The tasting that changed the world – “Bottle Shock”
We are writing the year 1976, eleven judges of prestigious reputation come together in Paris to experience a true wine revolution; California outdoes France! The judgment of Paris or The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, a competition organized by the British wine merchant and sommelier Steven Spurrier, in order to savor out blind whether the Californian Chardonnay and Cabernet can compete with France’s best. California veni vidi vici but only because Spurrier came, saw and conquered. For it was the Brit who rushed into Napa Valley with a hidden hope of a great discovery and the bigger need of creating a new trend and if it wasn’t for the Brit’s obstinacy and faith in the New World, California would probably not have revolutionized the world of wine the way it did in 1976.
The Paris Wine tasting left a significant impact on the media beginning with George Taber from Time Magazine, the only journalist present at the tasting, who not only wrote “the most significant news story ever written about wine” but who as well inspired himself to write a book on the happenings that led to The Judgment of Paris. Taber’s book on the other hand has served Randall Miller to visualize the events cinematographically and to re-narrate the story of the triumph of the under-dog. Bottle Shock.
Released in 2008 Bottle Shock delivers nothing more and nothing less than a considerably romantic view on winemaking. It gains quality through scenery and subject unfortunately fails in almost all aspects of character and story development. I can’t tell you what kind of movie Bottle Shock is as it touches various surfaces but barely develops them further. Chateau Montelena and the 1973 Vintage Chardonnay, the protagonists of the story, are given just enough weight to remember their name. We don’t get to know who the winemaker is nor what has actually inspired him to create such an outstanding brew. Mike Grgich, Chateau Montelena’s real winemaker is not mentioned once in the movie. Instead we get to experience a rather transparent father-son relationship, a dawdling threesome love-story and a poor racism component. There are numerous stereotypes and various falsifications. Thus Spurrier himself affirmed that “There is hardly a word that is true in the script and many, many pure inventions …” A pity since it sounds and starts like a very promising story.
The element that stroke me most of all in the movie and in the real story is the brown turning of the golden Chardonnay. The term Bottle Shock is employed when a recently produced white wine turns brown before being uncorked. The movie provides the explanation that this has happened because the wine has been made too perfect and that the brownish turning is only a temporary phenomenon and that it will in most cases turn back into golden yellow. Looking it up in George Taber’s book we find a more scientific explanation:
“So-called bottle shock, when unexpected developments in the wine took place after bottling, was fairly common even at some of the most famous and technically advanced wineries. Experts describe a phenomenon like the one that Barrett says happened as “pinking in the bottle,” and in the still early days of the California wine revolution the process was not widely understood. Napa Valley wineries in the early 1970s had not yet completely mastered their technology, and were sometimes so anxious to protect Chardonnay from air that they overprotected it. Wine has a natural browning enzyme that disappears when it comes in contact with oxygen, but wineries at that time wanted to make sure no oxygen ever touched their white wines in an attempt to protect their freshness and clarity. If the browning enzyme has no contact with air prior to bottling, a temporary discoloration sometimes turns up in the bottle but then soon naturally disappears.”
Taber, George M. Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine. New York: Scribner, 2005.
Taber provides a more comprehensible clarification of a rare phenomenon of discoloration that has happened in Napa in 1976 and that Randall Miller has dramatized Hollywood-like. Nonetheless if you are able to oversee the narrative failure you can still enjoy an easy going film that eventually does manage to question and regulate the affirmation that France is the best and the only historic and professional criteria in the world of wine and finesse.