Time: 110 mins.
SYNOPSIS: In 1976, an English wine merchant with a shop in Paris, decides to host a blind wine tasting between French and American wines in an effort to draw customers to his store. However, it takes some convincing for the California wineries to believe he's not trying to sabotage their efforts and the best French tasters to agree to his unorthodox plan, considering no one thought they could possible compete. The results stun everyone involved and instantly driving Napa Valley onto the world wine scene.
BOTTOM LINE: Being a wine lover, I was fascinated by this true story, which I had read about over the years studying wine. When George Taber's book about the event – Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine – came out, I rushed out to get it and was not disappointed. Considering how big the California wine industry is today, it's hard to believe that only 50 years ago it was a struggling, marginal business virtually unknown and disrespected. What started out as a gimmick by Steven Spurrier – he was a lover of Old World wines – turned into a wine revolution. Granted he wanted as fair a competition as he could contrive, but I'm not sure, after reading the book, that he actually expected or wanted the California wines to win. As much as I loved this story, I couldn't imagine how they were going to turn such a complicated tale with so many different players into a movie. I was right to be worried.
This is the Cliff Notes version played for laughs, which I guess isn't a bad thing for those who know nothing about the topic, but left me disappointed and slightly horrified. This was a crucial time for California winemakers and the only character shown to care about his wines and their future is Jim Barrett, owner of Chateau Montelena. I understand why they chose one winery in an effort to keep the story simple and focused, but I could have used fewer antics by the youngsters in his employ and more winemaking information. I guess they figured the audience would be bored by that, so they just gave us sex, drugs and family drama in the vineyards instead. I'm sure there was quite a bit of strife between the Barretts – I'd be pissed/stressed if my son was a stoner with no real ambition and I was on the brink of bankruptcy – but is this storyline really the best they could come up with out of a 400-page book? A bit more about what has happening in Napa at the time – besides all the hippie crap – would have gone a long way to mitigate the constant father/son bickering, which just got on my nerves. Partly because of Chris Pine's bad wig, but mostly due to his bratty one-note performance.
Thankfully, they cast Alan Rickman as Steven Spurrier. He was fantastic, bringing just the right amount of British officiousness and superiority to the role. Without him, this film wouldn't have been half as fun. His character comes to California hoping to be able to return with wines that are merely drinkable and watching his utter astonishment as he encounters one lovely wine after another is hilarious. At least they got that part right. The final tasting is not a surprise to us now, but man did it rock the French to their core – with good reason. Their wines included in the tasting were some of the most praised and coveted in the world, which I wish the filmmakers would have made more clear. Instead, it was merely portrayed as the French getting their comeuppance for being haughty and dismissive, when really it was an extraordinary feat of brilliant winemaking trumping centuries of experience and legendary terroir. For a film about wine, they sure don't talk about it all that much. More about the wine lifestyle instead of winemaking that looks pretty and talks a good game, but has as much complexity and class as a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck.