all those involved.
Not only is the intimacy of consuming wine a religious experience, it is also one full of desire. Sam and Gustavo’s short-lived sexual relationship started because of their shared connection over wine. They admire each other for their shared passion for wine, which eventually transforms into desire. The community they have formed thanks to winemaking intensifies into perhaps the most intense human connection possible. Moreover, scenes filmed in the vineyard are framed in such an intimate way that links the process of winemaking clearly to seduction. As Jim Barrett picks a grape in Figure 2, the camera zooms in on his finger as he caresses it before pulling it off the vine and gripping it gently. The music is also romantic, simply accentuating the comparison between wine and sensuality. This reflects another aspect of wine’s multifaceted nature: sexuality. Ultimately, when wine is appreciated as an experience, it opens the consumer up to other experiences including desire.
Ultimately, Bottle Shock is a love letter to wine and its power that transcends the impermanence of taste. It is a testament to the feast in that it is a form of acceptance, knowledge, and connection. The film reinforces the tradition of winemaking, while also introducing new ways to honor its sanctity. In appreciating wine as a holistic experience, Bottle Shock shows that it is community, religion and desire all tangled up in one bottle, sometimes even one sip. Despite the distinct differences between Paris and Napa Valley, both communities come together to celebrate drinking wine as something more than simply getting drunk. Wine is an experience, just like every other feast. The feast, which is wine in this case, is not just an isolated event. It is a way of living life.
Bottle Shock. Dir. Randall Miller. Perf. Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Bill Pullman, Rachael Taylor, Freddy Rodriguez. Freestyle, 2008. DVD