First Sideways, then Bridget Jones. Now Bottle Shock. How will the new film about the 1976 Paris tastings affect the wine market?
The Sideways Effect
Sideways (a 2004 film by Alexander Payne) is famous for helping to provoke a global Pinot Noir boom. A soliloquy (see below) on the thoughtful, fragile glories of Pinot spoken by an equally thoughtful, fragile character named Miles was enough to get thousands of wine enthusiasts to set aside their usual glass of Merlot and pull the cork on a bottle of Pinot Noir.
“Um, it’s a hard grape to grow … it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early … it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention … it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked- away corners of the world. And only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”
Movie messages matter when it comes to wine, I guess. This conclusion was recently reinforced by the Bridget Jones effect, noted in Britain, where the film character’s tendency to drown her sorrows in glasses of Aussie Chardonnay caused the market for these wines to tank. Apparently wine drinkers want to be thoughtful and fragile (Pinot) not pathetic (Chardonnay) and movies are where they pick up their cues. Who knew?
This makes me wonder how a new film called Bottle Shock will affect the wine market. Bottle Shock is loosely based on Steven Spurrier’s famous 1976 Paris tasting of French and California wines, which George M. Taber wrote about so well in his book The Judgment of Paris. Napa Valley wines (Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon) were top rated at the tasting and this surprising result is said to have put California wine on the map. It is interesting to speculate if Bottle Shock will have as much influence as Sideways.
I have my doubts. Sideways was actually a pretty good movie (not that I am qualified to judge) whereas Bottle Shock strikes me as a less serious effort. A fruit bomb of a movie, if you know what I mean, but not a lot of depth or complexity. It is Merlot to Sideways‘ Pinot Noir.
Alan Rickman is funny in a sort of Terry-Thomas way as Spurrier, but the two main male characters seem to be slightly modified younger versions of the Sideways cast – one is an oversexed surfer dude with a good heart while the other is, well, fragile and thoughtful. Do you see the resemblance? The female love interest is obviously a younger version of the Sideways Maya character. Not much character development here and many of the plot elements are predictable and cartoonish. This is not necessarily a barrier to commercial success, however.
The movie says that it is based upon a real story (the one that Taber covered for Time magazine), but it takes incredible liberties with the facts. Most of the nouns (people, places, things) are wrong in some way although some of the numbers are correct (1976 – check – got the right year).
Chateau Montelena’s winemaker, Mike Grgich, is left out entirely even though he is a central figure in the true story. Warren Winiarski, the winemaker at Stag’s Leap, is nearly as invisible. I feel sorry for others, like George Taber and Paul Draper (who made the Ridge Monte Bello), who appear only as crude caricatures. Artistic license, I suppose.
Perhaps the biggest error is the most basic: who won? Although California wines came out on top in both red and white competitions, they also came dead last (see the actual rankings and judges’ scores at right). In fact the bottom two Chardonnays were from California (Veedercrest and David Bruce) as were the four (out of 10) bottom Cabs (Heitz, Clos du Val, Mayacamas and Freemark Abbey).
If the Paris tasting was judged as a team competition, France versus California, rather than a rating of individual wines, I think you might reasonably conclude that the whites were a dead heat while the French won the battle for the reds, depending upon how you calculated the team scores. As you can see here, however, the variations among the judges was almost as great as among the wines, so clear winners and losers are difficult to determine. Toss out a couple of judges or bring in some new ones and the rankings could change quite a bit.
The movie didn’t do anything to correct the record in this regard, but that would be asking too much of a simple film. Instead it concludes with the Spurrier character’s prediction (with 20/20 foresight) that soon we’d be drinking wines from all over the world, Australia, New Zealand, South America, South Africa and so on. So globalization was the real winner of the competition.
The Bottle Shock Effect?
It is unclear as yet if there will be a Bottle Shock effect in the wine market of any kind, but if there is, what will it be?
One thing that we can predict is that the specific wines featured in the film will experience a boom. This means Chateau Montelena more than any other wine because it is the focus of the film. It is hard to say if this effect will extend to the other Paris tasting wines or to quality California wines more generally. A local wine shop organized a tasting of recent releases of all the California wines in the 1976 competition in celebration of the film, so perhaps Bottle Shock will encourage events like this on various scales and have a broader effect. Even so, the world of quality California wine extends far beyond the few wines that went to Paris thirty years ago.
Perhaps the best possible result would be if Bottle Shock somehow helped demystify wine, taking it out of the hands of the critics, who do so badly in the film story, and empowering ordinary people to trust their own tastes. That would make Bottle Shock a really useful film.
But I doubt it will happen — it is hard to break away from our acquired dependency on wine critics. We tasted the famous California wines “blind” at the Bottle Shock event I attended, for example, which naturally encourages you to think for yourself (a good thing, even if it isn’t my favorite way to taste wine). But we were also given a set of “expert” tasting notes and challenged to smell and taste the same things the critics did, (as a way to identify wines none of us had previously tasted), which kind of defeats the purpose.
Mark Twain warned his readers to think for themselves and not to get “drunk on the smell of another man’s cork.” It seems to me that’s the most important message of Bottle Shock. I hope it gets through.