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By KJ Doughton | August 11, 2008

It’s 1976 in Napa Valley, California, where “Bottle Shock” plays out. Sunshine State vineyards are barely surviving in a viticulture dominated be the French. Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) owns Chateau Montelena, scraping by with bank loans he can no longer pay. “This is your third loan,” warns a local creditor. “You default, and we take over.”

Jim is a cowboy vintner, the kind of no-nonsense tough guy who builds a boxing ring in his orchard for resolving disputes with Bo (Chris Pine), his equally maverick son. A bong-sucking, golden-haired surfer dude, Bo smokes out to Doobie Brothers tunes when he should be helping dad cultivate Chardonnay.

Another “Bottle Shock” story thread involves Steve Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a British wine shop owner in Paris. This snobby advocate for French sipping fare concocts a clever publicity stunt. On America’s Bicentennial, Spurrier will host the Paris Tastings, in which French and American wines compete for top honors. Spurrier’s search for California competitors – whom he’s convinced will be disgraced come judging time – leads him to Chateau Montelena.

Viewers also meet Sam (Rachel Taylor), a blonde college intern whose shapely presence at the Barrett family vineyard prompts jealous rivalry between male staffers. Fresh from his turn as zombie-dusting Wray in “Planet Terror,” Freddy Rodriguez plays a Hispanic vintner concocting his own brand of wine, amidst hostile treatment from redneck truckers.

If “Bottle Shock” were booze, it would be shelved on the popular wine-cooler rack. Based on actual events, it’s a colorful, fun introduction to Napa Valley’s emergence as a wine making giant. Rickman is especially amusing as a nose-in-the-air elitist whose efforts to humiliate California backfire, to history-making effect. When Barrett asks him, “Why don’t I like you?”, Spurrier memorably retorts, “Because you think I’m an a*s. And I’m not really. It’s just that I’m British and you’re not.” Earthy, charismatic Dennis Farina adds authenticity as a regular customer at Rickman’s booze boutique.

However, director Randall Miller’s film could have ended up on the vintage shelf, were it not for its transparent, compromising attempts to lure younger crowds into the theater. I don’t know much about California wine history (beyond what “Bottle Shock” entertainingly informs), but I have a hunch that this subculture was more accurately defined by craggy cowboy wrinkles than mall-bunny midriffs; more “There Will Be Blood” tyranny than simplistic, rags-to-riches “Rocky” exultation.

Curvaceous Taylor is framed purely as eye candy. When Sam isn’t boffing the help, she’s doffing her top at roadside to attract a ride. Hottie Eliza Dushku, known by hipsters as Faith from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” plays a clever bartender. But intellect isn’t relevant here. Her pendulous jugs attract more attention than the vintage wine bottles shelved behind the counter. Pine, another looker, appears hungry to take over Brad Pitt’s beefcake throne.

Sadly, an idiotic love triangle takes center-stage between the film’s airbrushed celluloid Barbies, wasting our time but ensuring attendance of the tanning-booth ‘n hair salon-haunting adolescent-age demographic. The presence of these sexy young things dilutes what could have been a sharper focus on the fascinating shift in wine-industry supremacy that makes up the heart of “Bottle Shock.”

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy watching beautiful people working beautiful vineyards in the beautiful California sun. Life isn’t all “Monster” and “Raging Bull,” and movies can work as escapist vehicles designed to pull you away from the anxiety-ridden stressors of real life. Even so, I found myself in a tug-of-war between enjoying “Bottle Shock” as entertaining fluff, and thinking that there might be a more serious, gritty, complicated story lurking behind the grab-a*s soap opera bullshit.

Even so, “Bottle Shock” is a gorgeously photographed hybrid of education and entertainment. Orchard trees take on almost fluorescent hues, poofing out like lime Afros against the brown Napa Valley soil. Pullman’s ultimate vindication as a flawed but tenacious entrepreneur feels hard-won and satisfying… if a tad too tidy. If you can spit out the saccharine kids’ stuff, and sip the core story behind Miller’s tasty film concoction, you’ll be smiling and pleasantly ripped by the final credits. For those who can’t forgive the fluff, spend your admission money on a bottle of 1988 Sassicaia and rent “Sideways” instead.

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