Growing up in California in the 1970s, I had a dim awareness of the reputation its wineries had on the world stage.  California was not France, and never would be, and for most, Gallo and its cheap jug wines perfectly embodied the poseurs of the New World — or it least it did, until a blind taste test in France known as the Judgment of Paris rocked the oenephile world.  Bottle Shock tells the story of how little-known Napa Valley vintners upended their French counterparts and established California as a world-class wine producing region.

Until I received an e-mail from one of its producers, laughably in response to my review of Mamma Mia!, I had not heard of Bottle Shock.  It debuted during the Sundance Festival and went into the art-house release circuit.  The First Mate and I went to an independent cinema in Edina to see the film, after enduring some of the most depressing intermission music ever heard in a theater.  I almost pined for the excessive commercials now playing constantly between showings at big-chain theaters.  Almost.

As dreary as that music was, though, the film was worth the wait.  For an indie film, it had plenty of recognizable actors, including Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman, Freddie Rodriguez, and Eliza Dushku.  Instead of the normally minimalist cinematography one sees in indies, the film takes full advantage of the picturesque California countrysides.  It tells the story of one Napa Valley winemaker, Jim Barrett of Chateau Montelena, and his son Bo in producing the wine that wins.

Knowing the story, the film could easily have become rather dull and predictable, but instead of focusing all of the attention on the contest, Bottle Shock uses it instead as a bookending device to tell the story of Napa Valley.  Winemakers in that region struggled for many years to earn respect, and even a living.  Barrett and his peers had to survive very thin times to persevere through to success.  The film includes a series of conflict archetypes: father/son, cultural, and a romantic triangle that seems a bit contrived and mainly unresolved.

Bottle Shock overcomes its few flaws to deliver real emotional punch and underscore traditional values: hard work, community, courage, and dedication.  Along the way, though, it also delivers plenty of laughs, mostly from Rickman and Dennis Farina, who plays a different kind of character from the usual cops and gangsters.  Rickman is particularly good in this film, and he delivers the value of the price of admission all by himself.  Chris Pine as Bo also does well as a young man who needs to find himself but has no clue where to start.

Unfortunately, this film may soon disappear from theaters. Try to find it near you, if you can. It’s the kind of film we often lament for its rarity, and too often only discover in the remainder bin at Wal-Mart. If nothing else in this review convinces Hot Air readers to get to the art houses to catch Bottle Shock, just remember: we beat the French in the end.